I turned 36 recently and for some reason, this birthday prompted me to reflect on the scarcity of time. When we are young, it seems like the days will go on forever. The reality of an ending, of death, hardly enters our mind. I adore this care-free innocence I witness in the life of my 5 year old son.
But as we enter adulthood, there is value in clearly seeing that our days are numbered. It can motivate us to contemplate what really matters and how we want to spend the rest of their lives.
The psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has carefully studied how people spend their time. He points out that what we do during an average day can be divided into three major kinds of activities.
The first way we spend our time is producing, or generating the resources such as money that ensure our survival and comfort. The amount of time we spend working in this way differs across time and places. Csikszentmihalyi writes that “according to some anthropologists, among certain societies, such as the tribesman of Brazilian jungles or the African deserts, grown men rarely spend more than four hours a day providing for their livelihood–the rest of the time they spend resting, chatting, singing, and dancing. On the other hand, during the hundred years or so of industrialization in the West, before unions were to regulate working time, it was not unusual for workers to spend twelve or more hours a day in the factory. So the eight-hour workday, which is currently the norm, is about halfway between the two extremes.”
The second way we spend our time is preserving the body and its possessions. Csikszentmihalyi calls eating, resting, grooming, cooking, shopping, housework, and driving maintenance activities. Traditionally women have taken on a greater portion of the maintenance work, while men spent more time on productive roles. But, of course, this division of labor has changed over time and will continue to evolve.
The time left over from production and maintenance is free time or leisure. Csikszentmihalyi notes that our free time is divided into three major sorts of activities. The first is media consumption, consisting mostly of watching television and surfing the internet. The second is conversation. The third is hobbies such as making music or art, engaging in sports and exercise, and reading. Interestingly, Csikszentmihalyi does not specify how he would categorize service and volunteer work or being involved in a spiritual community. Is this work or leisure?
I think Csikszentmihalyi’s poetic summary of how we spend our days is worth sharing.
These three main functions–production, maintenance, and leisure–absorb our psychic energy. They provide the information that goes through the mind day after day, from birth to the end of life. Thus, in essence, what our life is consists in experiences related to work, to keeping things we already have from falling apart, and to whatever else we do in our free time. It is within these parameters that life unfolds, and it is how we choose what we do, and how we approach it, that will determine whether the sum of our days adds up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art.
I love that last thought: Will the sum of our days add up to a formless blur, or to something resembling a work of art?