After the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic I wrote an article describing how Lockdown had, paradoxically, improved my mental health. Chief amongst my observations was that I felt the world had slowed down significantly, and a slower world just agreed with me. While the world has long since resumed its ordinary pace, I have not been able to let go of this thought — that a fast-paced world is not some kind of metaphysical imperative but merely a construction of Capitalism.
I have no economic qualification to justify specialist insights into systems of labour and money although at a certain point it’s unclear how many economists do either (smilyface). Nevertheless, the following thoughts are simply the reflections of an ordinary person living at the behest of Capitalism.
As I understand things, it is Capitalism that expects us to put most of our time into a “career” which we are told will give our lives “meaning” — or perhaps more commonly, will give us money, with which we can buy more time, with which we might produce meaning later on. Immediately questions arise about the role of money in this whole situation. Who decided that money should be a middle-man between time and meaning? Is it the only or most effective mechanism by which we can convert our time into meaning? And how does the idea of spending time to buy more time work, exactly?
Time is of the essence
If you wanted to, you could frame just about everything that matters in life with respect to decisions about time. Ideally everyone would have as much time as they like, and as much freedom as possible to decide how to use that time. Of course sometimes people want to use their time in destructive ways and so we have laws to restrict this, in order to protect, well, other people’s time. We feel good about our lives when we have the time to do the things we want to do and conversely we are easily overwhelmed if we perceive there to be too many things we need to do with too little time to do them.
Most of life’s challenges can be understood with reference to how they limit our time and how we can use it. Being poor limits your control over your time because certain decisions become necessities for survival. Experiencing racism, sexism or other forms of systemic hate directly influences where and how you can spend your time, and how comfortable you can be doing so. If you are sick you might be worried about the reduced quality of your time or, in more serious cases, the reduced quantity of it you may still have. If you are disabled some things might take more time than ordinarily expected of others, if you can do them at all.
Every experience of acute trauma that we have ultimately impacts us by leaving an imprint on the future time we have left to spend. That is literally what makes it trauma, that it doesn’t only exist in the time it happened, but the time following that too.
How Capitalism invades our language
I feel kind of dirty about the language involved here. Above I talk extensively about “spending” time. This is the way we talk about money. Of course words can do more than one thing. However, even though time and money can both be understood as finite resources, it is not clear to me that we should think of time as something we “consume” exactly. Rather, I think time is a conceptual tool that helps us to make sense of the order and experience of our consciousness. I haven’t got an easy solution to propose to this problem though, and for now it is convenient to simply speak using the language as it is. I will say, however, that it is obvious that a system which insists on treating money as the primary conduit between time and meaning would benefit from the use of a shared vocabulary.
There are many examples of similar linguistic practices. The weekend, for instance, is a social construct whose existence serves to justify week days being reserved for work. Obviously human beings do benefit psychologically from having ways to structure our time, but there is no clear reason why it should be structured in that particular way. Retirement is also a concept which came about only in the 19th and 20th centuries, and explicitly as a tool to support Capitalist growth. A 1999 New York Times column aptly describes how, “by 1935, it became evident that the only way to get old people to stop working for pay was to pay them enough to stop working”. Yes, that’s right, the idea of old people resisting their own retirement is literally as old as the concept of retirement itself.
Nevertheless, nowadays the logic of retirement is essentially the mythology that justifies the time-into-money-into-time-into-meaning norm. We justify doing a lot of stuff when we’re young so that later on we won’t have to do any stuff at all. In reality, however, most young people would probably prefer to do a bit less stuff and most old people would probably prefer to do a bit more stuff. That is, of course, if time itself were the central motivator. Where is the logic in working yourself to death, leaving your heart, body, and mind in tatters, so that later on some beaten down version of yourself can sit around keeping themselves company? Would it not be more meaningful to do some amount of work and some amount of non-work at every stage in our lives?
