I didn’t study physics at school. It was one of my classes, but I didn’t pay any attention. That’s okay. I have a lifetime to learn this stuff.
For instance, two weeks ago I learned that there is not much give in my desk. I discovered this by punching it three times in quick succession. The desk didn’t seem to notice. But the knuckle on the outside of my right hand was black and swollen within minutes.
I retreated to my room with a bag of frozen peas on my hand.
It had been a stressful month. Now I was doing a task I hated for external reasons that may never even happen. I wasn’t even getting paid for it. The joys of self employment.
Despite the precious scarcity of life, I was wishing this part of my life away. I would have happily pressed a button to ensure that this part of my life was done.
Why would anyone do that? Push a button to lose three hours of life!
It’s not the first time I’ve wanted to do this and I’m not alone. We all have moments where we are doing something we’d love to fast forward.
Few of us would repeatedly press a button to reduce our own lives. Yet we do it whenever we long to move from this moment to another.
When faced with hours of doing something we hate, there are two ways of escape. One is the fast forward approach. But that reduces life. Add that up and it could count to years.
The other is to do something else instead that would make the same hours enjoyable.
This didn’t occur to me on the day I punched my desk.
I had already spent three hours doing a hateful task. Everything about it was draining. Nothing about it met my needs. I was only doing it because I hoped a future moment would be good. But even that was uncertain (and in fact has already turned out not to be the case.)
It’s a poor bet. I gamble this moment in the hope that the next moment might be good. Yet I have the power to make both moments good if I choose to.
If the bet wins, then I lose this moment to gain another. That only leaves me on break even. Or I lose this moment, only for the next moment not to work out either.
What kind of bet is that?
Imagine such a wager around a sports event. Your pal says “hey, wager $200 on this match. If your team loses then you lose the $200. But if they win, you only get your money back.”
Nobody would accept those terms. Yet this is the gamble we make every time we swap the joy of now for the hope of joy in the next one.
In my case I was setting up some tech in the hope that some money would flow. I can do tech. But I hate it.
Three hours in I was finally done. It had been miserable, but the task was complete. At last!
Then I realised the flaw that meant I had to start all over again. From scratch.
I’d lost three hours on this shitty gamble. Now I had to do it all over again. I had to double my stake by putting in that same hateful time all over again.
I feel stupid to admit it now. But I roared in anguish. And as blameless as it was in this – I punched my desk in rapid succession.
All this stuff I get sucked into doing for the money that might follow. All the time I waste in the hope of a good external result. And how it fritters away life.
I fear poverty because I think I’d be miserable. Yet I’m miserable every time I do a task aimed at keeping poverty at bay.
This seems like the famous story of the fisherman in reverse. You’ve probably heard it before.
A businessman goes on holiday to a beautiful island. He meets a young fisherman laying happily on the beach in the sunshine.
Discovering that the fisherman has already been out to sea, the businessman is puzzled as it is early. “Oh I only stay out a short time. Once I’ve caught enough fish to feed my family, I spend the rest of the day here on the beach.”
The businessman advises him to stay out longer at sea, and catch more fish. That way, he’d be able to save up and buy a bigger boat. Then he could save up again and buy a whole fleet of boats. Before long he’d be able to move from the island and set up a big corporation in the city. He’d have his own production plant and distribution network. Then after many years, he could go public with his company. He could sell his shares on the stock exchange. He’d be rich and could retire!
“And then what?” asked the fisherman.
“Well,” said the businessman, “then you could spend all day laying on the beach.”
I imagine myself in a similar version of the story. A businessman tells me that unless I set up funnels and sales pages and strive for an audience and customers, then I’ll end up in poverty.
So I stop doing everything I love. I stop writing music. I stop recording music. I stop writing this blog. I stop making my podcasts.
I devote my life to funnels and sales pages instead. Everything I do is in the hope of getting money later. I become deeply miserable.
So I go back to the businessman and I ask him to remind me why I am doing all this again. I tell him how miserable I feel.
“So you won’t be poor,” he says. “Because then you’d be miserable.”
It’s funny how I give myself the certainty of misery now to ward off possible misery in the future.
I’m like an arachnophobe who dives into a spider pit to avoid spiders.
Poor and happy?
Besides, who says I’ll be miserable if I’m poor? That’s just a guess.
Gallup have shown that people in Venezuela are happier than people in Hong Kong and the UK. Yet the latter are more than three times wealthier.
Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert has shown how we create happiness for ourselves irrespective of our circumstances.
Whether we lose everything or win the lottery, our happiness returns to its previous levels within about three months.
Other research does show that low income has some impact on happiness. But not a huge amount.
Age has a far bigger impact. People of retired age are much happier than the rest of us.
I think this is because they have autonomy. They choose what they do with their time. Most people of working age have bosses who control our time for us.
Maybe I could be poor in such a way that my life has meaning and purpose? If I was poor in money but rich in autonomy, maybe I would still be happy.
The researcher Matt Killingsworth has tracked people’s happiness in real time by using a phone app. You can hear his TED talk about it here.
What he discovered is that whenever our minds wander, our happiness drops. The more we are in the moment, the happier we are.
Little wonder that I end up punching my desk when I give myself hateful tasks. Not only is my mind wandering, every fibre of my being is. It’s a recipe for misery – scientifically proven.
Yet there are tasks where my mind is so lost in the moment that I miss food just to continue doing them. My tummy growls and still my mind won’t be distracted.
We all have these moments of flow. Whenever we are in flow, mind wandering doesn’t happen. So happiness does.
I don’t know how long I’ve been writing this blog. Two and a half hours I think so far. I’ve been lost in it the whole time. I’m not wishing that it would end. I’m in it. And I feel happy.
All last week I felt happy and calm too. I was recording my album. The problems I faced were welcome ones. How do I arrange the song? Should I keep piano in the second verse? Does it need drums or would a rhythmic mandolin work better?
I was lost in it. Lost in the questions. Lost in the doing of it.
So I was happy.
Tom Rath and Jim Harter did an interesting study. They measured our happiness levels against our engagement in our work.
Those who are waiting for the day to end are unhappy. They are the people desperate to fast forward their lives. Yet those engaged in their work are very happy.
The difference in happiness between the engaged and the fast forwarders is much bigger than between the wealthy and the poor.
Those who feel disengaged in their work are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with depression in the next year.
Why would I do that to myself? Just to avoid poverty.
It is shocking that only 20% of us give a strong yes to the question: “Do you like what you do each day?”
If we don’t like what we do each day, we are not liking our life.
What are we choosing as more important than enjoying our life? What are we viewing as more precious than these scarce moments of time that are gifted to us?
Would we not trade anything on our deathbeds for just a little while longer? Yet what are we trading that life for right now, today?
When I strive, I am miserable. When I do the things I already know that I love, I am happy. Why would I give up that happiness out of fear?
It only feeds the fear. I am most fearful when I strive. Fear is at its strongest when I focus on what I fear.
When I am in flow, my mind has no space for fear. It is too entranced, lost in the now.
There is no sense in postponing certain happiness for possible happiness tomorrow.
I know what I love. I know what to do so my mind never wanders. I know what makes me happy.
Writing songs. Recording music. Writing blogs. Making podcasts. A whole lot of other creative stuff.
All I need is the courage to do it and accept the consequences.