Busyness Could Be a Mask for Depression

I bet you are really busy right now. You have emails to write, meetings to plan, clients to meet, late summer trips to plan. That's OK, you aren't alone — everyone in the office seems super-busy, right? Walk down the hall and try not to slam into somebody with their head stuck in their phone — being busy, I presume.

I have news for you. You and your office mates might be subconsciously making up all of this busyness. Your over-scheduled and over-text-messaged life might be a trick your mind is playing to stay a step ahead of what Winston Churchill called "Black Dog" — depression.

A recent study led by University of Virginia psychologists produced some startling results. Research subjects were given time to sit alone and reflect. They quickly grew restless and unhappy. After only a few minutes away from their desktops and mobile devices, some subjects grew so anxious they self-administered electric shocks to stop the experiment!

The New York Times offered an explanation for the study results last week. “The results could be because human beings, when left alone, tend to dwell on what’s wrong in their lives. We have evolved to become problem solvers and meaning makers. What preys on our minds, when we aren’t updating our Facebook page or in spinning class, are the things we haven’t figured out — difficult relationships, personal and professional failures, money trouble, health concerns and so on. And until there is resolution, or at least some kind of understanding or acceptance, these thoughts reverberate in our heads. Hello rumination. Hello insomnia.”

And hello depression.

I have written about "busyness" before, describing a time I was consulting with a large industrial company but could never book time with the HR manager supposedly in charge of my work. "Crazy busy" was always her excuse, but as far as I could tell her time was consumed by filling out forms that existed for no apparent reason other than to be filled out, then racing from office to office to make sure everyone else was filling them out. I saw not one iota of REAL work — liking producing or selling something — ever get done by this needlessly stressed manager.

And she is fairly typical. As I noted at the time, while pondering what seems to be an epidemic of busyness among office types, "When you try to find out exactly why they are so busy, the answer gets a little fuzzy. Rarely does it involve a precisely defined task, to be completed within a specific period of time, measured by commonly accepted goals, and of any significance whatsoever beyond a small group of people. In other words, most busyness is a trap, imposed almost entirely by oneself or one's immediate colleagues, and usually of no lasting importance. 'Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing' is how Shakespeare put it centuries ago.

“If you scratch very hard on the surface of workplace busyness you can find a lot of people desperately trying to prove their worth, not only to their bosses but to themselves: ‘Of course my job (life) is important, my calendar is full, I am completely booked, all the time, every day. See?’ In other words, constant motion and activity is a bulwark against not just job elimination but existential dread."

Look, I am against existential dread. There is a reason it is called "dread," after all. And depression is a deadly and debilitating disease that is one of the fastest-growing public health problems in the developed world.

But can't we all just slow down a bit? Take a deep breath? Put down the cellphone and not obsess about how many "likes" the picture you just posted of lunch is getting? Maybe our busyness is what is feeding the Black Dog: "Suppressing negative feelings only gives them more power," noted the Times article, "leading to intrusive thoughts, which makes people get even busier to keep them at bay."

Stop fooling yourself with activity that means little in the grand scheme of things; it is making things worse. Stop running and stare down that monster dog. Escape the busyness trap. Take time to get inside your own head and rediscover who you are. With some effort, I bet you'll remember that you like that person.

(Author's note: If you think you or a loved one may be suffering from depression, seek help from a professional. A place to learn more is on the website of the National Institute of Mental Health).