Living to Live: Rethinking Work & Idleness

IN THE SUMMER OF 2014, following the completion of a bachelor’s degree in history and then a traumatic and exhausting stint working for the British Labour party in Birmingham, I moved to London. I moved with the optimistic and romanticized notion of launching a career in politics. Perhaps more importantly, I moved with the intention of exploring and redefining my sense of self.

London offered a plethora of opportunities to consummate this desire and I was, for a short time, filled with a childlike enthusiasm and curiosity for life. I rented a small but extremely cosy studio flat in the attic of an old Georgian house with my partner, which we filled with books and secondhand furniture. For a long time we lacked a table and so we ate breakfast in bed before heading into the heart of Westminster—my partner in her new role as a political consultant and I into the Houses of Parliament, as a senior staff member for a newly elected MP.

It was an extremely exiting point in our lives; we were finally earning a decent wage after years of minimum wage jobs, living in one of the most diverse and busiest cities in the world, surrounded by culture, friends and seemingly limitless opportunities. Unfortunately, this period of elation was all too brief. Sixteen months after moving to London I found myself inextricably dissatisfied, confused, and ultimately anxious and depressed. I began to look around me to ascertain why this was. I started to question people that I knew and people that I met about their state of mind. Were they content? Were they happy? It soon became clear that many of my peers experienced significant swathes of anxiety and low moods that moved in ebbs and flows beneath the surface of their everyday lives.

Unfortunately, the feelings of depression and anxiety I was experiencing began to spiral and leak into every aspect of my life. Spurred on by a series of painful and emotionally exhausting events and exacerbated by my lack of understanding of what was happening to me, depression spread and tainted every facet of my mind until I was consumed by it entirely. Now, over two years later, I still battle with depression and anxiety on a daily basis. Nonetheless, I am no longer debilitated by my mental health problems as I once was, and I feel I’m slowly transitioning into a period of strength and balance, supported through the use of daily mental health management techniques.

This transition necessitated a considerable amount of work on my behalf. I had to rearrange my perspectives and thought patterns. I underwent a sincere exploration and analysis of the potential sources of my depression and anxieties. I restructured my lifestyle and quotidian behaviors, rejuvenated the way I experienced my lived environment, and undertook extensive exercise—providing my body with a boost of positive chemicals that stabilized my moods. I still utilize these mental health management techniques or mechanisms daily, in one way or another.

Something I found of particularly potent utility was writing and conversing about the issues of mental health. I contend that this is one of the most important mechanisms for those afflicted with mental health difficulties. Often, thoughts and emotions that go unarticulated become distorted and heightened. They take on a life of their own, mutating beyond rational understanding, veiled by their proximity to your consciousness, intertwined as they are into the very fabric of thought. However, a thought or feeling written down or shared verbally stands independent of consciousness. It is out in the world and therefore observable and subject to a more detached and productive analysis. With this in mind, I would like to offer a number of thoughts on my own mental health in the hope that they are of some utility to others.

The first idea is that although there is commonality in the risk factors that lead to an individual experiencing mental health problems, solutions have to be highly tailored to that individual. Psychology points to a number of thought patterns shared by most sufferers of anxiety and depression and to particular environmental factors that can bring about and exacerbate these thought patterns. There are structural and environmental risk factors that lead to common mental health issues, factors such as poverty and deprivation, economic exploitation, isolation, loneliness, social stigma, and poor physical health. However, while the risk factors are commonly shared, the resolutions are not. For example, I underwent six weeks of cognitive behavioral therapy (a form of psycho- or “talk” therapy), which a number of my peers said had been extremely useful to them in reorienting their way of thinking, their behavior, and, subsequently, their state of mind.

Bertrand Russell advocated reducing the working week and argued for greater idleness, suggesting that expanded leisure would lead to less passive interests and an increase in pursuits of public importance.

