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What Is The Laziness Lie? A Social Psychologist Explains

Devon Price, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist
By Devon Price, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist
Devon Price, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, writer, activist, and professor. They are the author of 'Laziness Does Not Exist'.
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January 9, 2021
Like many Americans, Devon Price, Ph.D., believed that productivity was the best way to measure their self-worth. In Laziness Does Not Exist, Price explores the psychological underpinnings of the "laziness lie" and how longer workdays, information overload, and social media have increased pressure to constantly do and be "more." Here, they explain the main tenets of the laziness lie and how it comes to permeate our daily existence.
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The Laziness Lie is a belief system that says hard work is morally superior to relaxation, that people who aren't productive have less innate value than productive people. It's an unspoken yet commonly held set of ideas and values. It affects how we work, how we set limits in our relationships, our views on what life is supposed to be about.

The Laziness Lie has three main tenets. They are:

  • Your worth is your productivity.
  • You cannot trust your own feelings and limits.
  • There is always more you could be doing.

How do we get indoctrinated with the Laziness Lie? For the most part, parents don't sit their kids down and feed them these principles. Instead, people absorb them through years of observation and pattern recognition. When a parent tells their child not to give a homeless person money because that homeless person is too "lazy" to deserve it, the seed of the Laziness Lie is planted in the kid's brain.

When a TV show depicts a disabled person somehow "overcoming" their disability through sheer willpower rather than by receiving the accommodations they deserve, the Laziness Lie grows a bit stronger. And whenever a manager questions or berates an employee for taking a much-needed sick day, the Laziness Lie extends its tendrils even further into a person's psyche.

We live in a world where hard work is rewarded and having needs and limitations is seen as a source of shame. It's no wonder so many of us are constantly overexerting ourselves, saying yes out of fear of how we'll be perceived for saying no. Even if you think you don't fully agree with the three tenets of the Laziness Lie, you've probably absorbed its messages and let those messages affect how you set goals and how you view other people. 

When we talk to children and teenagers about the future, we ask them what they want to do—in other words, what kind of value they want to contribute to society and to an employer. We don't ask nearly as often what they're passionate about, or what makes them feel happy or at peace. As adults, we define people by their jobs—he's an actor, she's a mortician—categorizing them based on the labor they provide to others.

When a formerly productive person becomes less so due to injury, illness, tragedy, or even aging, we often talk about it in hushed, shameful tones, assuming the person has lost a core part of their identity. When we don't have work to do, it can feel like we don't have a reason to live.

It makes complete sense, of course, that many of us think and talk in these ways. In our world, a comfortable, safe life is far from guaranteed. People who don't (or can't) work tend to suffer; unemployed and impoverished people die at much younger ages than their employed or middle-class peers. Since we live in a world that's structured around work, not working can leave a person socially isolated, exacerbating whatever mental and physical health problems they might be dealing with.

The stakes of not being productive are dire. As a result, many of us live in a constant state of stress about our financial and professional futures—which means feeling a ton of anxiety about how much we're working. Those of us who are particularly lucky get to retire after years of living this way. But because we've been taught to make work the center of our identities, we don't know how to handle the change of pace.

Retired people often become depressed and see their lives as devoid of purpose. Like unemployed people, retired folks often report feeling directionless and lonesome. Their isolation and lack of daily structure can make them sick, putting them at an elevated risk of heart disease. Many of us spend our entire adult lives dreading this period of life, or we put it off by continuing to work past the point that's healthy for us.

Chronic overcommitters are experts at ignoring their bodily needs. Our economic system and culture have taught us that having needs makes us weak, and that limits are negotiable. We learn to neglect ourselves and see health as a resource we can trade for money or accomplishments.

Copyright © 2021 by Devon Price, Ph.D. From the book Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price, Ph.D., published by Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc. Printed by permission.
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Devon Price, Ph.D.
Devon Price, Ph.D.
Social Psychologist

Devon Price, Ph.D., is a social psychologist, writer, activist, and professor at Loyola University of Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. Price’s work has appeared in numerous publications such as Slate, The Rumpus, NPR, and HuffPost and has been featured on the front page of Medium numerous times.