As the research mounts up showing a connection between overwork and depression, Andrew Smart recommends a simple antidote: philosophy.
A new study of 16,000 Norwegians can be added to the growing pile of research showing an unambiguous link between work and mental disease.
The study found that workaholism is significantly related to psychiatric conditions such as adult ADHD, OCD, and clinical anxiety or depression. The study is called “The Relationships between Workaholism and Symptoms of Psychiatric Disorders: A Large-Scale Cross-Sectional Study” and can be found here.
It is well known that having problems with these conditions increases the risk of developing addiction – whether to drugs or work. Working excessively can temporarily alleviate the symptoms of these conditions, however, over time, this behavior worsens anxiety and depression. Just like cocaine, heroin or alcohol – these provide temporary relief while making the problems you are trying to escape worse. And just like long term drug use will eventually cause an early death – so will workaholism.
The authors of the study write: “Furthermore, it is known that workaholism (in some instances) develops as an attempt to reduce uncomfortable feelings of anxiety and depression. Working hard is praised and honoured in modern society, and thus serves as a legitimate behavior for individuals to combat or alleviate negative feelings – and to feel better about themselves and raise their self-esteem.”
Idler readers will hardly be surprised by the rapid accumulation of scientific evidence about the harmfulness of work. Idlers have at their disposal the most powerful antidote to mass delusion and ideology ever invented: philosophy. Just through your initial curiosity about The Idler you have already begun the process of extricating yourself from the illusion that work is something to be honored. For me, finding The Idler was one of those wonderful moments in life when you suddenly feel part of a community.
You might have had a vague suspicion that something in the modern fairy tale about the glorification of hard work was amiss. Then discovering philosophy and the ancient Greeks, who disdained work and the practical application of knowledge, you realized that idleness was not something to be feared – but embraced.
Acknowledging that work is medically, socially and emotionally harmful requires you to reject the belief in the legitimacy of working hard. This can be especially difficult as this belief is one of the foundational beliefs of modern culture. We are taught to believe in working hard as soon as we enter formal schooling, if not before. We are soon too taught to reject idleness and useless contemplation to pursue rote mastery of facts and rules in order to pass arbitrary standardized tests. This continues into work life.
Philosophy therefore is often derided as useless. Especially in our contemporary busyness, work, efficiency, productivity, practicality and optimization-obsessed world, philosophy is seen as an outdated waste of time. It’s considered useless because people think it is impractical and cannot see how philosophy can make money. The practice of philosophy – i.e., thinking – is intimately tied to idleness. In fact idleness is the key physical and mental condition upon which the exercise of philosophy has always been predicated. This is true of all the world’s philosophies. “Meditation” is nothing more than sitting and thinking. Sitting and thinking is sometimes even called meditation in white European philosophy, e.g., Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy or the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. This is why idleness is so feared in contemporary culture – it causes philosophy. And philosophy causes the practitioner to fundamentally question everything.
Bertrand Russell promoted the pursuit of so-called “useless” knowledge as a revolt against the utilitarian conception of knowledge that has plagued Western society since the Middle Ages. The utilitarian conception of knowledge has become even more extreme than in Russell’s time. Those of us who resist the current denigration of philosophy and idleness are not at all surprised that science is independently discovering what we knew all along.
As Russell says in his classic essay on useless knowledge: “When conscious activity is wholly concentrated on some one definite purpose, the ultimate result, for most people, is lack of balance accompanied by some form of nervous disorder.” Russell arrived at this conclusion philosophically, while the Norwegian researchers used modern technology, statistics and empirical science to discover the same thing.
Workaholism is the most dangerous of delusions because it assumes that anxiety, depression or impulsivity can be cured through work. It is a vicious and negative feedback loop just like any addiction. Russell, in typical fashion, surmised the remedy: “A habit of finding pleasure in thought rather than in action is a safeguard against unwisdom and excessive love of power, a means of preserving serenity amid misfortune and peace of mind among worries.”
We have entirely lost the ability to find pleasure in thought, and in fact we are discouraged from doing so by the pathological culture of work. But it turns out that finding pleasure in thought is not only fun, it is also the best treatment for anxiety, depression and even ADHD or OCD. These disorders are in fact nothing but the inability to find pleasure in thought. Work and working hard and the belief that working hard solves your problems prevent us from experiencing our thoughts as pleasures rather than worries.
Andrew Smart is a cognitive scientist and the author of two books, Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing and Beyond Zero and One: Machines, Psychedelics and Consciousness (OR Books). He has worked in brain imaging, aerospace and healthcare. He is interested in philosophy, neuroscience, technology, culture and metaphysics. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, Quartz, Vice and he is the news editor for The Idler.