Are Modern People the Most Exhausted in History?

People often complain about being tired and burnt out these days from work and family responsibilities. We think it’s because of the way technology has sped up the pace of life, and the way we’re always “on,” and figure we’re living in the most exhausting age in history. But are we really?

My guest today argues that, no, people have been complaining about being tired since at least antiquity. Her name is Anna Schaffner and she’s written a book called Exhaustion: A History, which traces the fascinating evolution of physical, psychological, and existential fatigue from the ancient Greeks to the modern day. Today she takes us on this tour, and as we move from age to age, we dig into how exhaustion has changed as to how its described, whether we blame external or internal factors as its source, and how much we believe personal agency can control it.

Show Highlights

  • How exhaustion has been complained about since antiquity
  • How did ancient Greeks view exhaustion?
  • The way Christianity reframed exhaustion as sinful
  • Exhaustion in Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Changing perceptions of exhaustion in the Renaissance
  • Why neurasthenia became a desirable “disease”
  • Various efforts at cures for exhaustion — from electrotherapy to potions
  • The gender politics of exhaustion and neurasthenia, and how it’s changed over time
  • Freud’s approach to exhaustion and depleted energy stores
  • What is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome? What causes it?
  • Balancing the physiological vs psychological nature of exhaustion
  • Burnout — the latest exhaustion “syndrome”
  • The 3 components of burnout
  • Exhaustion as a status symbol today
  • Modern treatments for exhaustion (and how unchanged they are from ancient times)
  • What’s the big takeaway from this history of exhaustion?