I just came up with 9 generic ways of spending time, though I’m sure my list is far from exhaustive:
1. Working just to survive. You only need to do this if you live in a poor country or in the past. I wouldn’t much like this way of life but at least you aren’t faced with the thorny problem of how to spend your time. The basic will to survive would make such decisions easy. Also you wouldn’t be assailed by the ennui that some people who have too much time on their hands and can see no point in life sometimes suffer from.
2. Accumulating wealth. This is for the very cautious: you feel you can never have enough money because you never know what disaster might befall you. It is also for people like Scrooge before he realised that love of money is dull when compared to an interest in other people. Even so, I like this one because it at least gives you something to aim at, some way of measuring your success or failure.
3. Throwing yourself into your work. I think this is a good way to spend your time, especially if you are a nurse or fireman. I’m sure even Bill Gates was driven more by a desire to do something well and to triumph than simply to earn lots of money. Competition is a real motivator and comes naturally to us. Some people think you are ‘sad’ when your interests don’t extend much beyond your job, but I disagree. A job requires you to take an interest in something outside yourself and gives your actions greater meaning. It also helps you to structure a day that might otherwise feel shapeless and saggy like a Dali clock.
4. Being interested in the world. This is the way of scientists. Men like Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Sherlock Holmes are naturally curious about the world and want to understand it. Contemplating why something is as it is can be enough to fill a scientist’s/private detective’s life. Such people’s attention must surely be more on the world than on themselves, which is clearly a good thing.
5. Wanting to create beauty. Artists like Michaelangelo and writers like Shakespeare want to paint and describe the world around them and make something beautiful from it. Unlike scientists, artists aren’t content to understand or to appreciate something as it is but instead want to shape the raw material of life into something beautiful. I certainly don’t include Tracey Emin and her like in this category since she only produces filth and ugliness.
6. Spending your time in a haze of drink, drugs, sleep and daydreaming. This is for people who have largely retreated into themselves and can either afford not to work or who live off other people. I have no idea if such people are happy but they shouldn’t be.
7. Trying to change the world. This is the way of Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Karl Marx, Lenin, Che Guevara, Islamists, the IRA, ETA, Al Qaeda, the Mormons, peace activists, protesters, environmentalists, volunteers and charity workers. Whether you consider these people good depends largely on whether you sympathise with their causes. I generally don’t. I think most aid turns the recipients, who might be potentially industrious, responsible people, into dependent spongers. I think the black civil rights movement was a good cause but has now turned into a lucrative racket for some and an excuse for underachievement and crime for others.
As an aside, not everyone knows that Martin Luther King was a terrible hypocrite. He would preach the bible and then have adulterous affairs. He regularly had sex with white prostitutes who he then beat up. He used church donations to fund sex parties. He plagiarised large parts of his dissertation and his doctorate would almost certainly have been revoked if he had been white. This doesn’t make his cause any less worthy but it does make a him a phony and should make those who idolise him think twice.
Gandhi was well-meaning but his daft ideas about not industrialising India kept it economically backwards for decades. Also he advocated passive resistance without realising this only works with civilised people. He advised the Jews of Nazi Germany to go passively to their deaths, a sight so awful that the consciences of other nations would be bound to be awakened and they would then come down on the Nazis like a ton of bricks. But all this passive resistance has done is to pass responsibility for your welfare and the need to use violence to stop the Nazis onto others. So, actually a terrible idea.
Mother Teresa did little to help lepers, instead choosing to spend the huge donations she received on seminaries for Catholic nuns. Other hospitals in Calcutta were doing much better work with lepers on a shoestring budget. She mistook ‘good’ for ‘God’ and in doing so caused unnecessary suffering. Karl Marx was clever but was wrong about human nature.
I believe many volunteers, protesters, activists and environmentalists are motivated more by a desire to think well of themselves than to actually do good. Heaven knows what they would do with all that righteous anger and self-importance if the world ever improved. Would-be revolutionaries allegedly want to make the world a better place but won’t even help their elderly mums wash-up. And there are people who love mankind in the abstract yet dislike every flesh and blood example of mankind they come across.
8. Bettering yourself. This is the way of people who see themselves as a work-in-progress. They are both the painter and their canvass. I think this is a bad way to spend your time. It reminds me too much of a snake swallowing its tail, which surely can’t be good for it.
9. Hedonism. This is the way of George Best, Casanova and some pop stars; people who don’t believe that there is anything more interesting in the world than sex, food and drink. To some extent I agree with them, though it seems to be the case that you can’t build a satisfying life around pleasure-seeking. It appears that a good life has to include doing things you don’t always want to do.
I imagine a hedonistic life to be one of boredom punctuated by highs that become ever less frequent due to the Law of Diminishing Returns. However, I can’t be sure about this because I have never been in enviable the position to try it out. Either way, anyone searching for calm and contentment in their life should probably not go down this road.
Perhaps most of us have done a little of many of the above and variety is the spice of life, or so they say. Still, it is probably a good idea to steer clear of one or two of those activities, especially those that lead to self-obsession. I think people are generally happier when they don’t loom too large in their own eyes. This is hard to avoid since you are standing so close to yourself, though some people manage it despite this.