When you take a working dog, say a border collie, and place it into a life of luxurious leisure, you get a very neurotic canine. A life of cuddles on the couch, cozy shelter from harsh weather, and guaranteed meal times doesn’t lead to the mental stability you might expect. Instead, you get a restless, anxious, and apathetic dog whose genetically-ingrained desire is never fulfilled — the desire to work.
Humans are much like domesticated animals. Only we’ve domesticated ourselves. Divorced from the harsh outdoors, we’ve convinced ourselves that round-the-clock comfort is what we need, and it’s our human right to get it. Unlike my border collie, we do have to work to pay the bills of comfort, though most do so with the hope that one day they’ll be able to retire, forever, into a life of leisure.
Our brain is wired to seek leisure. Probably because when we decide to #netflixandchill, our survival is not at stake. The brain equates leisure to a higher likelihood of survival. But does a life of leisure lead to the happiness and life satisfaction our brain suggests?
The Desire for Leisure
A study in 1989 found that our desire to seek leisure persists even in the face of apathy and boredom. In the study, participants were given a pager that went off every couple of hours throughout their day for a week. Each time it went off they had to comment on what they were doing, how they felt, and what they would rather be doing.
High challenge and high skill activities elicited the most positive experiences, and these mostly occurred during work. Low challenge and low skill activities elicited feelings of apathy and boredom, and these mostly occurred during leisure.
Despite this, participants had a strong bias toward seeking leisure at all times. When asked what they would rather be doing when in leisure or at work, they unanimously reported: “more leisure please”.
This dissonance between what we think we want, and how we feel when we get it, is a key characteristic of the human condition. What we desire is rarely what is good for us.
In this case, our dreams of retiring and lying on a beach are more likely to result in apathy and boredom than pleasant relaxation. But our brains tell us otherwise.
I like drinking cocktails in my hammock all day as much as the next person, but the research suggests this lifestyle won’t satisfy me. So what will?
The flow state, termed by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is the total absorption in an activity. The present moment is all that exists. There is no mental chatter. Time is distorted. You lose awareness of your physical needs. You feel a steady trickle of reward as the complexity of the task is perfectly matched with your ability.
Mihaly first observed this in surgeons, musicians, rock climbers, and chess players, but went on to find almost any profession could experience it. Those who experience flow report higher levels of overall well-being, both in the moment and retrospectively.
Achieving flow requires the perfect match of challenge to skillset. Too much challenge and we suffer anxiety. Too little challenge and we suffer boredom and apathy.
Flow can occur both in work and leisure, but increasingly we fill our leisure time with activities of low challenge and low skill. We reason with ourselves that we’re too tired to do anything demanding, and decide an evening on the couch is in order. But choosing leisure activities that challenge us could lead to a dramatic shift in our consciousness.
Take up a challenging new hobby like rock climbing, playing guitar, pottery making, or woodwork in place of vegging out on the couch, and see how you feel afterward. You might find the apathy and listlessness after a boring day’s work isn’t a sign of tiredness — it’s a sign your brain isn’t being challenged enough.
If your work doesn’t challenge you, find ways to challenge yourself. Set targets, like how quickly you can get a piece of boring paperwork done. Seek new challenges; ask your boss to start a new project, or a create your own eBay store and sell something you’re passionate about. You can find challenges everywhere, the hardest part is convincing your brain to take them. So ask yourself — do you want to live a passive life of inertia, or a thrilling life of action?
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times. The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Articles telling us “how to retire at 30” appeal to our inherent bias toward leisure. But retirees don’t always report a glamorous experience. Many suffer a “post-retirement void” — an apathy arising from the sudden loss of meaning and purpose in their lives. Should we really be aiming for this earlier than we have to?
When I retire, which hopefully won’t be until I’m at least 100, I don’t plan on doing anything different. I’ll continue to seek those flow-inducing challenges that match my skill set, whether that be writing a book, or seeing how quickly I can whip up a jug of margaritas.