However, the language and processes of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) did not appeal to me. The language seemed overly simplistic and failed to capture the nuance and complexities of my depression. Furthermore, I found the exercises trying and ineffectual, most notably the use of mind maps to detail my feelings. Overall, therefore, I didn’t think CBT was successful in my case. Nonetheless, I later found that a number of the concepts that CBT uses to address depression were concepts I had been developing separately through conversations with fiends and through my own reading. In particular, the idea of deconstructing negative thoughts to understand their origin, followed by a more emotionally healthy reconstruction of those ideas and a subsequent reorientation of habitual thought patterns. Ultimately, the problem with CBT had been the way in which the potential solutions to my problems were presented to me, combined with my desire not to be taught the solutions but to discover and develop them myself.

That is not to say that I would advise against undergoing CBT. On the contrary, I strongly advocate that anyone struggling with mental health problems explore it as an option, as CBT has been extremely beneficial for many people. My point is that I believe one cannot apply a broad theory or template of mental health healing that is effective for the individual. What’s needed is for the person experiencing depression or anxiety—the patient—to be offered a robust list of risk factors and causality, determined through an analysis of data and individuals’ experiences. The patient should then be supported in exploring that list to determine which they believe are applicable to them. Once a factor is identified then it can be explored and a specific mechanism to mitigate or resolve it can then be developed and implemented. This process must be extremely personal and would entail a considerable amount of trial and error.

In light of that notion, I would like to offer a contribution to the list of potential risk factors to be considered. The first relates to identity and sense of self—a considerable source of mental health problems for many people, myself included. Depression can be the result of an individual questioning who they are or in believing one is failing to be the person they want to be. One source of those feeling for me could be found in the nature of work, by which I mean paid employment specifically.

In work, employees are often confined to performing characteristics and emotional traits in line with the values of their employers. Frequently incongruous with their true feelings, the control of character and self in work instills anxiety and tension. In her book, The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild defines the demand by employers that their employees present particular characteristics and values as “emotional labor.” Consider an employee within the service industry, a waiter or waitress, dealing with a difficult and rude customer. The employee is required to induce or suppress their feelings in order to sustain the presentation of self that produces the appropriate state of mind in the customer. They are expected not to express annoyance or upset to the rude customer, therefore the employee is forced to repress these feelings. Sociologist David Frayne wrote on this concept in his book Refusal of Work, in which he argued that emotional labor was “a new alienation in the form of exploitation of human qualities,” wherein “the private emotional system has come to be governed by a commercial logic.” It is a problem that affects people in the labor market from bankers to shelf stackers. For me, working for certain members of Parliament, the issue arose from the tension between who I was expected to be and what I was expected to advocate, on the one hand, and who I actually was and what I actually believed. In this, I am sure I was not alone.

The command of one’s labor however, whether physical or emotional, is an accepted and commonly held norm in society. It is a fact of life we accept because we believe we’re saved by our ability to find pleasure and present our true selves in our private lives. It is most often the case, though of course not always, that we work because we have to—to fund the lives we live outside of work. Our leisure is our reprieve. However, I would suggest that this is often a parochial truth. Leisure within the economic model of consumer capitalism takes the form of the consumption of experience and the presentation of self through the purchasing of material goods. We are perpetually faced with this. From ads on television, radio, on buses, on streets, in subway stations, and on the train itself, we’re offered the opportunity to purchase our identities and sense of self. This is the second risk factor I would add to the list.

Rather than selling a product on merits such as quality or cost, advertising often does so on the basis of identity and lifestyle. One example is seen in ads for perfume that use visual mediums. One cannot sample the quality of a smell through a TV or computer screen. Perfume ads therefore sell identity; wear this and you will be x. Advertising appeals to the human desire for social acceptance and cultural identity. However, wearing a particular perfume cannot provide internal character nor is it a convincing expression of character. The perpetual nature of consumerism is itself evidence of its failure in this regard. On this idea, the social psychologist and humanistic philosopher Erich Fromm wrote in his book, To Have or To Be, that expanding consumerism reflected the ongoing restlessness of the consumer and an “inner flight from oneself.” Consumerism fails to provide the reprieve from emotional labor that an individual requires. Furthermore, it tricks people into using the wrong tools for self-definition and self-expression. As such, anxieties and low moods build as our sense of self becomes more and more imprisoned by empty offers.

Employers must loosen the reins when it comes to corporate branding and the control of workers’ identity.

