Ancient philosophy teaches that the present is enough for happiness because it allows us to satisfy our simplest and most necessary desires. The idea is that there are natural desires, and unnatural desires. Natural desires are always available, or at least very simple to obtain in the present — such as a desire for water when we are thirsty can be easily satisfied. Unnatural desires, like wanting status and money cannot be easily obtained and are not in the present — therefore they cause unhappiness. Furthermore, a person who applies all his attention and his consciousness to the present will obtain the highest and genuine type of happiness — the pure pleasure of existence.
Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations has this to say on the topic:
“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing. The longest amounts to the same as the shortest. The present is the same for everyone; its loss is the same for everyone; and it should be clear that a brief instant is all that is lost. For you can’t lose either the past or the future; how could you lose what you don’t have?”
Sitting there blissed out on existing is not an easy mental state to get into. I think a more reliable way to achieve it is in doing things. Particularly things that are interesting to you, that are intellectually compelling and that you enjoy doing — also known as hobbies.
Yet hobbies are under threat.
One reason, explains Tim Wu in the New York Times article In Praise of Mediocrity, is that we feel like we need to be good at them.
“There’s a deeper reason, I’ve come to think, that so many people don’t have hobbies: We’re afraid of being bad at them. Or rather, we are intimidated by the expectation — itself a hallmark of our intensely public, performative age — that we must actually be skilled at what we do in our free time.”
Tim Wu goes on to say,
“In a way that we rarely appreciate, the demands of excellence are at war with what we call freedom. For to permit yourself to do only that which you are good at is to be trapped in a cage whose bars are not steel but self-judgment.”
The promise of our civilization, the point of all our labor and technological progress, is to free us from the struggle for survival and to make room for higher pursuits. But demanding excellence in all that we do can undermine that; it can threaten and even destroy freedom. It steals from us one of life’s greatest rewards — the simple pleasure of doing something you merely, but truly, enjoy.”
Stephanie Buck in an article, Our parents discovered leisure. We killed it, describes another reason besides demanding excellence in all that we do that hobbies are becoming extinct: we’re turning hobbies into businesses.
“For many of us, the hobby is dead. Our work lives have merged with our free time, and hobbies are now often indistinguishable from second jobs. In a culture obsessed with productivity, the hobby has become the next venture.”
William Deresiewicz, in his book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, tells us that this indoctrination of measuring time spent only by monetary return-on-investment starts early:
“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.”
In losing our hobbies, we’re losing our humanity. We’re being conditioned to love our jobs, equate career with leisure, turn hobbies into side hustles and then feel self-conscious about our performance when we do them. Not only our humanity and the ability to living in the present are at stake; we’re also being robbed of simple pure joy.
Again, Tim Wu explains,
“But there is also a real and pure joy, a sweet, childlike delight, that comes from just learning and trying to get better. Looking back, you will find that the best years of, say, scuba-diving or doing carpentry were those you spent on the learning curve, when there was exaltation in the mere act of doing.”
Bill Watterson, creator of Calvin and Hobbes, echoed this sentiment in his 1990 Kenyon College Commencement speech. In college he decided to paint a copy of Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” from the Sistine Chapel on the ceiling of his dorm room.
“Despite the futility of the whole episode, my fondest memories of college are times like these, where things were done out of some inexplicable inner imperative, rather than because the work was demanded. Clearly, I never spent as much time or work on any authorized art project, or any poli sci paper, as I spent on this one act of vandalism.”
We need to follow the advice of Austin Kleon in his talk, How To Keep Going, and make everyday Groundhog Day. Consider yourself Phil Connors and ask yourself,
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
Phil Connors had to live in the present. He had no future, and the past was irrelevant. Paradoxically, only when he gave into the present was he able to move into the future. We too must realize that only when we disavow outcomes, let go of expectations and get lost in the present with our hobbies do we stand a chance at achieving the pure pleasure of existence.