We are being lazy if we are able to carry out some activity that we ought to carry out, but are disinclined to do so on account of the effort involved. Instead, we remain idle, carry out the activity perfunctorily, or engage in some other less strenuous or boring activity. In short, we are being lazy if our motivation to spare ourselves effort trumps our motivation to do the right or best or expected thing—assuming, of course, that we know, or think that we know, what that is.

Synonyms for laziness include indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than either laziness or indolence. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins (the other six being lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, envy, and pride) because it undermines society and God’s plan and invites all manner of sin. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, notably in the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.’

Laziness should not be confused with either procrastination or idleness. To procrastinate—from the Latin cras, ‘tomorrow’—is to postpone one task in favour of another or others which are perceived as being easier or more pleasurable but which are typically less important or urgent. To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination. For a postponement to amount to procrastination, it has to represent poor or ineffective planning and result in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator, for example, in the form of stress, guilt, lost productivity, or lost opportunities. It is one thing to delay a tax return until all the numbers are in, but quite another to delay it so that it upsets our holiday plans and lands us with a fine. Both the lazybones and the procrastinator lack motivation, but unlike the lazybones the procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task under consideration, and, moreover, eventually does complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself.

To be idle is, not to be doing anything. Idleness is often romanticized, as epitomized by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘it is sweet to do nothing’). Many people tell themselves that they work hard from a desire for idleness. But although our natural instinct is for idleness, most of us find prolonged idleness difficult to bear. Queuing for half an hour in a traffic jam can leave us feeling bored, restless, and irritable, and many motorists prefer to make a detour even if the alternative route is likely to take longer than sitting through the traffic. Recent research suggests that people will find the flimsiest excuse to keep busy, and that they feel happier for keeping busy even when their busyness is imposed upon them. In their research paper (Hsee CK et al. (2010), Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science 21(7): 926–930.), Christopher Hsee and his colleagues surmise that many of our purported goals may be little more than justifications for keeping busy.

We could be idle because we have nothing to do—or rather, because we lack the imagination to think of something to do. If we do evidently have something to do, we could be idle because we are lazy, but also because we are unable to do that thing, or because we have already done it and are resting and recuperating. Lastly, we could be idle because we value idleness or its products above whatever it is we have to do, which is not the same thing as being lazy. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity’. As chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour each day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. Adepts of such strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to gather inspiration, develop and maintain perspective, sidestep nonsense and pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve health and stamina for truly important tasks and problems. ‘To do nothing at all,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

empathy

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

For me to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that, imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not in all cases. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.