Conspicuous Busyness

During my visit to a library in my neighbourhood, I usually see two contrasting groups. One is a group of retired men mostly in their 60’s and 70’s and other is a group of college students. The contrast is not in the age but the life in the togetherness of these people. The retired men’s group is lively, people are chatting and arguing, cracking jokes at each other. The student’s group on the other hand was too silent with sporadic comments like ‘Hey check what I have just shared’. The student’s group was hanging out in the virtual world in texts and memes.

We always seek joy, we will always find ways to remain happy but we give more weightage to frivolous joy than momentous ones. Short term goals or immediate gratification gives joy because of the reward cycle of our brain; we are trained to get satisfaction by being busy and believe we can get great output just by rote activity, just a vestige of industrial revolution practices.

I read this story somewhere sometime ago — A poet who has not produced much in the recent times took a boat and rowed to the middle of a lake. He thought the distance from the people and quiet atmosphere will lead him to good train of thoughts. It was nightfall so he lit a candle, pulled out his notebook to write but no thoughts occurred to him. He was flipping between his old poems for inspiration and also closed his eyes tyring too hard to concentrate. Hours went by and nothing happened, he thought reading some book will help him and started to read, but it got windy and he had a hard time to keep the candle from getting out. After several minutes of struggle to keep the candle burning, he gave up in frustration and the wind blew the candle out.

moon-165487_640Until the candle was burning bright, he was missing a beautiful sight of the full moon which gracefully illuminated the entire lake, the valley and the surrounding hills. That whole evening he had been waiting for an inspiration to write and it was just lying in front of him. The wind by blowing out the candle, did the trick; the sight in front of him was so spectacular that it inspired the poet to produce one of his greatest works.

 ‘I am not producing anything creative, so why ask me not to browse and consume information always? I enjoy this more than our conversations’ — This is a common retort when you remind people to be present in a situation and not fiddling with their gadgets. It is gadget to be very specific as books are not very destructively distracting, books cannot cater to a short attention span and can not provide on demand entertainment.

A study was done on rats for addictive behaviour, a lever was provided in a cage which provided a dose of cocaine when pulled. On discovering this, the rats kept pulling the lever for more and more doses of cocaine until it killed them. Our neural pathways for reward is not very different from that of rats, we would soon get hooked on to joyful behaviour even though it will cause us harm in the long run. The only way to get away from this is to consciously avoid the ‘pull to refresh’ hooks in the gadgets and set some quality time for leisure. Fortunately delayed gratification is an acquired skill, there are enough studies like ‘The standford marshmallow’ experiment suggest that people disciplined enough are way more successful.

Leisure is one of the best rewards, it is very hard earned and should be spent wisely. There was once a time when people predicted that the world will be with so many machines that people can accomplish their work within few hours of work everyday and pursue their hobbies; fast forward to the digital revolution, the work and leisure no longer has boundaries, in fact there are no boundaries and distances at all.

If socializing & leisure is forgotten due to blurred boundaries then the only reward we have is to keep ourselves busy. We reach out to our pockets to consume information to gratify the need to have a sense of usefulness. That leads us nowhere, it is just being busy for the sake of busyness, some sense of self worth.

It is okay to say that we have free time, of all the years I spent when I look back; the only thing in memories are those mindless chats, sports, games, hobbies etc. None of the memories like going through social feeds for hours together is so memorable, those seem like a blip when looking back compared to the memorable ones however small in duration they were, seems very vivid. By being deliberately busy we are just passing time, not living.