Standing buck naked in the shower, it hit me: 75 years isn’t much time, and we waste a lot it doing things that don’t make us happy. That bothers me deeply.
It’s odd, but I do my best thinking in the shower. Time doesn’t matter in my tiny sanctuary of steam. There aren’t any assignments, due dates, appointments, or obligations – just space to think, ponder, and imagine.
I often fantasize about a world like that.
A world where people were never stressed. And they did the things that made them happy, instead of what society told them needed to be done.
Later that evening, I researched the numbers. In fact, the average human lives and breathes for 35,320,320 minutes. That’s it – if you’re lucky.
That made me ask myself: How can we spend these precious minutes in a way that maximizes our joy and happiness (and makes it easy for those around us to do the same?)
Let’s be rational.
In pure economic terms, these minutes are tiny units of currency that we invest into a variety of activities. On a typical day, you might invest 420 minutes towards sleeping, 90 minutes to eating, 20 minutes to personal grooming, and 45 minutes towards checking email.
If you’re a bear, an otter, a gazelle, or any other animal, you’ll invest most of your time towards survival and reproduction.
Lucky for us humans, staying alive and having sex are pretty easy to do (apparently too easy for some). So that leaves us with an important question:
How should we spend our time?
Philosophers have argued about this question since the foundations of time. But there really is no right answer. Different people have different values, personalities, and goals – that means they will want to spend their time doing different things.
I want to suggest, however, that there is one pattern of action that succinctly sums up the actions of the entire human race:
The pursuit of happiness
If you’re cringing right now, its probably because you expected something more profound. Or maybe less selfish. But the truth is we’re inherently self-interested beings. That doesn’t mean we don’t care about others, or that we don’t care about the importance of a spiritual realm greater than ourselves – it simply means that we view these things in term of our own self-interest and ultimately in terms of our own happiness.
People do good things because it makes them happy.
I see this happening in my own life…
- I volunteer because it brings me satisfaction (and happiness) to know that I am helping someone less fortunate.
- I write this blog because it builds my self-esteem (and therefore makes me happy.)
- I love my wife because it makes me insanely happy to see her smile.
- I exercise because it keeps me healthy (and happy).
Do you see what I mean? Everything comes back to our happiness, because that’s what motivates us. And contrary to what people tell you, there is nothing wrong with that.
We don’t all agree, but we can learn from each other.
People have different opinions about what ultimately makes us happy but the point is this: we’re all searching for happiness. And with the limited amount of time we have, it’s important that we spend our time units in a way that maximizes happiness.
The following guide contains principles that help me exhaust the full potential of my time. We might now agree about what ultimately makes us happy, but I think all humans can learn from our shared experiences.
Why eating chocolate and having sex all day won’t make you happy.
Not everyone is happy all the time. That simple fact alone means one thing: there is no simple one-size-fits-all solution to finding happiness.
Eating great food makes people happy, but eating great food all the time makes people fat, bloated, and unhappy.
Having sex seems to make people happy, but having sex all the time….well…nobody has ever done it. It would certainly get old after a while.
Eating a candy bar is great, but eating two candy bars isn’t twice as good.
Why is that? What are these perplexing rules that govern our ability to experience pleasure?
2 important rules that govern our ability to experience pleasure
1. The law of diminishing returns.
Cake is tasty. Those moist morsels of sugary goodness spike the pleasure centers of our brain and leave us with a devilish smile on our face.
If cake is good, more cake is better, right?
Eating a slice of cake the size of a MacBook should leave us happier than a kid on Christmas morning.
But it doesn’t…
In fact, eating that much cake will make you sick, because you’re stomach can only handle so much sugar at once.
It’s the same way with other things. You’re body can only handle small doses of sensory input. At a certain tipping point, more cake begins yielding less pleasure, until eventually eating more cake results in pain, discomfort and other negatives.
2. The law of boring, pointless work
There are things I hate doing, so I think to myself “Easy, I just won’t do this. That’ll make me happy.”
Well, I’m usually dead wrong, and here’s why: Some things don’t have immediate bad consequences.
For example: brushing your teeth. You can save 5 minutes a day if you don’t brush your teeth. That’s about 2 hours a month, or an entire day a year.
Think of all you could do with that extra day. But think of all the negative consequences of not brushing your teeth —-> bad breath, tooth decay, tooth aches, ugly smile, and the list goes on.
It seems that brushing your teeth (among countless other annoying rituals) is one of those things that in the long run maximizes your happiness whether or not it seems like it at the moment.
How to deal with stuff you hate doing.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve spent countless hours wondering why we have to do stupid stuff that doesn’t make us happy.
Its possible that I’ve wasted more time than any other human alive pouting about this unfair reality.
But let’s face it: boring, tedious work has to be done. And no amount of complaining or avoidance is going to change that.
So, what can be done to manage this annoying stream of busy work that steals our time?
I’ve come up with a strategy I like to call front-loaded assault.
The premise is simple: we hate doing this stuff, so the sooner we get it done the quicker we can get on to stuff we enjoy.
Through careful observation of my own life, I find that the dread I feel towards doing this stuff is disproportionately worse than the task itself. No amount of rationalization can comfort me when I get in one of my moods. So, the simple answer was to get these stupid chores out of the way first.
So, each day I make a list of all the things I have to get done but don’t really feel like doing. Now, here’s where the assault part comes in. As early in the day as I can, I’ll set aside a solid hour to attack that list like an evil villain.
Note: You shouldn’t be spending more than an hour a day doing stuff you don’t enjoy. That’s the absolute max. If you need more time, you should reevaluate what’s really important.
Oddly enough, sometimes I’ll even end up enjoying myself. Maybe its the sheer vulgarity of the pace I work, or maybe it just feels great to get this stuff out of the way. Either way, when I’m done – I breathe a huge sigh of relief and then I’m free to start with the stuff I enjoy.
A little known secret to manage time and maximize happiness.
Here’s the secret:
Everyday, do something completely unproductive, childish, fun, and downright stupid.
Most people have no idea how amazingly powerful this principle can be. In fact, I rank it right up there with the best discoveries of my life.
Why quick fixes don’t make you happy in the long run.
You only have a limited number of minutes in a day, just over a thousand to be exact. So why would you waste your time on anything that doesn’t deliver instant happiness?
The simple reason is this: delayed gratification is 6,278 times more satisfying than instant gratification.
My own little mundane habit.
I enjoy writing for this blog. It satisfies me to see my audience continue to grow week after week after week. The only aspect I don’t enjoy is editing my posts.
Initially, my posts are raw, just me and my ideas as they flow straight from my mind through my fingertips and into the word processor. That part is pure adrenaline – it’s exciting to see my ideas shaped into sentences and paragraphs for others to read.
The dull part is proofreading for errors and restructuring the text to allow for great readability.
But I continue to perform this mundane habit because I know that if I don’t my work will be too sloppy for others to enjoy. And ultimately, my readership won’t grow, because my posts would resemble a 4th grader’s summer journal and nobody would take me seriously.
The simple habit of proofreading my writing takes 5 minutes a week. That simple investment, although boring at the time, yields happiness that isn’t easily measured.
And that is the irony of spending your time to maximize your happiness – it’s often the little things we do to prevent unhappiness or create happiness sometime in the future that ultimately make us happier people.
The editor of Ethical Living, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.