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Reversing American Burnout Means Challenging the Way Our Society Thinks About Downtime

Updated: Jan 30

Capitalism has warped our beliefs about success, leisure, and the importance of money, but we’re starting to question it all.

My grandfather was an Italian immigrant who owned a small Italian grocery store in Vermont with his brother. It seems almost crazy today to know that he made enough of a living doing that to:

  • Buy and pay off a 3-bedroom house close to downtown

  • Support his wife and three children as a middle-class family

  • Be a prominent member of the community

  • Prioritized leisure and hobbies at home and outside of work

  • Be the happiest, most relaxed person I’ve ever known

  • Retire at a reasonable age and still maintain his lifestyle

He and his brother likely didn’t have strategic business plans where they discussed how to achieve a 30% increase in revenue year-over-year. They didn’t even collect money from some of their patrons — preferring to operate on the honor system — with in-house credit documented on index cards kept alphabetically in a metal tin near the cash register. When they retired and closed the store, they forgave each and every loan in that tin.

Their goal wasn’t wealth. It was to make enough of a living to be comfortable while servicing their local community. Whatever that brought in money-wise was enough.

Since this era, we’ve grown to underestimate the idea of “enough” and overestimate the idea of “more.”

Millennials and Gen Zers have never known a life like my grandfather's, but we deeply crave something that looks much more like that than what we currently experience.

We’re burnt out, disengaged, stressed, and treading water daily, all for the sake of the dollar and someone else’s dreams of increased profit. But we see now that it’s at our own expense and that of our country’s health and well-being. We want something else; we’re just unsure exactly what it is and how to get it.

The influence of capitalism on American work ethics

Capitalism has had a profound impact on American society. While it’s true that capitalism has provided opportunities for upward mobility and economic prosperity for some, it has also sold us the belief that success and fulfillment are tied only to productivity, career advancement, and material wealth. In effect, it’s created a culture of workaholism and materialism, leading to increased stress levels and decreased overall happiness and well-being.

The idea that one must constantly work hard, sacrifice personal time, and prioritize the company's financial goals above all else doesn’t bring humans true happiness, as we are now discovering. However, to reverse this culturally conditioned work ethic and finally feel fulfilled, we must challenge these societal norms and redefine work/life balance on our own terms.

Other countries value leisure, downtime, and community instead

If you haven’t read Madison Schott’s article Why the French Outlive Americans, read it. It’s dead on.

We’ve been drinking the capitalistic Kool-Aid for far too long, and we’ve forgotten the roles leisure and community play in our happiness.

  • We’ve been told that our company’s profit and success are more important than our own mental health and wellbeing.

  • We’ve been told that productivity, advancement, and pursuing career growth are the only ways to show our true value.

  • We’ve demonized pleasure, leisure, downtime, and times spent conversing with friends, labeling them as “lazy” and “unproductive”.

  • We’ve traded our real community for a solitary, merit-based, dog-eat-dog corporate life.

Enough is enough

This isn’t how humans are supposed to live, and we know this because we are all showing the symptoms of our bodies rejecting it:

  • We’re stressed: A whopping 84% of American workers have work-related stress

  • We’re depressed and anxious: According to the CDC, between 2015–2018, 13% of adults 18 years and older self-reported taking antidepressants.

  • We’re disengaged at work: Gallup reports only 32% of full- and part-time employees are engaged, with 18% being actively disengaged.

  • We’re burned out: Around 43% of US office workers “feel burned out at work”

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Abraham Maslow founded humanistic psychology and developed the famous Hierarchy of Needs to explain human motivation. I love his theory because it helps to explain the burnout that American workers feel today.

Maslow’s theory suggests that people have several basic needs that must be met before pursuing more social, emotional, and self-actualizing needs.

For instance, you need to feel a strong sense of belongingness and love within relationships before moving to esteem needs. But along with Capitalism, we’ve taken on Individualism, pushing aside community and belongingness for our own individual focus and feelings of prestige and accomplishment. During that journey, who do we have cheering us on and motivating us in the tough times? And, in the end, who do you have to share it with without community once you gain the esteem?

Americans have entirely skipped over the middle tier.

We’ve also skipped over the first one, making space for our physiological needs like rest and downtime.

Rest doesn’t always mean sleeping; it means leisure. It means giving our brains and bodies a break. It means refueling. But, rest takes time; something we have allocated all to “esteem.” In fact, we’ve even been esteemed for not having much of it. Read that again. Every time someone says, “I’m so busy.” Or “I don’t have a lot of time for that.” We give them accolades on how busy and accomplished they must be.

However, just like Jenga, you can’t repeatedly take a piece from the bottom, move it to the top, and expect the whole thing to remain stable.

Reevaluating our priorities

So, how do we undo this conditioning, recalibrate our hierarchy of needs, and live a more balanced, purposeful, and fulfilling life?

We need to take time to do the following:

  1. Reevaluating our priorities

  2. Reconnect with community

  3. Set boundaries around work hours

  4. Embrace the value of leisure time and personal well-being.

By doing so, we can create a more balanced and fulfilling lifestyle that goes beyond the relentless pursuit of money and allows us to find joy, purpose, and a greater sense of fulfillment. The influence of capitalism on work ethics in American society is deeply ingrained, but so is our need for a different type of life.

In college, I lived with a Spanish family for three months as a student in Salamanca. My experience was similar to Madison Schott’s experience in France.

Conversation and deep discussion among peers were prioritized over solo studying and homework. We’d often take the class out to a bar and sit outside, drinking a glass of wine and discussing interesting topics together, hearing different perspectives, and having respectful but challenging discourse.

We had 1–2 hours off at lunch to rest our bodies, turn off our brains and disconnect.

Sundays were noticeable days of rest as well; nothing was open, and people relaxed and connected with each other and prioritized leisure.

They always told us, “We work to live, Americans live to work.” they were so right. It’s backward.
  • They didn’t take work home.

  • They didn’t overschedule their family.

  • They prioritized unscheduled time with family and community.

  • They never asked another person, “What do you do for work?”. Instead, they asked, “What are your interests and hobbies?”

It is crucial to recognize and accept that our true fulfillment and happiness as humans come from various things, like personal relationships, pursuing passions and hobbies, feeling peace and calm, and, of course, feeling engaged at work.

By breaking free from the narrow mindset of equating success exclusively with financial gain and career achievement, Americans can reverse our culturally conditioned and unhealthy work ethic, decrease our stress, prioritize leisure and community instead of wealth and material things, and feel engaged again.

Here’s to our own and future generations creating a more balanced and meaningful existence that aligns with our values and brings us true fulfillment.

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