I was fortunate to visit Sweden for the second time and stay here for three weeks just last month. Wherever I go, I’ve always liked taking my time walking and exploring the city instead of rushing to famous sites just to snap a few shots. It’s the culture and stories of the people I want to take with me.
To be honest, before my first visit here in 2015, I knew nothing about Sweden other than IKEA, H&M and Spotify. But ever since then, I’ve been captivated by its seamless blend of nature and history, and its magnificent castles bordering the forest or the Baltic Sea.
It would take a whole book to write about Sweden, so today I’m only sharing about one aspect – the importance of work-life balance in Swedish culture. If you’re like me and you’re used to shops opening from 10am to 10pm, sometimes even 24/7, you might be shocked at the trading hours of stores and restaurants here.
“Restaurants closing at 6pm, like, dinner time? Interesting…” that’s my first reaction when I encountered dozens of closed vegan cafes as I was starving. Whether it’s a shop, restaurant or shopping mall, closing at 5pm or 6pm is the default. Some exceptions are bars or certain restaurants that open late. One day we found a restaurant that closes at 9pm, and the waiter made sure to inform us at 8:45pm that we’re not supposed to stay for too long.
In general, people in Sweden value rest and leisure time, so working until 10pm or working on the weekend is almost unheard of. Usually people would come home to cook after work, and enjoy a ton of free time doing what they love until the next day when they go to work. When I told my Swedish friends about the work culture in Taiwan, it made their jaws drop.
According to this BBC article, the minimum holiday in Sweden is 25 days, but some companies give their employees more. For example, I have friends who have 5 weeks of paid holidays every year. Work hour is usually 6 hours per day. But does working less mean being less efficient? Not necessarily. In fact, working for prolonged hours without the opportunity to relax could strain people and decrease their productivity. Let’s be honest – how many of us spend the entire 8 hours a day totally immersed in work without checking Facebook messages or personal emails, or daydreaming?
I used to be a workaholic, working more than 10 hours a day. It’s something that I’ve only begun to reflect over the past year. I’m not saying it’s not good to be a workaholic, but what’s the motivation? Is it because I simply love my work so much I can’t stop working, or because of fear and anxiety? Is it only because I enjoy the work, or is it also because I’m afraid of the consequences of taking a rest, fearing how many more animals would die, how much less money I would make, or how unsatisfied my boss would be? Am I doing all this out of joy, or out of the ego’s need to prove myself worthy?
Before, whenever someone asked me how I was doing, I’d always tell them “I’m good! Very busy.” When I said that, I was indeed busy. But at the same time, I told people I was busy because I wanted to feel good about myself. If others saw that I was hardworking, they’d think I’m a good person, and that I deserve the best in life. To take it deeper, what I wanted wasn’t just approval from others, but recognition from myself. If the idea that I’m not good enough is deeply rooted in me, how can I not need other people’s praises? How can I ever stop working hard? And if I don’t even care about my own physical and emotional health, why would my client, my boss or my customer care?
If you’re reading my post in English, you probably don’t know this yet, but the Chinese character for “busy” is the combination of “death” and “heart.” To be busy is to let our hearts die – isn’t it a powerful reminder for us to be mindful of our thoughts and actions? Of course this glorification of busyness is the result of the society we were born into, which we also continuously contribute to. At least in Asia, a common phenomenon is that children were taught to be busy since we were in school, completing one task after another without taking too much time to be creative and to play. The consequence? We discourage our young generation from traveling the road less known, and deprive them of the opportunity to learn to be socially competent in a fast changing world.
In the current society, it might be hard for you to change the system if you have a regular 9-5 job – unless you quit your job and start freelancing, which is what I did. Even though I completely agree with the purpose of my previous job, I realized that when there’s no balance, mindfulness or other essential elements that form who we are as whole human beings, we lose our inner peace.
If you ask me what you should do, my honest answer is that I don’t have an answer for you. Ever individual walks on a different path, and the answer is up to us to find out. If you truly enjoy being a workaholic, I’m totally cool with that. What I’m presenting here is an invitation to reflect on how much we value a balanced life, and if our choices are aligned with how much we care. I’m also inviting you to be careful with saying “I’m busy” and not just saying it as an auto response or to make us feel good.
Several months ago when reading Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, I was struck by the idea that before the Agricultural Revolution, people had much more free time in hunter-gatherer societies. They collected their food for the day, and spent the rest of day singing, telling stories, and living in the present. When what you eat or use is a gift from nature and not the result of what you make, you develop humility and respect. Since the Agricultural Revolution, human beings have been playing the role of God, manipulating the life and death of animals and plants, while working till we die to avoid economic losses.
What about after the Industrial Revolution? That used to sound very promising, but the fact is that we actually became even more miserable. We delegated many tasks to machines, but meanwhile creating even more work for ourselves. How many of us live for the day we retire? Work takes up the majority of our lives, and we’re only waiting to live after it’s over? Why don’t we keep a balance and live in the present? More often than not, we have a choice, and it all depends on our priorities. When we act from abundance and joy instead of scarcity, we may be able to create inner space for abundance to emerge*.
*Books such as Breaking The Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One might be helpful if you’d like to explore this topic further.