What inhibits our ability to enjoy our time on this Earth? A few ideas.
Our genes are anachronisms
I think we have many sets of manipulative forces that conspire against our capacity to get the best out of our daily experiences. The first I will mention is our genetically inbuilt hunter-gatherer instinct. It is also the instinct of nearly all members of the animal kingdom, except cats, which don’t care too much about anything.
We evolved in cruel and challenging environments, where constant work was needed for survival. Those who were not constantly aware of both life-saving opportunities and death-giving threats would have had their genes eliminated, through death or failure to procreate. After killing a mammoth and eating its flesh, it didn’t make much sense for hunter-gatherer people to then just put their feet up and enjoy the rest of their day in gratitude and relaxation. Then they had to move immediately on to the next vital matter, water, clothes-making, weapons-craft, children-rearing, children-making etc. What do you do after you’ve just finished a lengthy jog? Lay back and bask in the satisfaction of your effort? Or something like look at your phone, prepare food, or make the next plans? I’ve evolved into someone who is afraid of silence, constantly seeking the companionship of podcasters, talkshow hosts and Youtubers. I can never truly relax, am never truly satisfied. Some of my friends call me King Arthur because I’m always seeking to pull the sword out of the stone.
In this first-world society, we have practically everything we need, but our bodies and minds don’t process that and our genetic wanting-bug translates to an inclination to do more mundane, boring pursuits.
We have this modification (perhaps some strange manifestation of the aforementioned biological instinct) whereby we see the present not as a thing in itself, but something leading up to something else, something surely better. Our present instincts are anything but this, please! The future has GOT to be better than this!
Every institution in our society teaches you that life is the future, work hard at school, go to a good university, get a really good job, so that one day you can find yourself in a top platform, we could imagine of a tree. The higher you are in its branches, the better the quality of life.
Life is full of transitional phases, and there is no end goal until the end, which isn’t a goal at all, just the end. Nursery, school, university, bad job to good job, bad house to good house, single to in a relationship, no kids to kids. We are not taught that the lower rungs of the ladder, the entry phases can be every bit as good as the final ones, if not even better. They are not simply a necessary platform to get you to the dream world (there is no dream world).
I think football is partly to blame for this. Consider the platitudes offered by players in post match interviews. What do they always say? What is the given line to beat off the packs of prodding journalists? It’s nearly always something like this
Well, it was a good/bad performance today but that’s irrelevant now and we’ve got to focus on next week’s game
And they’re not wrong to have that focus. These people are not particularly intelligent, but they are true specialists in kicking footballs and managing others in order to get them to kick footballs in the best way possible. In any game, it doesn’t make sense to be too occupied with past performances, they distract from the urge to perform in the future matches.
Football is transitory, it goes on forever– there is no final season, so there is no real stability to focus on or enjoy. Fans are always waiting for the transfer season to improve the squad, waiting to see if you can put a cup-run together, waiting to get promoted to the top flight, waiting to change the style and score ever more and more goals. It’s the future that motivates football fans, and that’s correct, but this ‘forward looking principle’ is to be applied to our own lives to tragic effect.
Comparing ourselves to others
Aside from this natural conspiracy to make us perpetually dissatisfied, modern society manipulates our thinking, capitalising on the less than optimal mindsets we already have. We compare ourselves to others. And now that we have left our 10-30 person tribes and moved out to the metropolis, there are an awful lot more people to compare with. There are many career possibilities, looks to go for, and skills to work on, therefore the range of success is monumentally larger. In prehistoric times, success was surviving through to the next day, now it’s infinitely more complicated.
The way society is set up effectively places a cash-value on our heads, whereby we constantly compare our successes and failures with whomever we admire in the celestial echelons of celebrity, or those in close proximity to us, colleagues, friends and rivals. When we bump into somebody from school, or past life, we always ask what are you doing nowadays? I would say this is partly because it’s an ice breaker/conversation-filler, but partly because we’re weighing up their success with our own.
We have accepted social media as an essential feature of our lives, a network which brings the faces of others onto our screens, presented in the way they desire to be seen. These are just faces, of real people of course, but in our minds we have created images of them, a fabric of conceptions, an attempted mirror to reality. The true reality of what that person is, nobody could ever hope to understand, not even themselves. Other people are nothing more than fictions, but unfortunately for us, these fictions are highly convincing, and hardwired into our brains over long periods of time.
If you recognise one thing about these public figures whom you follow on Twitter or Instagram, it’s that they are well and truly living the dream. Musicians whose job it is to travel the world and perform their music for a couple of hours in front of rapturous crowds with lasers, footballers who play on immaculate, soft carpets of grass in stadiums in front of thousands of fans, comedians whose job is simply to make other people laugh. As an aspiring writer and avid Twitter user, the one thing that annoys me the most is the clusters of professional writers talking about writing all the time, trying to sound oh so sophisticated and writerly. Mostly pretentious twats. And yes I am jealous.
A lot of people pretend that they do not feel a sense of schadenfreude when they see the successes of other people. In an ideal world, where everyone is Christ-like, this sense wouldn’t exist. We would feel nothing but joy on hearing that our friends have landed a dream job, an intelligent and good looking partner, won a £1500 accumulator, or got an article published in The Times Magazine. The gut reaction is that this is simply an alarm signal issued to you by the world, a reminder of our own comparative failures. In reality, these beneficiaries of success have all got frustrations of their own, which they’ve got very little interest in sharing with you. But we don’t consider that, of course, when we’re deep down the thought-warren. If you were to live in their minds for a few hours, you might realise that it is not a particularly attractive place to be at all. Maybe their minds are too loud, too repetitive, too mechanical, too dull, too serious. Who knows what haunts them? What you do know is that people with presumably almost absolutely everything you could possibly dream of, family, money, success, fame, are frequently known to end their own lives. Bourdain, Bennington, Flint, Speed, Williams to name a few. There are of course, factors leading up to these deaths I am ignorant of but some if not all are surely testament to the fact that wealth and success, no matter how high, do not guarantee happiness. The relationship between these is spurious at least.
