5 Reasons Why Science Says It's Okay to Be Lazy

by Carrie Kirby on 11 June 2014 0 comments

How many of your Facebook statuses read, "Should be [insert productive activity], but instead I'm lying here watching the 'Storage Wars' marathon"? Some blame human laziness on modern technology — conveniences like cars and pre-cooked bacon strip us of the need to be active, while inventions such as television tempt us into immobility. But laziness has been with us much longer than such inventions; after all, Catholic tradition lists "sloth" as one of the seven deadly sins, Buddhism warns against lying around, and many other ancient religious texts deride indolence. (See also: Easy Personal Finance for Lazy People)

So maybe we were born to laze? The next time you're feeling bad about being lazy, consider these five scientific excuses for sloth, arranged in an easy-to-read list.

1. You Come From a Lazy Family

University of Missouri-Columbia researchers successfully bred lazy rats that took it easy all day and annoying rats that went to the gym every morning before showing up at the lab, demonstrating that our genes predispose us to high or low activity levels. So if you lie on the couch a lot, chances are, your forefathers put in a lot of time on the divans in their parlors, too.

Rather than kick yourself for wasting another afternoon, recognize that it's hard to overcome laziness, and practice developing some new habits.

2. You Are a Teenager

When teens hit puberty, their body chemistry pushes them to stay alert until late at night, like 11 p.m. or midnight. But they still need about the same amount of shut-eye they needed as children — nine-plus hours. To get the sleep they need, teens need to sleep the morning away, a behavior that earns them the reputation of being lazy on weekends and vacations, and leaves them exhausted during the school week when early starts are the norm.

Some schools have reacted to this news by rescheduling the mornings to accommodate drowsy students.

3. You Are Human

We human beings naturally conserve our energy unless we have a reason to expend it — even though we tend to be happier when we are busy. This might seem like common sense, but it's also science: In 2009, a team from the University of Chicago and Shanghai Jiaotong University proved that unless given a reason, most people prefer to sit idle rather than to perform a task or take a walk, even though sitting idle drives us bonkers. (See also: 6 Surprisingly Effective Ways to Motivate Yourself)

The paper's authors posit that this paradox is rooted in evolution, writing, "human ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources; expending energy without purpose could have jeopardized survival." Indeed, our primate relatives, orangutans, avoid expending calories whenever possible, coming in second for slothfulness to only one mammal: the actual sloth.

4. Your Ancestors Grew Easy Crops?

In his book "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell asserts that students of East Asian heritage outscore students of European heritage in math because the former's ancestors worked hard all year cultivating rice paddies, while the European ancestors only farmed 206 days a year and spent winters sitting around the fireplace.

In a world where other ethnic groups have more often been unfairly called lazy, it's sort of refreshing to hear white people targeted for once. But that doesn't make it true. Gladwell's hypothesis has come under heavy criticism. One reviewer pointed out that if the rice paddy theory were true, then students from southern China's rice-producing areas should outperform northern China's wheat-growing areas, but Gladwell offers no data to support such a conclusion.

It's also worth noting that another East Asian, rice-growing culture, Japan, was once maligned as lazy before its economic revolution. Apparent differences between cultures in activity levels probably have more to do with economic conditions than genetics, bringing us handily to the next excuse.

5. You Are Following the Laws of Economics

According to economists, people do what they do because they are rationally responding to incentives. People work hard when presented with incentive to do so and work less when such incentive is absent.

"For instance, people are motivated to work hard if they have opportunities to invest their earnings profitably, but not if they have few such opportunities or if their earnings or profits are likely to be confiscated," writes Jared Diamond in his New York Review of Books piece on the book "Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty." (Diamond himself spilled plenty of ink on why some nations become wealthy while others languish in his book "Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies.")

In the United States, people are more likely to work long hours if doing so can garner them bonuses and promotions, according to The National Bureau of Economic Research. Those who have no such opportunities will rationally work less and might be perceived as lazy.

In other words, when there's nothing in it for you, why bother? And if you want to overcome a lack of motivation, look for some other motivations to get you started.

Any other good reasons to explain away sloth. Please get up off the couch and share in comments!

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