Are We Tired or Are We Sad?: The Problematic Exaltation of Routines and Habits in American Society

Abby Chang // The Phoenix

I cannot remember a time when I greeted a friend without one or both of us describing ourselves as tired following the customary “How are you?” Honestly, my friends and I have stopped asking each other that question entirely, as we both already know the answer: the sky is blue, and we are tired. Only very recently in my life have I begun exploring possible solutions to our common plague of tiredness, which has led me to some interesting observations — some obvious and some less so. The best solution for being tired is sleeping more, and the onus is on us to manage our time better in order to carve out a greater chunk of time at night to sleep. However, this “solution” completely ignores the fact that for most of human history, humans have slept in segments: the idea that we need one uninterrupted marathon of sleep every night only became prevalent during the industrial revolution. 

We are not just brains: we are bodies that have energy levels that rise and fall. This is why I find the glorification of routines and habits in our society so insidious. Every single day teaches us there is nothing constant in our lives, so why do we insist on holding onto the idea that we can create our own little world where constancy exists? I am not trying to ignore or disregard the merits of self-discipline. In fact, self-discipline is necessary to do things for yourself that better your life consistently. However, creating a habit that is unnecessary for your employment, mental and physical health, or in maintaining our relationships with loved ones sets you up for failure and unhappiness. Rigid habits don’t take into account the days when you just can’t follow your routine — for example, when you can’t wake up to your alarm, and you don’t know why. Thus, we are led to fruitlessly over-scrutinize ourselves for feelings that are completely normal. Sometimes, our bodies are just unusually tired. In these cases, if you can, go to bed and move on with your life. If you cannot, don’t berate yourself just because you’re not functioning as highly as you usually do. 

Years of trying to force myself to do things I didn’t like led me to realize that being tired is very different from being fatigued. Being tired implies a temporary deprivation of sleep that can, for the most part, be relieved with a nap. However, being fatigued is more chronic and implies a sluggishness with which you face life, like being physically present but “not there.” When we say, “I’m tired,” we might just mean that we have nothing to look forward to in our lives in the moment and near future. In her article “Why it’s Important to Break Routines,” clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Firestone articulates why many routines deaden our lives, writing, “… habitual behavior, by nature, can cut us off from feeling. Moving through a series of habitual behaviors can set us on autopilot throughout our day, which can lead us to lose touch with ourselves and our immediate experience — be it sensory or emotional.” The solution to being fatigued is to wedge opportunities to do something enlivening into the small crevices of time between our responsibilities. While significantly harder than simply sleeping more, this possible solution at least acknowledges the fact that the way society today is structured is not conducive to human physical or mental health. 

Before I learned to differentiate between exhaustion and fatigue, I came to the conclusion that the solution for my troubles was to try my hardest to stop thinking. This mostly consisted of   mindlessly binge-watching YouTube videos or Netflix shows. Now that I am older and slightly wiser, I realize how damaging that mindset was to myself. Don’t be mistaken, there is nothing wrong with binge-watching a favorite show or going down your favorite YouTube rabbit hole. The problem is that I was doing this habitually because I believed I thought “too much,” and that thinking itself was the source of what I can now identify as chronic fatigue. Thinking wasn’t the problem: the problem was expending all my thoughts doing what I had to do in order to fulfill the role of a “productive” member of society and neglecting to replenish myself by stimulating my brain in ways that I wanted. If we’re lucky in life, our jobs will coincide with what we are passionate about, which will provide constant stimulation in our lives. However, most of us will not have that privilege, and even those who do will likely find that American workplace culture will do its best to suck the life and passion out of it anyways. Furthermore, even though our lofty Swarthmorean ideals may say otherwise, the vast majority of us cannot radically change the world with our professions. Most of us may find that we are stuck with jobs that we don’t like for a period of time. But instead of using that as an excuse to tune out the world and succumb to fatigue, we can use the opportunity to cultivate our personal passions, which hopefully involve giving back to society in some capacity. In the meantime, something we can all work on, if we haven’t already, is sleeping in, getting drunk, and going outside without feeling guilty about deviating from the schedule. Just remember: everything in moderation. 

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