When busyness is the key social currency, lives become poorer

I loved play dates when I was a kid - right after school, a friend would ask their parents if they could come play at my house, they'd hop into our car and that was about as complicated as it got.

Today, things are a bit more tricky. I tried to make a play date for my five-year-old recently and I had to do it a month ahead of time.

And that's pretty typical. There are after-school lessons to coordinate (oh, Jane has French on Tuesdays, sorry!), parental time to take off so the kids are supervised (we don't get home until 6pm, sorry!), even pets to wrangle when someone is allergic. Then, of course, someone gets a cold the day of the play date and we start the horrific dance all over again.

I hate to get into "good old days" territory, because I'm sure that my own parents had their challenges coordinating fun for my sister and me, but it does seem like there's something distinctly new going on.

Their teachers tell me that busyness has basically become social currency - the most overworked and overscheduled students are the ones who are seen as succeeding, even as they're miserable.

And it's not something we can blame completely on modern parenting and overscheduled kids either - because the culture of "busy" extends way past our children.

When I see my friends , it's often after months (yes, months) of traded e-mail and at least a few cancellations and trying again. And again.

My friends, colleagues and I seem to over-promise on what we can deliver in terms of socialising - we make plans and hope for the best, but inevitably, something comes up and plans fall through. Though that's OK - when you're immersed in the culture of busy, someone cancelling drinks is sweet, sweet relief.

When I travel to college campuses, the same sort of thing happens. You ask students how they're doing and what they're interested in, and they'll rattle off more than a list of courses. They're club presidents, playing sports, involved in activism or volunteering - all while planning a semester abroad, their sorority's next mixer and bringing a speaker in, of course.

I've had more than one student tell me that they schedule their sleep as much as they do their activities, to ensure that they actually get some once in a while.

Their teachers tell me that busyness has basically become social currency - the most overworked and overscheduled students are the ones who are seen as succeeding, even as they're miserable.

It sounds just terrible, but the truth is that I recognise that strange sense of pride - I see it in myself sometimes when making small talk.

How am I? Oh, I'm great, but wow, am I ever busy! It's an insecure tic, I think, for a lot of people - if you're busy, if you're overworked, it must mean that you're important somehow.

But how sad is it that the cultural signal for success or "doing it right" is demonstrating "overwhelm"? It's as if admitting you have a reasonable work-life balance or time to spare makes you a slacker.

I long for a time when our happiness trumps "success" at all cost. Until then, I've got plenty to do.

After all, it's the holiday season.

THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 06, 2015, with the headline 'When busyness is the key social currency, lives become poorer'. Print Edition | Subscribe