a sloth in a thought bubble

Laziness Does Not Exist

Editor's note: Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Devon Price, a social psychologist who authored the book, Laziness Does Not Exist, which examines a concept that Price calls the “laziness lie.” In our interview, we talked about society’s concept of laziness and how it’s used against people living with chronic conditions like ankylosing spondylitis.

For our readers’ knowledge, what’s your background? How did you come to write this book?

I’m a social psychologist, and when I finished graduate school and got my PhD, I came down with a horrible fever for months, and was really sick. I had a big year where I achieved this supposedly “impressive” thing, and I couldn’t work. I had brain fog. I had to completely change how I was living. I had to detach my sense of worth from constantly churning out productivity.

Soon after that, I started teaching at places with a lot of working adult students. I noticed that I had so many students who were incredibly busy with careers, sick kids, a full course load, and more. Yet all of these students thought they were lazy. When they missed a deadline or forgot something, they were so full of shame. It broke my heart. I really wanted to investigate laziness as an idea in our culture, and especially how it gets applied to people who are the most marginalized, who are dealing with so much, and trying the hardest against the most challenges.

There are a lot of people living with AS who are disabled, have brain fog, and/or have mental health conditions. What would you say to people with chronic conditions that are struggling to find work, or struggling to feel worthy because they can’t work?

We’re set up in a world where even people who are able-bodied and don’t experience brain fog or mental health issues, have trouble keeping up. We know from productivity research that even in the cushiest office jobs, people are only able to work 3-4 hours in an 8 hour day. And that’s not because workers are lazy, it’s because that’s repeatedly, and for decades what psychologists have found, is the human limit. We can’t focus and churn out productivity for much more than that.

We’re also on an overload of information with the internet, and a lot of people have no household help, so they’re spread too thin there as well. In essence, people are already set up for failure, and there is a narrow window of people that society views as “doing enough.” And there are so many people outside of that window who have chronic illness, chronic fatigue, mental health stuff, who are being told that they’re just "lazy," when it’s actually the expectations that are the problem.

And unfortunately, society makes it very hard for a person with a disability to find a career path that is sustainable for them. It’s really difficult, and a lot of the issue is rooted in how we as a society structure the work day, particularly in the United States.

For example, a lot of people lobbied for work from home options before COVID because they had disabilities or mental health stuff, and they were denied that. Now, of course, we know that those jobs could have been remote all along. We see that the world is inherently ableist.

What would you say to someone who lives with a chronic condition to make them feel worthy despite their inability to be “productive"?

So many people are told that they’re lazy by their parents, teachers, and friends. And sometimes it’s not explicitly “You’re lazy,” but it’s, “Have you tried this?” “Have you done yoga?” “Have you eaten greens?” It’s basically like asking, “Are you trying hard enough to make your condition go away?” I would suggest that you try to dull some of that noise, and unfollow people who make you feel bad on social media!

I also suggest that you take stock of how much work you’re doing all the time by managing your condition and just by staying alive. Managing your needs and energy levels, thinking about what you can put your energy towards - that is a job. You’re a project manager for just keeping yourself alive! Give yourself credit, even if other people refuse to see it! You’re doing a ton of work.

I also suggest you find and speak to other people who are in similar situations, because sometimes it’s easier to be compassionate to other people. We can look at our friends and be compassionate and understanding, and we can then practice that on ourselves. Also, remember that our culture’s hatred of laziness targets and shames disabled bodies more than almost anyone else, and people are made to feel defective if they can’t be productive in a particular way all the time.

How did we as a country, and as a society, end up with these beliefs about hard work and laziness?

Since America has existed, we have moralized hard work and punished people who aren’t capable of working in particular ways. The Protestant work ethic is sewn into the backbone of this country. The idea that work makes you a “good” and “moral” person, especially hard and suffering work, is logic that was used to justify slavery. It got a lot worse in the 1980s when certain policies cut both federal and state funding of mental health services and disability services. Welfare became something that was morally suspicious, especially if Black women needed it. If someone needed benefits, suddenly they were seen as “corrupt” and lazy.

Can you talk about the importance of rest for humans?

We are not built to hyper-focus on something for really any long period of time. Our attention fluctuates in and out each moment, which is a normal part of how anyone’s brain works. Our nervous system is built to be mindful of the present.

Everyone daydreams, online shops, browses Twitter, and gets distracted, but we’ve been taught to see these things as failures when they’re actually very natural and important for our creativity and problem-solving. To solve a complicated problem, you need some time where you aren’t thinking about the problem, but are doing something completely different. It’s kind of like why people have good ideas in the shower. It’s part of how the brain works.

But we also just need rest, period. That’s what regulates our nervous system, it helps us feel safe, it gives us an opportunity to connect with other people, and a chance to be playful and do something just because we like to do it. We need rest and time to “waste” doing nothing, or doing something we enjoy just because. It restores our mental health and our physical health.

Any final thoughts to the folks in our community?

To everyone who has been made to feel broken because they aren’t productive in the way society thinks that they should be: try to remember that it’s the systems that are broken. You are not broken. The expectations are broken.

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