if you want to save the world, relax, and start daydreaming
“Nothing, nothing, nothing makes me happy! Nothing gives me nothing but joy!” sang Calvin Fischoeder, the shady and not exactly loveable slumlord of Bob’s Burgers while extolling the virtues of relaxation to the titular Bob Belcher, a workaholic desperately rebelling against his own family’s attempts to get him to take just one day off after a burnout episode. Now, in the context of the show, Fischoeder is a spoiled rich ne’er do well who goes on to list “paying off arsonists, showering, and shaving” as personal pet peeves, but according to many years of study and worldwide mini rebellions against work for the sake of work, he may well be on to something after all. Doing nothing could be extremely beneficial.
Of course, this borders on heresy in our work-sleep-repeat culture, of which I am certainly a flawed example. Centuries ago, the powers that be in England and U.S. decreed that poverty must be a moral failure and work, no matter how trivial, is the only measure of our worth as humans. It’s an attitude that not only makes us miserable and created useless busywork jobs contributing to a global mental health crisis, but enabled a stealth machine takeover of the world. We toil because algorithms tell us to toil, algorithms often written by people like me, told what should be considered valuable and how all the metrics should always point to more work for an often-flimsy justification for a bigger number to be tacked on an asset.
Meanwhile, we’ve been exposed to countless hours of programming that promotes runaway materialism, makes us less empathetic, and serves to convince us that happiness is being able to buy whatever we want to “keep up with the Joneses” in a sort of consumerist arms race. It boosts sales of cheap, shoddily made crap from faraway sweatshops — mostly because wages across the industrialized world have been stagnant or hobbled and that’s all many can afford for materialistic wish fulfillment — but tends to backfire over the long term according to study after study. We end up feeling worse and stuck in a rat race while far too many CEOs and their underlings demand that we’re chained to the office, even during a pandemic.
when wanting less means doing more
Knowing full well that we need to escape this soul-sucking cycle of suck — to borrow another quote from Bob’s Burgers — movements across China, Japan, Brazil, and the U.S. are urging the industrialized world to work less, rest more, allow far more time for idleness, as well as learn how to want a lot less stuff. Now, to the Grand Priesthood of Hustle Culture this may sound utterly blasphemous, lazy work refuseniks daring to deprive their corporate overlords of the labor demanded of them to lead lives of leisure and uselessness, but nothing could be farther from the truth. In fact, science agrees with advocates of lifestyle minimalism, and numerous studies show that taking their advice will make us happier and more productive.
First and foremost, if more money means more problems and materialistic arms races just leave us depressed after a short boost of dopamine, what will make us happy? According to scientists the answer is experiences. Stuff is stuff. It wears down or you get bored with it and discard it to usually decay in a landfill, but experiences are forever. Sure, you can get a new couch just to get something that looks better, or you could spend a day climbing a pyramid and learning to make tortillas from scratch and drinking beer with a former cosmologist in the heart of Mexico City. In a few months you won’t care about the couch. You’ll be talking about the pyramid and learning how to make and pick out good tortillas for years.
Secondly, by investing in experiences and relaxation time, your brain actually becomes far more creative. With your routine broken, it’s free to make connections and ask questions it would’ve never come across. Giving us new sensory input and time to let ideas properly mature is what leads to out of the box thinking, which is why efforts by major corporations to crowd everyone in open and cheaper offices to “encourage innovation” have been a complete failure. They just crammed employees in a single space, overtaxed them with busy work, then told them to also invent something new because something-something “casual interactions lead to creativity.” If they really wanted bold new thinking, they’d set their employees loose on the world.
why we have our entire lives backwards
Looking at what research says makes us happy and productive, then comparing what our lives are really like as well as the toll they take on our environment, it’s hard to escape the idea that we should be doing the exact opposite of everything we’re doing today. Less stuff, less time at work, more daydreaming, more parks and greenery, more efficient and mixed-used districts in cities with more public transport, less consumerism, more travel, and more automation to be done with the factory model of work and life once and for all. As the pandemic made woefully clear, our current leaders in government and business think of us as disposable units of labor, not as people, so we’re not treated as people while trying to make the best of the end result.
But there’s an argument to be made that treating us as humans and giving us the leeway to try new things, come up with new ideas and let them marinate, and pursue creative and scientific quests at our leisure would actually generate trillions more in wealth than just keeping us just a notch or two away from outright rebellion. Just think of how many new useful ideas we could see emerging, how many more businesses would be created, and how much less waste we’d be generating because we no longer feel like we need to buy useless crap we that we’d just end up hating anyway. This is by no means an exaltation to live like ascetic monks or Greek cynics, but to focus on experiences and mental self-fulfillment instead of material highs.
Yes, we’ll want for less and need fewer factories and things, but that’s actually a net positive because current overproduction is literally killing the world we find habitable, and us with it. And there certainly are complex and nuanced discussions that need to be had around who can and can’t afford minimalism, and how to travel the world responsibly with light impacts on the sites we’ll clamor to visit. But if the rewards are a cleaner world, more livable cities, and more self-actualized people who feel as if their lives have more meaning and agency, spending a lot less time on social media arguing with angry strangers or listening to parasitic grifters, coming up with new inventions and creative projects, the challenges are well worth the payoff.