Getting Off of the Hamster Wheel of Life
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.”
– Mohandas K. Gandhi
In over fifteen years of supporting people who are experiencing the effects of stress in their lives, one thing hasn’t changed: people generally feel overwhelmed by the demands they are facing and by their attempts to keep up with them; they are busy— too busy. This is true whether individuals are students, in professional careers, non-professional workers, unemployed job seekers or retired. Commonly, newly retired people attend my classes having expected retirement to bring them relief from the busyness of their employed life, only to find a that they are caught up in different kinds of demands, but still don’t feel like they have enough time.
The question becomes, is all of this busyness, with the wear and tear it is taking in our lives, really taking us somewhere worthwhile? Or instead, are most of us merely caught, knowingly or unknowingly, on the hamster wheel of life, running faster and faster without a meaningful payoff?
Tim Kreider, in a recent essay he wrote entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap1,” spoke to this trend of being too busy: “Almost everyone I know is busy. They feel anxious and guilty when they aren’t either working or doing something to promote their work.” “The present hysteria,” according to Kreider,” is not a necessary or inevitable condition of life; it’s something we’ve chosen, if only by our acquiescence to it.” Kreider asserted that in our current culture, busyness is often “a boast disguised as a complaint.” “It makes you feel important, sought-after and put-upon.” And this complaint is coming from those who are “busy because of their own ambition or drive or anxiety, because they’re addicted to busyness and dread what they might have to face in its absence.” Furthermore, he maintained that “busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.” He said, “I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” On the other hand, Kreider advocated the value of inactivity: “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets.” He concluded by stating, “Life is too short to be busy.”
If you are not convinced of Kreider’s argument in support of slowing down your busyness, you might be interested to read the top five regrets of the dying2, as compiled by Bonnie Ware, a nurse who spent several years working in palliative care, caring for patients in the last 12 weeks of their lives. The regrets of the dying recorded by Ware support the conviction made by Paul Tsongis, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’”:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Ware comments about regret number five are particularly significant: “This is a surprisingly common one. Many did not realise until the end that happiness is a choice. They had stayed stuck in old patterns and habits. The so-called ‘comfort’ of familiarity overflowed into their emotions, as well as their physical lives. Fear of change had them pretending to others, and to their selves, that they were content, when deep within, they longed to laugh properly and have silliness in their life again.” Too often, people do not see the cost of remaining caught up in their busyness until they no longer have the choice to make changes.
This does not have to be your fate, however. I was fortunate to have my eyes opened to the dangers of getting caught in what Kreider referred to as “The ‘Busy’ Trap” many years ago when I took a time management class. Most of that day-long class was spent identifying very detailed goals for the next month, three months, six months, one year, three years, five years, ten years, and on through the next 100 years of our lives. It was a taxing and exhausting process. Toward the end of the day, we were told to write the goals for two more periods: the last six months and final one week of our lives. We were then asked to review the goals for the next 100 years of our lives to see if we incorporated the goals that we identified for the last six months and final week of our lives. Many people in the class, including me, realized that the goals for our final days did not show up in the goals we set for the next 100 years of our lives. The point was clearly made in this experiential process: if the goals for the last six months and week of our life tend to reveal those aspects that are most meaningful to us, why, then, do we go through life on a daily basis without incorporating them into our life! Pablo Neruda answered this question most eloquently in his poem, “Keeping Quiet” when he said, “If we weren’t unanimous about keeping our lives so much in motion, if we could do nothing for once, perhaps a great silence would interrupt this sadness, this never understanding ourselves and threatening ourselves with death.”
Accordingly, I offer you the invitation to slow down periodically with the intention of recognizing what is most meaningful to you in your life. Ask yourself, if you knew that you only had six months to live, how would you employ that time? And if you only had one week to live how would you choose to spend that week? Then see how you can consciously integrate and prioritize those features into your day-to-day existence. Continue taking baby steps in this direction and you will find that you have the capability to step off of the hamster wheel!
“For fast-acting relief, try slowing down.”
— Lily Tomlin