Michael Bugeja, Des Moines Register
Iowans, like most Americans, lead chaotic lives. Consider that word, “chaos.” It comes from the Greek khaos, which means “the abyss,” a vast disordered and directionless space.
Many of us have fallen into that abyss.
Part of it stems from our being such an outstanding work force. At 64%, Iowa ranks among the top states in the country for the percentage of people employed. Iowa also ranks eighth in the country for working women, although pay gaps and other issues remain.
“Iowa has more households with all parents working than any other state,” Gov. Kim Reynolds stated in 2021, “yet we’ve lost one-third of our childcare spots over the last five years.”
This year she announced a new Child Care Business Incentive Grant Program, urging employers to offer childcare as an employee benefit.
Lack of childcare is only one issue plaguing Iowans and other Americans coping with work-related stress.
According to one study, 59% of us are so busy that we only can manage 26 minutes of free time per week. We put off tasks like cleaning, paying bills and making doctor appointments, household repairs and healthy meals.
An article titled, “The U.S. is the Most Overworked Developed Nation in the World,” notes that we work hard “with very little paid holiday, vacation, and parental leave to show for it.”
American employees labor an average of 1,767 hours per year. That’s 435 more hours per year than Germans, 365 more hours than French, and 169 more hours than Japanese.
See this chart for comprehensive data.
We work to pay bills. Inflation deflates us.
Americans and Canadians are among the most stressed in the world. A 2021 Gallup study found that “57% of U.S. and Canadian workers reported feeling stress on a daily basis, up by eight percentage points from the year prior and compared with 43% of people who feel that way globally.”
Americans are not cutting corners at work. Their companies and institutions — including Iowa universities — are cutting budgets in a post-pandemic economy. That adds to workload.
Half of us feel trapped by our financial and individual situations.
Americans multitask more than people in any other country, often depriving us of inspiration and creativity. There is no study that documents how we multitask while worrying about issues beyond our control.
Many of us spend hours rehashing meaningless interactions, foiled bids for love or attention, real or imagined slights, and other pointless triggers, from road rage to internet outages.
Let’s start with the news. It’s bad. We hear about war, hate crimes, shootings, poisonous politics and, lest we forget, mutating omicron variants. It’s good to be informed, but not at the expense of sanity.
Take a break. You’ll hear the same reports in a week, a month, a year. One less thing.
Limit social media. Who cares if someone blocked or unfriended you or snubbed you because of a post? You don’t need to know the reason and then obsess about it in your 26 minutes of free time per week. One less thing.
Same holds true when someone stops talking to you at work for no good reason. Or gossips about you.
“Telling office bullies that they hurt your feelings may feel liberating. But it’s a bad idea,” writes Washington Post columnist Karla L. Miller. “Sharing your hurt only helps with people who care about your feelings. Otherwise, it’s giving them ammunition.”
Ignore them back and interact only when proper for work-related reasons. One less thing.
The philosophy of one less thing is liberating. Say “no” when asked to do extra tasks or service at home, school or work. Saying “yes” is one of the reasons our lives are so chaotic.
The philosophy of one less thing is based on stoicism, which the ancients viewed as a way of life. As the Stanford Encyclopedia explains it, “Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed.”
Apart from politics or career, what do you most value? Your church or community? Your spouse, friend, family, partner, pet? A hobby? Travel? Hunting, fishing, hiking, gardening? Make a list.
Now make another. What petty issues occupy your thoughts in the course of a week? Which ones can you dismiss, block or ignore for the sake of wellbeing?
The Greek stoic Epictetus has recommendations that resonate to this day. He reminds us that troubles abound. It’s how we react to them that matters. He also advises us to cease worrying about things beyond our power or control. Epictetus reminds us that people are not worried about real problems “so much as by imagined anxieties about real problems.”
The philosophy of one less thing may not set you free; but it will free up time for the pursuits and people you most value.
Michael Bugeja is a distinguished professor of liberal arts and sciences at Iowa State University. These views are his own.