Early on in “War and Peace”, the old prince Nikolai Bolkonsky says to his son Andrei, “Only fools and profligates can be unwell, my boy, and you know me: I’m busy from morning till evening, I’m temperate, and so I’m well”. At Georgetown, busyness similarly confers a badge of honor — if you’re busy all the time, you must be contributing productively to society.
Georgetown’s culture often prizes busyness to unsustainable levels. In addition to already demanding academic schedules, many Hoyas take on Herculean combinations of internships and extracurriculars. Beyond the Hilltop, writers in the popular press, especially in business publications, love to lament the epidemic of busyness that grips American professional culture. The epidemic seems particularly acute for highly educated, high-earning professionals. We equate being busy with being successful.
Tolstoy suggests that the aura of busyness is hardly unique to 21st century Americans, but that it’s not even exclusive to this millennium. Seneca, the Roman philosopher and playwright, identifies a culture of busyness in 1st century Rome, which sounds remarkably similar to the challenges we face today. He advised his friend Paulinus on the topic of busyness in his treatise, “On the Shortness of Life” (De Brevitate Vitae).
So, what can Seneca teach us?
To Seneca, the root cause of our unhappiness lies in our inability to discriminate and select the best uses of our time: “Men are strict in holding onto their inheritance, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are the most generous in the only thing of which it’s noble to be stingy” (translations are my own). Because money is a more easily measured and tangible resource than time, we’re generally better at restricting our spending of it. But when it comes to allocating time, we tend to overcommit ourselves because we can’t help but say “yes” to every opportunity that is presented. Yet, the cost to indiscriminate “yes-ing” looms.
As a result of such extravagant spending of our limited stock of time, we implicitly make a choice in the trade-off between breadth and depth of experience. Seneca notes: “It’s agreed upon among everyone that nothing is able to be performed well by a busy person, not eloquence, not the liberal arts, since the mind, stretched out, receives nothing in depth but spits back everything that’s been forced into it.”
This kind of cursory, shallow life that Seneca ascribes to many of the busiest people leads him to draw a distinction between living and merely existing. He advises that we ought not to assume an old man has “lived” for a long time if he has been consumed by busyness. He has merely existed.
Seneca’s distinction here, between living and existing, reminds me of a similar contrast made by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.” Enjoyment, as he puts it, consists of activities, like mastering a skill or having a conversation that changes our view on some topic that challenge us and produce growth and complexity in the self. Pleasure, on the other hand, consists of hedonistic experiences, like drinking and watching TV. These distinctions between living/existing and enjoyment/pleasure can inform our self-reflection and, eventually, improve the quality of our lives.
Ask yourself: Do you feel genuinely engaged for most of the day, or just busy? Have you created a false binary in your life, spurred on by the pernicious “work hard, play hard” ethos, in which you feel yourself slogging through the week just to reach a few substance-induced moments of pleasure during the weekend? Or do you consistently derive enjoyment from the set of daily experiences that you have chosen for yourself?
Choose deliberately to pursue experiences and spend time with people that foster enjoyment, (i.e. growth) and avoid the ones that don’t. This choice necessarily entails saying no to many (if not most) opportunities that present themselves.
I’ve spent the last four years grappling with this busyness and trying to orient myself more toward enjoyment than pleasure. These choices may sound simple, but they’re certainly not always easy. And that’s okay. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Seneca and Tolstoy, it’s that we’re not alone. People have been trying to figure this out for at least the past two thousand years.