Sunday, November 14, 2010

Time is money

Today we had a birthday party for Elli.  We invited 4 of her friends to our place to eat cupcakes and play and greeted them with fairy wings, party hats, magic wands and shiny necklaces so they could all dress up fancy.  It was a whirlwind of little girls in cute costumes running around in circles on a sugar high; just what you might expect of a 4 year old's birthday.  One parent decided to stay around for the party and Wendy and I had a long chat with him about all kinds of things.  It turns out we have some striking things in common with him and some equally striking differences.  He graduated from the same university we did, was an atheist interested in physics, history and religion and had very similar ideas and struggles with his children.  These things were all very similar, but the amazing difference was that he had so little time.

Wendy reads a good 3-4 books a week and generally wants and gets at least 2 hours a day of book time if not more.  I am at home and have 6 hours a day of leisure time most of the time.  The parent we were talking to was telling us how glad he was that his daughter was taking lessons on weekends because it allowed him a rare luxury:  He could read for 2 full hours, once a week.  He told us this and made it clear that without those scheduled lessons that 2 hours a week would evaporate into 0 hours a week, which was a challenge because he loves to read and has many, many books on his 'must read' list.  It always shocks me when I look at those numbers and I wonder how it is possible to be that way.  Wendy and I still had a fair bit of leisure time when I was working; certainly not like we have now but the idea of being glad that a particular scheduling problem allowed a full 2 hours a week is pretty much beyond our grasp.  That sort of life just isn't something I could deal with if there were any option to get out.  Not that I fault people who choose it, mind you, I just would not make that choice.

I do wonder if he even views it as a choice.  It is entirely possible to live on drastically less money than most middle class people have but the sorts of sacrifices that are part of that are likely to be simply unacceptable to most; they would not choose to live on the cheap as we do even if it would lead to many more hours of leisure time.  Presumably we all simply get used to how we live and everyone else's lifestyle is measured entirely in that light.  Everyone wants more time regardless of whether or not they have 6 hours a day or 6 minutes a day and no matter how much we have we could find a use for just a little more.  I assume there is some correlation between leisure time and happiness but the question I ponder is how much happiness is based on what we see around us, what we established as a benchmark as children, or some objective standard.

I feel like I have made mostly the right choices for my own happiness and that of my family.  I suspect most people are in the same boat, figuring they are doing the right thing but wishing they could have it all.


  1. It's curious (but perhaps natural) that you're giving so little weight to the fulfilling feeling of productivity. I don't work long hours because I need to maintain some opulent lifestyle, but because I really enjoy what I do.

    I've tried being unemployed for a week or two once. It was thoroughly unpleasant.

  2. I put pretty much zero weight on the fulfilling feeling of productivity right now, but I think that's an aftereffect of never having a job where I felt truly productive. I don't think working harder would benefit myself or society.

  3. @Snidely I think the assumption that working is the best way to feel productive is false. I feel productive when I learn or create and playing does both of those things. The longer I am away from work the more I see a disconnect between economic activity and fulfillment. I don't doubt at all that many people get a lot of happiness out of their work, the question is do they actually have to work to be happy or would they find not working just fine once they got used to it? Also, there is a huge difference between cutting back hours of work and not working at all. I know it is very challenging in some jobs to work fewer hours because employers don't want part time but I don't think that people genuinely explore those opportunities a lot of the time.

    I tried being unemployed for 4 months and it SUCKED. There is a huge difference, however, between being unemployed and being comfortable with the fact that what you do each day is as good as employment. Being unemployed involuntarily is in fact one of the largest contributing factors to unhappiness and ill health, but being unemployed by choice is not.

  4. I can safely say that I go through both extremes annually. During the school year it is a (fun but exhausting) mad dash: Work, union volunteerism, coaching sports, breakfast program, Gay-Straight Alliance, etc, etc, etc.... It keeps me VERY busy. In the summers I sleep in till 10:30 then consider going for a bike ride. That's about it. Not having little ones makes my leisure time VERY leisurely.
    Both are lovely. The summer is probably more lovely... but as a year long activity it doesn't pay so well.

  5. You should also define leisure indivdualy; your kid's friend's father might consider going out with his kid to the bookstore a duty where someone else might see it as a leisury activity.