Of course, the concept that work could be the source of mental health problems due to the restrictions it places on identity doesn’t apply to everyone. Often, in fact, work can have the exact opposite effect. Fulfilling and productive work can instill an individual with a sense of pride. It can also provide the framework for a substantive and valuable identity. The loss of work, in that instance, can therefore be a risk factor for mental health problems as much as emotional labor. It is a common experience of those who have invested themselves wholeheartedly into a project to experience feelings of depression and low mood at the completion of that project. This is because one’s sense of self becomes intrinsically linked with the work and therefore it begins to define them. As such, when that job or project is finished one is left feeling empty and feeling without an identity. This was my experience when, after four years of study, I completed my bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, I failed to continue in academia. That was my first sense of an existential crisis; I didn’t know who I was or what I was supposed to be, as I had until then built my identity around my dreams of undertaking a PhD.

I have described the above three risk factors as I understand them and as I understand them to have affected me. I believe that all three, along with other issues, were factors in the genesis of my own mental health problems. However, in exploring and identifying those concepts, I was able to adapt my thoughts and behaviors to mitigate their impact upon my state of mind. There was one idea that was particularly pertinent to me in that process: the concept of idleness as put forward by the philosopher Bertrand Russell in an essay published in Harper’s magazine in 1932 titled, “In Praise of Idleness.”

Russell argued that immense harm was done to both individuals and to society by the idea that work was inherently virtuous. He contended that increased idleness, that is, increased leisure time during which one has no obligations or engagements beyond those they choose, was a necessary prerequisite for health, of the person and of society. Russell advocated reducing the working week and argued for greater idleness to be facilitated, suggesting that expanded leisure would lead to less passive interests and an increase in pursuits of public importance.

I would also contend that idleness, in the sense that Russell understood it, can facilitate the time and space for a healthy exploration and reflection of the self—one’s interests, concerns, curiosities, desires, and fears. Through idleness one discovers those more pervasive but permanent facets of identity that are less reliant on the environment around them, thus allowing a more secured sense of self and structured identity. Furthermore, in a more practical and less ethereal sense, idleness allows for the space to explore and identify the potential causes of your own mental health problems and identify mechanisms to mitigate those factors.

Motivated by these ideas, in the summer of 2017 I made two significant changes in my life. The first was to quit my job. I decided to work part-time on a freelance basis, giving me greater flexibility and significantly reducing working hours. Furthermore, I gained greater control of when, where, and how I conducted my work. The downside to this, of course, was a significant reduction in income, which left me with little to no disposable income. Fortunately, by changing my quotidian habits and, more importantly, letting go of the need to purchase my identity and consume my pleasure, I have very little need for disposable income. Finally, the additional time has allowed me to undertake an exploration of self in search of broad and structurally sound notions of character in which I invest my sense of self. In doing so, I have reduced the need for any particular job or project to act as a lifeboat for my identity.

That being said, the transition has not been easy. It came with considerable sacrifice and, at many points, goliath efforts. Nor is the process by any means completed. I have changed and am in the process of changing how I think and who I am; some days I’m more successful than others. However, by taking greater time for idleness and changing the identity peg upon which I hang my hat, and through the use of practical mental health management techniques such as writing and excising, I am in considerably better shape than I was two years ago. As I’ve said, the risk factors described above, as well as the mitigation techniques, were part of my reality and experience of mental health. They may not be for others. Nonetheless, I believe that the number of people experiencing mental health problems could be reduced if there were two broad socioeconomic changes.

Primarily, our attitude towards work and towards workers must change. Employers must loosen the reins when it comes to corporate branding and the control of workers’ identity. People must find a variety of pegs upon which to hang their hat and make work less of a cornerstone of self-definition. People should also consider working less and increasing their leisure time if at all possible.

Secondly, our susceptibility to the notion of consumption and materialism as effective methods of self-definition must change. Advertising is simply the manipulation of our desire for identity, and its continued expansion as a business model in place of fee-based services must be halted. However, such changes are extremely unlikely to happen. Even if they were, cultural and economic change of that magnitude would take generations to become embedded. I therefore offer these ideas for the consideration of the individual, in the hope that if they have some relevance, they may also have some use.