Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Idle Hands: Making Use of All This Extra Time

We are loving living again in the city. "What were we thinking?" is Diana's occasional utterance as she walks back from the market or looks at our beautiful view of the city, or takes the kids for a stroll to one of many parks near us.

I know what we were thinking: the city is noisy, smelly, busy, etc., and the country is quiet, tranquil, peaceful, etc. All true. But particularly without a car and many of the resources we take for granted back home (e.g. other English speakers), one finds oneself with too much idle mind time. Now besides symptoms of this, such as referring to oneself as "oneself", you might think that this is exactly what a sabbatical is meant to provide.

But it is important to remember that having more free time as a goal of a sabbatical really just means that you have more control of your time, not that you spend it in a hammock sipping spritzers. Anthropologists and historians note that the great development of civilization became possible when we had created more leisure time for ourselves (by farming). But leisure time means only that you don't have to spend every waking hour on subsistence or defense. It doesn't mean sitting in a hammock sipping spritzers. More appropriately it might mean imagining how you might create a life in which you might be able to spend more time in a hammock sipping spritzers, and then having the time to create that life.

There was a New York Times article from late last year, just as we were getting into this sabbatical, reporting research on happiness (it's good and short and I hope you read it). The research found that daydreaming, the quintessence of idleness, actually makes us less happy than its apparent opposite, intense focus on a task.

Notwithstanding their obvious finding that sex is number one on the list of happy-inducing focus, you might have supposed that daydreaming your virtual self in a hammock while your actual self sits in front of your computer would make you happier than doing the work yourself is sitting there to do. Or maybe you wouldn't. Buddhists have been going on for millennia about desire being the root of all suffering.
We certainly found ourselves in the campo (the country) with all that hammock time and at least an hour of travel round trip (for all but urgent needs) from many things we might need in order to be industrious. We spent much of our time planning sorties into the city to get something we need in order to do something else, or daydreaming about what we might do if we had a car or could walk to a park or a museum or cafe.

Don't let me make this a complaint about our last six months in a big, beautiful house in a tranquil setting. It is, rather, an emphasis on how happy we are to be city people right now (much to my surprise), and maybe a reminder to be industrious with your own time. When in doubt about what to do to be focused, see (and do) example number one from the researchers' list.

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