It was humbling to realize how complex the issues were. There was no case of any Occam's Razor solution to anything. Add to all that a more fundamental question of "what for?"
A standard joke laid all these out. A World Bank consultant (my adviser was one of them, yes) goes to Bangladesh to suggest strategies, and goes to a village where he finds a twenty-something able-bodied man doing nothing but lying under a tree by the water.
"Why don't you work?" the expert asks him.
"I am happy with this. Why should I work?"
"You can start your own business and earn money."
"Ok, let us say I do that. What will I do with that money?"
"You can send your children to good schools and college, and they will help expand your business."
"Ok, say I did that. Then what?"
"You can earn and save a lot of money."
"But, what will I do with the money?"
"You can retire and spend your time simply watching the day go by."
"But, that is exactly what I am doing now" says the villager.
Of course, it is more than a joke. It is a whole bunch of existential questions. Why do we do what we do? What is it that we want? What is happiness? Are poor people happy? Is it ok not to do anything?
In the modern world, we have made a culture of doing something. In fact, we have even created a world of our own of doing more than one thing at one time and we prize that multitasking (I am miserable even at one task a time!)
But, why not do nothing? Why not get bored?
Yes, this is a topic that fascinates me. When my neighbors joke that I don't seem to work for a living, I am always tempted to engage them in this kind of a serious discussion. But, thankfully, I know to recognize small talk when I hear one! Thus, I blog (previous posts on boredom: here and here) and this post is the latest in the series, triggered by this article:
What if you answered the question “What do you do all day?” with “Nothing”? It isn’t as if that could possibly be true. If you spent all day in bed watching television, or staring at the clouds, you wouldn’t be doing nothing. Children are always being told to stop doing “nothing” when they’re reading or daydreaming. It is lifelong training for the idea that activity is considered essential to mental health, whether it is meaningful or not. Behind the “nothing” is in part a terror of boredom, as if most of the work most people do for most of their lives isn’t boring.It is bizarre that people would rather report to work that they will openly admit to something they hate, while turning around to make negative comments about people who prefer not to do that and instead do nothing. They drive to work with bumper stickers along the lines of "I would rather be fishing" when they could, instead, like the Bangladeshi fisherman, spend all day and life by the waters.
We do not like to live like that Bangladeshi because we like to have iPhones, watch ballgames, or travel. We, therefore, engage in Faustian Bargains of our own: we are willing to put up with wasting away our lives doing things we really do not want to do, and cursing our daily lives, all because we can earn a few dollars in order to spend on things that we think will bring us happiness?
There is an argument to be made against the prototypical life of hard work as the inevitable lot of humanity. In 1974 the Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published Stone Age Economics. He proposed the idea that individuals in many “simple” societies, far from working themselves to death merely to exist in their nasty, brutish and short lives, were actually members of the “original affluent society”. He suggested that, in those parts of the world where co-operation and social exchange were paramount, once people had done the few days’ hard work of felling a tree and carving out a canoe, there were large amounts of free time to lie about daydreaming, exploring, telling stories: doing “culture” or just skiving. You’d fish in the canoe you’d made, and by preserving and sharing the catch with others, who also shared theirs with you, you could then take a few days off before you needed to get any more. Decent members of those communities did what they needed to do and then when they didn’t need to do it, they stopped.What a bizarre existence that we have designed for ourselves!
Only when you worship the idea of accumulation and status based on its perceived wealth-giving properties do you have to work hard all the time. Accumulation was hampering; you had to carry it about with you when you moved from camp to camp, or find ways of storing and securing it if you were sedentary. Without the idea of surplus as a value beyond its use value, when you needed/wanted something you got it, and when you had it, you enjoyed it until it was time to get some more.
Leisure, not doing, is so terrifying in our culture that we cut it up into small, manageable chunks throughout our working year in case an excess of it will drive us mad, and leave the greatest amount of it to the very end, in the half-conscious hope that we might be saved from its horrors by an early death.This weekend, ask yourself this question: what do you really want in life before that death happens? Surely it is not the latest iPhone, is it? Your wish is not to watch the latest movie, right? So, what exactly are you so busily spinning the wheels for? Sit down for a while. Figure it out. You will reward yourself with a rich rest of your life, even if that only means doing nothing at all.