Survival of the slackest: now that’s what I call an evolved theory | Larry Ryan

Back when I was at university in Dublin, I once gave blood at a nearby donation clinic. They gave you a free sandwich beforehand to prevent blood-depleted fainting so it was a good deal in straitened, student times (I had the chicken). Post-lunch, a nurse hooked up my arm to get the blood; after a while a doctor came over to observe, and asked how it was going. “There’s not much coming out,” the nurse complained. “His blood is pumping too slow.”

I can’t claim there is a direct medical correlation between this incident and a general sense of idleness and languor that I often feel, but it gives me comfort. Even when most of the world persists with the silly idea that sloth is a sin, there are plenty of us out there who are content with being lazy, laid-back or whatever … It is with mild joy, then, that I receive recent news that researchers are hailing “the survival of the sluggish”. Analysing 300 forms of mollusc that lived and died in the Atlantic over a 5m-year period, scientists found the creatures that burned the most energy daily were more likely to die out than those that took it easy. “The lower the metabolic rate, the more likely the species you belong to will survive,” said Bruce Lieberman, the University of Kansas professor who led the study.

For those of us in the languid community, it confirms what we’ve always gently felt – the world is always going to keep spinning, so you might as well take a load off. The fittest can go ahead and burn themselves out; we’ll just be sitting here.

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All the synonyms for lazy have negative connotations: apathetic, indolent, lifeless, supine, unready (!). There is an all-too common misconception that equates the ease-taking life with the stereotype of the couch-potato – unkempt, unhealthy, unengaged. We associate loafing with people wasting their lives; with harried parents shaking their sleeping teenage children out of bed; with do-nothings, doing nothing. But that doesn’t have to be the case. We should reclaim these terms – if that didn’t require too much energy – and invest them with positive meaning: slacking isn’t simply doing nothing, it’s just being comfortable in knowing when you don’t want to do anything. There doesn’t have to be an anxious need to do things at all times.

The sun is shining: you don’t need to immediately dash outside. The bus is coming: you don’t have to run for it. You’ve booked a weekend in a foreign city: it’s not necessary to schedule activities for every waking hour. There’s joy to be had in taking your time, in doing things sparingly, in letting the days go by.

A good unindustrious person knows – like the slower moving gastropods before us – that there shouldn’t be a rush to expend your energy. There is a cult of antic busy-ness that breeds an always-on culture and a need to be perpetually doing stuff – or to be seen to be doing stuff – in work and social life. Even now, when the busy people have busily co-opted non-busy things, like mindfulness or sleep or simple relaxation, they take the joy out of it by giving it a purpose: that is, how to help you to ultimately be more productive by occasionally being less productive. What a waste of energy.

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Returning slowly to the sea and the molluscs, Lieberman suggested the reason for the counterintuitive findings is “things that were more sluggish or lazy, had lower energy or food requirements and thus could make do with little when times were bad”. Granted, now that we’re facing planetary and societal collapse, it’s unlikely we dallying folk will last all that long in a scrap for survival – and we certainly won’t escape to New Zealand with Peter Thiel and the gang, but let’s not get too worked up yet. To follow the professor’s logic, at the very least, we’ll be more comfortable with the boredom when our devices run out of battery.

Now, that’s enough energy expended. Time for a light lunch and a sit-down.

Larry Ryan is a freelance journalist, and briefly wrote a column called Takin’ It Easy With Larry Ryan on the fitness page of the Independent Magazine


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