In fact, most people suffer grave misalignment. In a 2004 article in the journal Science, a team of scholars, including the Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, surveyed a group of women to compare how much satisfaction they derived from their daily activities. Among voluntary activities, we might expect that choices would roughly align with satisfaction. Not so. The women reported deriving more satisfaction from prayer, worship and meditation than from watching television. Yet the average respondent spent more than five times as long watching TV as engaging in spiritual activities.
If anything, this study understates the misalignment problem. The American Time Use Survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that, in 2014, the average American adult spent four times longer watching television than “socializing and communicating,” and 20 times longer on TV than on “religious and spiritual activities.” The survey did not ask about hours surfing the web, but we can imagine a similar disparity.
This misalignment leads to ennui and regret. I’m reminded of a friend who was hopelessly addicted to British crossword puzzles (the ones with clues that seem inscrutable to Americans, such as, “The portly gentleman ate his cat, backwards”). A harmless pastime, right? My friend didn’t think so — he was so racked with guilt after wasting hours that he consulted a psychotherapist about how to quit. (The advice: Schedule a reasonable amount of time for crosswords and stop feeling guilty.)
While few people share my friend’s interest, many share his anxiety. Millions have resolved to waste less time in 2016 and have already failed. I imagine some readers of this article are filled with self-loathing because they just wasted 10 minutes on a listicle titled “Celebrities With Terrible Skin.”
Some might say that this reveals our true preferences for TV and clickbait over loved ones and God. But I believe it is an error in decision making. Our days tend to be an exercise in distraction. We think about the past and future more than the present; we are mentally in one place and physically in another. Without consciousness, we mindlessly blow the present moment on low-value activities.
The secret is not simply a resolution to stop wasting time, however. It is to find a systematic way to raise the scarcity of time to our consciousness.
Even if contemplating a corpse is a bit too much, you can still practice some of the Buddha’s wisdom resolving to live as if 2016 were your last year. Then remorselessly root out activities, small and large, that don’t pass the “last-year test.”
There are many creative ways to practice this test. For example, if you plan a summer vacation, consider what would you do for a week or two if this were your last opportunity. With whom would you reconnect and spend some time? Would you settle your soul on a silent retreat, or instead spend the time drunk in Cancún, Mexico?
If this year were your last, would you spend the next hour mindlessly checking your social media, or would you read something that uplifts you instead? Would you compose a snarky comment on this article, or use the time to call a friend to see how she is doing? Hey, I’m not judging here.
Check nytimes.com for the full article