I don’t think that people need to be productive in order be happy


The general consensus re: my post about the Cracked.com article seems to be that you should love yourself and everything, but you should also whip your ass into shape and go out and try hard to, like, do things and make things and produce things and become good at things. That was pretty much what Captain Awkward wrote in a response (in which she referenced the Cracked article) to a question last Thursday from a respondent who lived with her mother and wasn’t really going anywhere in life.

But I disagree. Even if you’re miserable in your current situation, I don’t necessarily think that the solution is to work hard and do things. I feel like I have a lot of friends who are miserable in their high-powered, high status jobs and who are currently looking for other high-powered, high-status jobs in which they will not be miserable. For many of them, that’s probably the right solution. But not for all of them! I think that some percentage of people would benefit from doing less stuff or, perhaps, from discarding our pretensions at doing stuff.

When we think about doing what makes us happy, I think it’s important to differentiate between the stuff that actually makes us happy when we do it and the stuff that only makes us happy when we think about doing it. This seems to be particularly the case in non-profit work. Thinking about doing it and thinking about helping people feel really great. But the reality of it seems to be kind of terrible: long hours, little pay, inefficient management structure, limited effectiveness, and rote, menial work.

When non-profit workers get to the end of each day and think about what they’ve done, they probably experience a flash of pleasure: they haven’t sold out; they’re fighting the good fight. But that flash of pleasure might be the only joy that they received from their work that day. And, to me, that’s foolishness. People shouldn’t aim for some kind of bitter, Stoic satisfaction from life. They should aim to enjoy each hour, minute, and second of it.

Choosing a low-status job means that you’ll probably experience flashes of agony whenever you think about your situation in life: you’ll see your more successful peers and wonder what the hell is wrong with you. But that flash of agony is only going to disrupt your life maybe 5% of the time (err…also…it’s worth noting that more-successful people experience these same flashes of agony). But if you enjoy the texture of the rest of the day…if you enjoy not being stressed out…if you enjoy being able to come home and not think about work…if you enjoy being able to spend time with your friends and watch your favorite TV shows and play video games and smoke all the pot you want…well…then maybe that’s a good deal for you. Because, honestly, I know some people who don’t work nearly as hard as they could and aren’t nearly as successful as their intelligence would seem to indicate that they should be…and they seem pretty happy. I mean, they could be faking it, but I think that plenty of them aren’t. And I think that a lot of people who work really hard and appear to be happy are faking it (because happiness is just another kind of status competition).

My favorite advice columnist is Cary Tennis. And I loved this one column where he explained that being a slacker is kind of a countercultural choice. I agree entirely. Slackers disregard societal notions of value in favor of their own. I think that’s cool. This prevailing notion that you need to work as hard as you can on everything is…well…it’s kind of a slave mentality. Actually, it’s not even that, because I bet slaves thought their work was bullshit. It’s…it’s…enslaving yourself.

A lot of people try to excuse slackerdom (often using me as an example) by saying: “Oh, you know, Rahul…you haven’t progressed very far in the working world, but that’s okay, because you’re an artist and you work hard at that.” But, umm…guys…I know exactly how hard I work at being an artist. I write for an average of 101 minutes per day. That’s an hour and forty minutes. And I read for average of 1.92 hours per day (though that’s probably an overestimate). That’s like three and a half hours of writing-related work every day. I could easily work twice that hard.

But it would mean giving up all the other things that I enjoy. I like to go on aimless drives and take walks (an average of 4 miles a day). I like to trawl Facebook and Twitter–I find a lot of value in forming these micro-connections with a thousand people. I like to watch TV (an average of 53 minutes a day–though that’s probably an underestimate) and I like to hang out with my peoples at least every other day. I know plenty of people who hang out with their peoples like…once a week. To me, that’s barbarous. Life is not worth living unless you’re seeing your peoples on a regular basis.

I know what I care about, because I do it every day. And I think the same is true for most people: every day you decide what’s important to you.

Most people live their lives under the sway of a weird double-think: insofar as they’re able, they do what they actually want to do, but they say they want to do the things that society wants them to value. They spend their days working as little as possible and having fun, but they say they want to spend all their time on “rewarding work.” I wonder if this is not the case with the person who wrote to Captain Awkward.

It’s a bit sick, actually. Our society is this self-perpetuating machine: it rewards people who seek out public acclaim and it scorns the people who give out that acclaim; it rewards those are followed on Twitter and scorns those who do the following; it rewards people who make content and scorns people who consume content; it rewards people who respond well to being rewarded–people who really want money and applause–and it scorns people who show a disregard for society’s rewards mechanisms–people who show less concern for money and applause; basically, it rewards people who perform the higher-level idea-work that’s necessary to hold together our economic machine–the people who throw their full brainpower into the service of Mammon.