We like figures. Figures indicate our success (followers on Instagram, page/video views), and what better indicator than money, which we can signal our figures to others through our material possessions? The higher the figure, the more success. This yearning we have is there as a fallacious and crude method of self-validation, but more importantly, it’s our way of attracting mates. If not directly through showing them what we’ve got, by improving our reputation with our peers, elevating our status for future interactions with the opposite sex. And as far as I’m aware, it’s a reasonably effective method. You can’t expect an attractive mate to desire you if you don’t have the wherewithal to support yourself. Aside from the ability to provide for a mate and potential offspring, money indicates that the person looks after themself comfortably, with a surplus of resources available, which can be evident through clothing, jewellery, cars. It is therefore logical to aspire to make money. But how much is enough will always be unclear.
‘Money is like sex, it seems much more important when you don’t have any’
A counter to the paper-chasing dogma. Thanks for the insight Charles. In reality it’s a lose-lose, don’t have these things and you’ll be annoyed about it, or have them and you won’t really appreciate them anyway. Best then to try and come to terms with whatever we have, unmoved, like Marcus Aurelius’ rock
‘Be like the jutting rock against which waves are constantly crashing, and all around it the frothing foam then settles back down. Say not “Oh, I am so unfortunate that this has happened to me.” But rather “How fortunate I am that, even though this has happened to me, I continue uninjured, neither terrified by the present nor in fear of the future.”’
People don’t often bear in mind the daily sacrifices that people make to get this money. They might sit at a desk all day, gruelling overtime periods might be eating away at their lives, they might work with the most boring, self-centred people on the planet, they might be living under the boot of a megalomaniac boss, they might do nothing of value to the world and not feel like they merit the rewards they enjoy.
In theory, you can be poor according to western standards, and still be happy. As long as you have food, a bed, access to the internet, friends and family members to talk to, a sock drawer, you can be happy. Sam Harris is a keen proponent of gratitude in everyday lives.
“There are at least a billion people on earth at this moment who would consider their prayers answered if they could trade places with you.”
We have an awful lot to be grateful for aside from money. Gratitude is a plant that needs watering, lest the wanting-bug takes over. The wanting-bug makes sure you are thinking about money all the time. I prefer the gratitude plant. And this is starting to sound like an American self-help workshop…
A job is undeniably a huge aspect of our lives. It is something that most of us give at least thirty seven hours of our week to, five days a week. That’s a lot of time, and just when you get that respite you often find that you’re forced into the process of getting ready to start again.
Some questions; how important is a job? Can you do a job you don’t like and live a meaningful, fulfilled life?
If you want freedom, the sacrifice you have to make is to work. You may hate it, but if you want to live in a vaguely decent society you have to contribute towards it. Societies are amazing webs of intricacy, every inch of which is a result of many persons’ skill and labour. People point out the things that go wrong and are prone to emphasising them, but think of how much does go to plan. Hospitals are built, waste is disposed of (only recently we’ve stopped sending it to China, though, which was a wonderful idea), children go through school and come out with decent grades, you can stay nearly anywhere in the UK in a hotel, trains can take us from one side of the country to another in a matter of hours, people go to the doctors’ and get better. It all works fine because people like you do ordinary jobs.
I’m a bit of an idiot, I’ve always thought one day I would write a piece of amazing fiction that would set the world on fire. I still do (I mean, my life can’t be like this forever, surely not). But in the meantime, I needed to get a job, so after many awful jobs in which I didn’t last long- factory, shopping centre, warehouse, bar, restaurant, I decided to go for something a bit more meaningful. For a year I worked as a support worker, working with people with learning difficulties. Like the others, this paid minimum wage, but the job satisfaction that it brought me was enormous. And responsibility, variety, meaning, laughter and helping others surely has a high value in itself.
I know a lawyer who has worked in London for five years, Dickensian hours of gruelling miserable work, putting up with condescending freaks daily, constantly complaining about it to family members. I got none of that money, or the fancy lunches with clients, the high-flying London feeling, but I do not care in the slightest.
What matters in the end
Not many of us can do the dream jobs, a tiny fraction of us. But, when you’re comparing yourself to these ultra-successful people who are good people, nice looking, have money, friends in high places, achieved wonderful things, think of what they do in their daily lives. They have access to the same quality of food as you, both have senses to appreciate the beauty of the natural world, access to the same music, the same comedy on television, the same literature, go to the same cities. Think about how good a meal, or a track, or a TV show, or a novel, or a city can get?
You, the common person, have just as much ability to find out as these people do. You can actually do better, if you give it time. You can read anything, listen to music that fucks your brain, play sports, discover vibrant cities and natural wonders, walk through the woods, stare at insects and birds. Do whatever you want to do, whatever you believe is important.
These mightily rich and successful figures, they’re humans like you, they think incessantly, uninvited thoughts enter their head, good and bad, they experience physical pain and illness, they have to travel to get to places, they get irritated by other people, they are faced with moods that fluctuate erratically.
You know what the important things are, you know where the gold is. Everyday you get up you have access to it. Find it, enjoy it, find it again. Don’t let the conspiracies have their wicked way. Say, fuck you, conspiracies, you sad bunch of freaks, and enjoy the wonders of life.