Researchers May Have Discovered the 'Lazy' Gene, But Just What Does 'Lazy' Mean Anyway?

Illustration for article titled Researchers May Have Discovered the Lazy Gene, But Just What Does Lazy Mean Anyway?

I've been thinking a lot about laziness lately. It's all in a self-serving way, sure—why do I fall into such pits of paralysis at the most inconvenient times? Why do I put off literally everything to the last minute, including things I genuinely enjoy doing? Why did I let my mother come over and do my dishes for me yesterday even though I am 31 goddamn years old? (I LOVE YOU, MOM.) Am I really just a fundamentally lazy person? On the one hand, maybe. But on the other hand—and here's what my brain's been fizzing about lately—I frequently work 60+ hours in a week. I'll pull exuberant, obsessive all-nighters to get every one of my Jurassic Park jokes exactly night. I spent the weekend gleefully ripping out brambles and weedwhacking the brush encroaching on my mom's long forest driveway (my blackberry scars are badass). Are those things that a lazy person does? I'm not sure.


So I suppose I'm interested—both academically and selfishly—in how we define laziness. Researchers at the University of Missouri say they've succeeded in breeding "laziness" out of lab rats. Their measure of laziness is how long different populations of rats will voluntarily run on a wheel.

Via the Atlantic:

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the University of Missouri took lab rats that spent the most time voluntarily running, and bred them with other highly active rats. They then did the same for the least active rodents. Eight generations later, they analyzed the behavior and physiology of the original rats' great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren.

RESULTS: The rats had subtle differences in body composition and in the levels of mitochondria in their muscle cells. But those bred to be lazy chose to spend significantly less time on the wheel, ran shorter distances, and were generally slower. By the tenth generation, the active mice were running ten times as much as the lazy ones. And after six days of that, they had lost considerable body fat, while the others neither gained nor lost weight. The researchers narrowed down the discrepancy in motivation to 36 genes that appeared to be responsible.


So, how do we know that this is a "laziness" gene and not a "compulsive running" gene? And would selectively breeding (eeeek!) a compulsive running gene in humans actually be a healthful thing for us? Or how do we know it's not just an anxiety/boredom gene? It's not like rats get to have hobbies other than running on a stupid wheel. What if running on a wheel is the only outlet for them to exorcise that boredom?

Why do we use running as the go-to metric for laziness?

I'd say it's an inherently American standard. A man can work 80 hours in a week and be the most productive employee in his company's history, but if he doesn't go jogging in his free time we call him lazy. We send our collective side-eye across the sea at Greece, Spain, France, Italy, because of their "lazy" five-week holidays and state-sanctioned naptime. As though that isn't thinly veiled jealousy. As though it wouldn't be patently better for us to achieve a more sustainable work-life balance over here.

Essentially, we use "lazy" as a condescending catch-all to reproach people for not prioritizing the things we think they should prioritize.

I watch Hoarders sometimes (I know, I'm sorry). And I keep thinking about something that one of the therapists said once, when her patient was expressing shame and self-loathing about her supposed "laziness." There's a common misconception, the therapist explained, that people who hoard are lazy. They just don't feel like cleaning. They don't feel like throwing things away and dealing with the realities of life. But, in fact, maintaining a hoard and living inside a hoard takes a tremendous amount of effort, 24/7. Climbing over things. Finding a place to sleep. Constantly innovating new ways to eat and bathe and use the bathroom. Feeding your 1000 ferrets, if you are the animal-hoarding type. Covering up the hoard from friends and family and neighbors and authorities and (sometimes) self. Worrying. This isn't laziness, if you really look at it—it's anxious, high-energy, hyper-awareness every moment of every day. It is tireless, back-breaking work.


We want to think of laziness as a black-and-white issue—something we can use to feel superior and bolster our own insecurities. "Well, at least I'm not lazy, and I can prove it. I did my taxes in March and I never miss a Zumba." But, of course, it's not so simple.

If, someday down the road, a scientist offered to "turn off" my "laziness gene" and turn me into a compulsive runner on a rat-wheel, I don't think I'd do it. Even though I've been trying to figure out the best way to motivate myself to run for my entire life (being on a diet for decades, by the way, is also the opposite of lazy, whether you succeed in losing weight or not). Because what about all of the other priorities in my life? Do I want to just run for 10 hours a day in order to escape some American construction of laziness? Nope. I'd rather do what I do now—work hard, spend time with people I love, exercise because it feels good, do my dishes (sometimes). Maybe that makes me lazy, but it also makes me happy. I'm going to stick with happy.


Image byLeah-Anne Thompson/Shutterstock.

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Researchers at the University of Missouri say they've succeeded in breeding "laziness" out of lab rats.

Don't misunderstand me, an investigation of the way we conceptualize laziness is a very interesting and worthwhile discussion, but on a much more urgent and basic level, I am not at all okay with breeding personality traits or personal proclivities or whatever-the-hell-we-finally-decide-to-call-it out of animals/people as a research topic or goal.