We can all agree that time is our most valuable resource, miles ahead of money, love, power, even bacon. Day to day, we struggle to cram it all in, we take on enough commitments to push us just beyond our capacity. This is why it is so hard to be punctual: our internal secretary is optimistic.
In a larger sense, life is short, and among the most unsettling aspects of getting older is that as each moment passes, each moment represents a smaller fraction of our memorable lives, so that time passes more quickly as we age. A twelve year old’s summer is a sizable chunk of her life and seems to go on forever; the 42 year old feels on labor day that she just finished clearing the driveway of snow.
If time is precious, we benefit from a longer life, so it makes sense to do things like eat well and exercise. But all time is not equally valuable, in fact, time is only valuable insofar as we are happy during that time. We only want to maximize our number of happy minutes, so what to do if you hate eating well and exercising? It makes no sense to take steps to prolong your life if those steps diminish your happiness.
Further complicating the issue is the unfortunate tendency of happiness to actually destroy time. The happier we are during any given minute, the quicker that minute passes. What good is a lifetime of bliss that goes by so quickly we don’t notice it? Not much better than a lifetime of misery that never ends. We therefore want not only as many minutes as possible, but happy minutes, and not only happy minutes, but happy, slow minutes.
Most of us feel happiest when we’re busy, but busy doesn’t just use up time, it also destroys time in the way that happy destroys time. This is getting confusing.
One way we try to increase our enjoyment of any given minute is to consume cultural media. Music, books, magazines, newspapers, television, cinema, theater, the visual arts, and then the internet, which intersects and expands on all of these in all sorts of ways. We benefit from living in a time and place where we have access to an infinite reservoir of media that we would enjoy consuming, and our challenge, given the few minutes we have in the day and on earth, is to consume the media that makes for the (slowest) happiest minutes. Luckily, humanity has generated so much fantastic cultural media that it would take a lifetime just to consume the classics, and what a life that would be.
But we tend not to consume the classics. We buy and download the latest bestsellers, trendiest bands, blockbuster movies, and news of the day. This is illogical. Why would we spend our precious minutes consuming a new release when we could benefit from the sieve of time and generations of judgment to select for us the best media and consume that? Why is this week’s New Yorker so much more appealing than last week’s? Our consumption instincts encourage us to gulp down the fire hose of hot off the press, when we could be leisurely sipping from the media that has, through its demonstrated excellence, made its way downstream. The issue is not only that new doesn’t deserve the high status we are conditioned to give it; trying to drink from a fire hose is really busy, and busy destroys time. Furthermore, the current current widens as you try to swim in it–keeping up with one blog leads to two, newsfeeds lead to more newsfeeds–it’s not only never-ending, it’s viral. And exhausting. This is why so many report that they are much happier now that they’ve unplugged the internet from their homes.
During our unhappy minutes, we feel guilty for being unhappy, as we rich inhabitants of rich nations have nothing to complain about. We bathe ourselves in perspective checks when we’re down, and don’t hesitate to splash some on our complaining friends. Your boss won’t give you another week of vacation? That’s terrible. Have a look at this kid, his parents and siblings were just slaughtered before his eyes. And he has HIV.
Nobody would choose to wish for food, shelter and safety rather than an extra week’s vacation. But the assumption underlying perspective checks is that people wishing for food, shelter and safety are worse off than people wishing for another week’s vacation. It is certainly true that people who struggle to satisfy their basic needs try to move to a “better” station in life, but what if their instincts mislead them? Every station has its struggles, the question is whose happiness is more abridged by his struggles. Who is more unhappy: the cold, hungry homeless man or the lonely, directionless college grad?
I suspect that the higher we rise on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the more deeply our happiness is abridged by our struggles. Like all of you, I was born near the top of the hierarchy, so this conclusion seems convenient and self-serving. But my job not only puts me in contact with people from all over the hierarchy, but mandates that I assess their problems and their response to their problems. My conclusion is that though there are lots of unhappy homeless people, to reach the most horrible depths of misery, you have to be liberated from the need to find a place to sleep.
No doubt, however, that every cold, hungry homeless man would trade places with the lonely, directionless college grad and none of the college grads would prefer to walk in the homeless man’s shoes (if he has shoes). Perhaps it’s somehow better to be unhappy, higher on the hierarchy of needs than happy and lower on the hierarchy. Is it better to be an unhappy human or a happy pig? Maybe happier isn’t better after all. This is getting confusing.
1. Every once in a while, sit and do nothing for a few hours. Stare and think. Or don’t even do that.
2. Stop trying to keep up with the latest of everything. Take a vacation from blogs and news–they’re not going anywhere. Don’t consume the newest stuff, consume the best stuff.
3. Keep perspective checks in perspective. You might be worse off than it seems.
4. Find religion. None of the above applies to the lucky ones who can fool themselves into believing in some sort of cosmic karma, afterlife, or reincarnation. For the rest of us, the prospect of dying is unsettling. Consider, however, the prospect of never dying. It’s a horrifying thought. Why get out of bed if today is just one in an eternal series of days? Life derives its value from its finiteness. Take comfort in your mortality.