If you’re inclined to park off on the couch, watch TV and do very little else, you may rightfully be labelled “lazy”. You may even feel a tad indignant when your friends jokingly call you a sloth, a slacker or a couch potato. But did you know there could be a valid medical reason for your love of lazing?
What, exactly, is laziness?
Laziness is a “a disinclination to activity or exertion despite having the ability to do so”, according to Wikipedia.org.
UK psychiatrist and book author Dr Neel Burton has another way of describing this common affliction. On Psychology Today, he notes that a person is being lazy if he’s able to carry out some activity that he ought to carry out, but is reluctant to do so because of the effort involved.
Instead, the person carries out the activity perfunctorily, or engages in some other, less strenuous or less boring activity, or remains idle.
For some, laziness can take the shape of avolition – a more serious form of laziness that may be caused by an underlying mental health problem, including a sleep disorder, schizophrenia, depression or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
Laziness and psychology
Dr Burton believes that many lazy people aren’t intrinsically lazy. Instead, he asserts they’re lazy because they haven’t found what they want to do, or because they’re not doing it for one reason or another.
Some of these reasons, he adds, could be fear or hopelessness. He says some people fear success, or have insufficient self-esteem to feel comfortable with success. For them, laziness is one way to sabotage themselves.
On the other hand, some people fear failure. “They view laziness as preferable to failure because they tell themselves it’s not that they failed, but rather that they never tried.”
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When it comes to feelings of hopelessness, Dr Burton comments that some people are lazy because they see their situation as being so bleak that they can’t even begin to think through it, let alone address it.
Possible medical reasons
If these psychological reasons don’t explain your laziness, you may be interested to know that the problem may lie in your genes.
The newly discovered “coach-potato gene” produces a protein in the dopamine system of the brain, making some people less inclined to do physical activity. Study leader Professor Wei Li from the Institute of Genetics and Developmental Biology in Beijing led the study published in PLOS Genetics.
Together with co-author Professor John Speakman of the University of Aberdeen, Prof Li compared normal mice with those that had the mutated gene, and found that mice with the mutation had significantly fewer of this type of dopamine receptor on the surface of their brain cells. Instead, the dopamine receptors were trapped within the cells, resulting in dysfunctional signalling.
Prof Li commented that, much like humans, the mice with the gene mutation were “typical couch potatoes”, walking only about a third as much as a normal mouse would. When they did move, they walked more slowly. They were also more likely to develop health problems and gain weight.
However, when treated with a drug that stimulates dopamine receptors, the problem was reversed and the affected mice became leaner and more active. This has raised the possibility of developing medication to reduce laziness in humans. Unfortunately, these mutations seem to be rare, affecting only about one in 200 people.
Dopamine holds the clue
An earlier study featured on Livescience also focused on the link between dopamine levels and a willingness to work hard.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University in Tennessee found that dopamine levels in three areas of the brain determine if a person is a go-getter or a procrastinator, according to their study published in the Journal of Neuroscience (2012). According to the researchers, this chemical has opposing effects in different brain areas.
The study involved scanning the brains of young adults, who were assigned a test to see how hard they were willing to work for a monetary reward. They had to choose either an easy or a difficult button-pushing, 30-second task, which was repeated for 20 minutes.
The researchers found that, while high dopamine levels in some brain regions were linked with a high work ethic, a spike in another brain region seemed to indicate the opposite. This resulted in an individual being more likely to slack off, even if a lesser endeavour meant a smaller reward.
Read: How to work through work stress
Their results showed that hardworking people had the most dopamine in two areas of the brain known to play an important role in reward and motivation. However, in the anterior insula – a region linked to motivation and risk perception – their dopamine levels were low.
The researchers say the differences may indicate that, when it comes to slacking off or working hard, how the brain weighs risk and reward could make all the difference. They explain that some people are more wary of taking a risk and expending extra energy for an unlikely, but larger, reward, while others focus on the big reward they could get, and downplay the possible losses of time and energy.
Medical and psychological reasons aside, there are some basic lifestyle factors that can also cause laziness. Obesity/overweight and inactivity are some of the most important factors. For example, research clearly shows that overweight children are more sedentary – and being inactive during childhood generally leads to a more passive lifestyle in adulthood.
Despite recommendations that adults should do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, research shows that about two in three adults in the UK fail to adhere to these guidelines.
Our fast-paced, technology-driven lifestyles also don’t help when it comes to healthy eating and getting all the nutrients we need to stay alert and energetic. Poor nutrition, missed meals and fast-food consumption are likely to make us feel even more sluggish.
How to overcome laziness
Assuming you haven’t been too lazy to read up until this point, you may ask whether it’s possible to overcome your laziness. Yes, it is and these steps, published on a Wikihow blog, could do the trick:
Uncover the cause: Try to establish the real issue behind your laziness. Every time you get into laze mode, ask yourself what’s happening that holds you back and causing your lack of motivation. It may be that you’re tired, overwhelmed, fearful or simply uninspired and “stuck”. It may be easier than you think to move past the inertia once you actually know the cause.
Focus on fixing the problem. The best way to deal with anything (yes, even laziness) is to address it head on. Mull over the following:
• Tired and fatigued? Set aside time to relax, even if you have to adapt your schedule to accommodate it.
• Feeling stressed and overwhelmed? Take baby steps, not huge strides. Find ways to simplify your life and tackle a single thing at a time.
• If you're fearful, try and discover what’s making you afraid. It might be that you’re frightened of reaching your potential.
• If you’re sad or hurting, give yourself time to heal. Negative emotions like sadness, anger and grief don’t just disappear on their own, so don’t pressurise yourself too much to spring back to normal. Get help from a therapist, if necessary.
Read: Beat the back-to-work blues
Make a start. Try to overcome that initial inertia by just getting started with an activity. You have to start somewhere, even if it means simply cleaning your spectacles to read this article properly! Take comfort in the knowledge that most people are reluctant to start a difficult task or face a challenging situation. Once you get going, the rest should start to follow.
Exercise. Being active might be the last thing on your mind when you’re unmotivated. But believe it or not, exercise actually energises you. That’s because it revs your metabolism, increases oxygen and blood flow, and gets your body into an energised mode that could last all day.
Get organised. If you’re surrounded by visual or actual clutter, it can be hard to feel motivated to do anything. Get in there and clean up around you.
Get going with goals. Be realistic and set some goals that inspire you and use your skills and talents to the full. It helps to make a to-do list that includes big and small things. Work out how important each one is and how much time it should take. Then prioritise it on your list and just start with the first thing.
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Image: Man sleeping on a chair in office from Shutterstock