Shifting the Ethos of Busy-ness

When someone casually asks you “How are you?” how do you respond? Words can transform lived experience and one small shift can ripple out to a community.

Many times when I briefly ask people how they’re doing, they’ll answer with “Super busy—tons of grading to do” or “So stressed out—Jenny has practice every night this week.” Or they’ll give me an incredulous look—like we’re both in over our heads—and tell me they’re “Okay.” This has happened with students, colleagues, and friends.

Several years ago I examined my relationship to busy-ness and detected the ways that my sense of self was entangled with how much I “had to do.” The entanglement was two-fold: I felt like if I wasn’t busy, I wasn’t important. And I also believed that other people would judge me as lazy if I did not tell them that I, like them, felt stressed.

I’ve started asking students about the various replies to the casual question “How are you?” and we’ve anecdotally confirmed that we sometimes perform stress for each other and unnecessarily create the expectation of busy-ness for ourselves and each other.

Last year an advisee told me she generally felt okay but that when friends around her said they were freaking out with busy-ness, she began to wonder if she had forgotten something and she’d become worried and anxious at her own lack of stress.

In an attempt to shift this culture I developed a small exercise for one of my classes: We looked at our own identity in relation to “busyness;” we practiced small moments of gratitude;  we vowed to give other people permission to be “doing well.”

Here is the exercise in a nutshell:

When someone asks casually, “How are you?” resist the urge to perform stress and busy-ness. This does not mean you have to lie or slap a fake happy face on a miserable day. Instead, choose which moment of your day you will share.

This takes noticing.

Throughout the day, notice opportunities for gratitude and then share those. Sure I may have a ton of papers to grade, but I also noticed a new bird in my yard. Sure my car is in the shop again, but I also had a great conversation with my sister who lives in another state.

So when someone asks “How are you?” I can choose to tell them about all of the Very Important Work that I Have to Do and contribute to the Stress Olympics, or I can say I’m “Doing well” and them about the great meal I just had or the sweet walk I just took.

Speaking these very true words is like spell-casting. They transform my relationship to my own life and they give my interlocutor permission to also be “doing well.”

I don’t want to ignore or downplay the very real struggles with stress and anxiety many of us have. Nor do I encourage you to avoid ever discussing the painful and difficult things we all experience.

But rather, once in a while, especially with casual acquaintances, I’d ask us to consider sharing a moment of gratitude and giving our colleagues a priceless gift: permission to be “doing well.”