Time after time
As it turns out, an emerging body of research in psychology supports this line of thought. A recent series of experiments consistently suggests that people who choose time over money are happier, even controlling for existing levels of available time and money. While this research does consider a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, it does not include the poorest of the poor, for whom quite obviously this entire thing is a non-discussion. But among those for whom this is a real question, research suggests that wanting time more than you want money is a good predictor of increased happiness. Interestingly, some of the same research suggests quite clearly that the majority of people nonetheless answer that they want money more than they want time. Of course, it’s not that surprising when you consider the fact that Capitalism focuses our attention on how money can buy us time, rather than the fact that the initial decision to enter into that arrangement is ultimately itself a decision about how to use our time.
One point of clarification which is important here is that there is still good evidence to show that (up to a certain point) having more money is likely to increase your happiness. How much exactly having more time is expected to increase your happiness is still a bit unclear, empirically. Rather, what the research is suggesting is primarily that having an attitude towards the two which values time over money is beneficial to one’s well-being. You might read that as a weaker conclusion, but my inclination is the opposite — I think that valuing time over money correlating with increased happiness is a powerful reflection of the artificiality of money as the apex goal as fed to us by Capitalism. And indeed, this is supported by a longstanding body of evidence which suggests that increased materialism causes lower well-being.
Don’t worry, the article is almost over, sort of
Most sensible people already understand that making their entire life about the acquisition of money is a miserable way to go about living. However, I am increasingly thinking of this as yet another system of control, to quote the Matrix. It is easy to think that because you have attained some basic degree of enlightenment, that you are enlightened. In reality, however, it costs Capitalism very little for people to have some minor reservations about worshiping wealth. This is especially the case if the way we structure our lives and understand their meanings still completely hangs on the architecture of Capitalism.
I currently have a work situation which allows me to live relatively comfortably, and pay all my bills. I am not saving much. My net worth is not increasing. But I also rarely have to work more than half a day. My work is not my passion, and I have essentially no ambition to build some kind of career path in the field I am in. But I like my colleagues and my bosses. They treat me well. So it’s a good environment, with reasonable pay, and I don’t have to work all day, every day. I get to spend time in ways that are more meaningful to me — with people, pursuing hobbies, thinking, feeling, exploring. I am currently the happiest and healthiest I have felt in at least 5 years (read: still depressed as fuck, but moving in the other direction, and aware of it, which is monumental).
I am about to finish a Masters degree whose goal was in no small part to qualify me for a new career path. I intend to look for jobs in that field, but I am increasingly unsure how hard I should look. There is a sense that I am supposed to want a job that puts me on a path, and a job that pays me more money. But for now I am content with my current work situation, and content with being content about that. Obviously I would like to be able to save some money — for later, or for emergencies, or to be able to help others more. But that is not my only goal and I do not see why it should be.
To you, the reader. It is possible that in some intrinsic way your work feels like a well optimized, meaningful use of your time. Inasmuch as this is true, great! Inasmuch as it is not, this is something you should want to do something about. Which is not to say your job needs to produce meaning, but only that your attitude towards it should be very different depending on whether it does or does not. Of course there are limits to how one can totally reorganise their work situation, but there are many ways to revise the ways we think about our work or redistribute the time we use on it. We do not benefit from elaborate self deceptions about our careers and their “purpose”, our employers do. Be less of a perfectionist. In fact, don’t be a perfectionist at all, just be fine. Do an OK job. Don’t do extra work off the clock. Decline the promotion if you don’t want it. Disentangle the meaning you pursue in life from the work you use to pay your bills. Accept less money and more time when those situations present themselves (obviously a lot of this is highly contextual, but I feel comfortable enough suggesting it given the strong societal conditioning in the other direction).
Final note to my mother
Mommy, I know you’re reading this, and I know you’re worried about all the money I crowdfunded from friends to pay for my degree two years ago, and how they might judge me for talking this way about the money that I do have now. Of course I am incredibly grateful to the support of many friends which put me in a position to get to where I am now (both in terms of my degree, and my current work situation). But I do not believe that helping someone financially gives you a claim to their future behaviour. Indeed, part of what my friends sponsored in my degree was the freedom for me to develop into the person I am becoming, who thinks the things that I think. They transformed some of their time into my time, and I think that’s really beautiful. I hope that by writing this article I might have offered a gift of time to some other people.
p.s. there’s a really bad Justin Timberlake movie called “In Time” which has a very cool premise but unfortunately sucks anyway — would recommend it though because somehow it helped me think about some of these themes.