And that even extends to our conception of what leisure activities are praiseworthy. Leisure activities that resemble work are more praiseworthy than ones that resemble play. It’s why writing original fiction–a potentially salable object–is considered more praiseworthy than writing fanfiction, or why being a regular blogger is more praiseworthy than being a faithful diarist. It’s why reading books (which high-status laborers have to do as part of their work) is more praiseworthy than watching audiovisual entertainment (which very few workers are required to do). And it’s why hanging out with your peoples is the least praiseworthy activity of all, because it constitutes such a rejection of economic paradigms. There are so many ways to combine hanging out with your peoples with some kind of labor (volunteer work, writing circles, playing sports) that there’s no good way to spin just hanging out with your peoples without an underlying activity to justify it.

So, yeah, when people say to me, “Oh, pursuing status is bad, but people should do something purposeful with their life, like writing, instead of just watching TV all the time” what I hear is “Oh, pursuing status is bad, but what people should do is…pursue status.”

No. What people should do is what they enjoy doing. You probably know what it is that you enjoy. You enjoy working with your hands or playing video games or hanging with your peoples or whatever. In fact, you’re probably already doing it. You should keep doing it.* And if you keep telling yourself that you really want to do something, but you can’t work up the motivation to actually do it…well…maybe you don’t actually want to do it–maybe you just want the status you’d get from having done it.

Of course, you probably don’t enjoy working. But, in that case, you should look for a job where the thing you will be doing–the actual activity that will take up most of your day–closely resembles something that you do enjoy doing. In my case, my job involves bloviating for an hour to a captive audience (teaching). And it very closely resembles what I enjoy doing. (And my World Bank job also involved a lot of word-manipulation that I found to be a not terrible way to pass the time.)

Now at this point, you might be saying, “But…Rahul. You write original fiction. You spend a lot of time on it. You work pretty hard on it. Aren’t you being disingenuous when you say that it’s not a better use of a person’s time than playing Xbox?”

No, I am not. And that’s for one simple reason.

I am the enemy.

I care deeply about status. I wish I didn’t, but I do. I’m learning to care less and less, but I still care about it much more than, I think, most people do. I’ve always really wanted to be well-known and famous. And for that reason, I’ve always pursued high-status activities. I made this pretty clear when the Baltimore Sun interviewed me:

Q: Why write? What makes writing a book worthwhile?

A: When I was in grade school, authority figures praised my writing. That made me think that writing would be a good way to win the favor of other authorities: handsome strangers, intelligent people on the internet, my professors and anyone else who wasn’t yet sufficiently impressed with me. As I got better at it, writing also became more fun. Now it’s the most fun thing in my life and also the thing that I am best at. And I’ve impressed a few more people, but I suppose it hasn’t been as many people as I’d hoped for.

Writing is really fun and I do enjoy it, but there was a long period when it was not fun. And even today, there are many days when I’d rather not write. I do it because I want the status. I know the status won’t make me significantly happier than I am, but I still really want it. Since my status-winning activity has also resulted in a fairly happy day-to-day life, I think I’ve lucked out. However, If I knew that writing wasn’t going to win me that status, I’d probably switch over to writing fanfiction: it seems easier, more fun, and more rewarding.

*Sometimes the thing you enjoy doing is sacrificing future happiness in favor of present-day happiness, as in the case of when I was drinking all day. That is not good. However, mostly when people present this scenario, what they’re really describing is an activity (slacking off and being lazy) that sacrifices future status in favor of present happiness. I don’t accept that paradigm. In fact, it’s much healthier than what most people do. Honestly, I love you, all my law student and med student friends, but I am absolutely horrified by the way you’re willing to accept 3-12 years of misery in return for an uncertain future job where you’ll make money and have status.

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  1. Anonymous

    Amen. I think that this is the thing I most agree with which I have ever read on a blog. My only caveats (I have two) are that 1) it takes a certain amount of effort to weed out not only those activities one imagines one enjoys due to their status effects but which one does not actually enjoy, but also those activities one imagines one enjoys due to those activities being economically advantageous to the capitalist system and which one has been tricked into overrating due to very deep and often difficult to pinpoint methods of persuasion; and that 2) at some point morality also enters into the equation: just as we might want to judge an ibanker for not contributing to the well-being of the less-fortunate, we might want to apply that same judgement to someone who literally does nothing but get high and play videogames all day.

    Great post!

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      That’s true. This stuff is not at all clear and we do get tricked into going against our instincts. I mean, there were times when I watched TV all day, and didn’t particularly enjoy it. Also, yes, morality definitely plays a part, both on a personal and a societal level. You, as a person, might decide that helping people is more important than doing some other activity that you might enjoy more. And we, as a society, _should_ judge people, to some extent, by what they contribute.

      Glad you enjoyed the post!

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