Modern life in a developed country, when compared to almost any other era of the human species, is extremely weird. It’s not so much the idea of reality television or the British electorate voting to leave the EU because they are worried about the shape of bananas, but the novel concept of a daily existence where extremes of danger and hunger are mostly absent.
Instead of war and sharp-toothed predators, many of us are just paddling about in a consumer economy that thrives by thinking up new, largely unnecessary, ways to spend our wages. For the first time in history, we have created so many non-essential things to buy or do that some humans are getting quite upset about not being able to do them all.
Imagine trying to explain that concept to somebody born in the 19th Century. Throughout history our ancestors stayed busy raising children and growing food before they got bitten by scorpions, shot up with arrows or caught the bubonic plague, not suffering from anxiety attacks because they didn’t have enough time to catch up on box sets of The Walking Dead. Aside from a tiny number of kings, nobody in mediaeval Europe needed help deciding what to do on their one day off from digging turnips, but in today’s world you can’t move without being told what to do with every minute you aren’t earning money or sleeping.
Fail to plan, plan to fail?
Do we really need to plan this much? It is natural to prepare for the future, but if you take a good look at your life you might realise that much of our present unhappiness comes from diverting that instinct into the compulsion to acquire things and have experiences. It makes sense to prioritise some experiences to a certain extent, but you need to be very careful what starts to constitute a priority. Educating yourself and spending time with elderly relatives is probably quite important; watching every episode of The Big Bang Theory might prove to be less valuable in the long run. If you ever get worried about ticking enough items off your “bucket list”, remind yourself that you really will be okay if you reach retirement age without having visited every country who entered the Eurovision Song Contest, but perhaps less so if you forgot to save for a pension or look after your joints. Ideally you would manage to do both, but if not, you might need to just live with the satisfaction that you have fond memories of camp discos in Finland rather than any money to buy slippers or pay the gas bill.
How to juggle a family, a career, a creative hobby and learn five languages
Our angst over trying to do everything is made worse because we are also being pressured into life choices that are obviously incompatible with each other. There is a subliminal message throughout our society that you can’t possibly be happy unless you have a proper career, own a home and have at least a couple of children, whilst also finding time to educate yourself to postgraduate level, immerse yourself in foreign cultures and do enough exercise to look like a beachwear model. Congratulations if you do manage to juggle these things without having a nervous breakdown, but most people are going to have to choose a path that rules a few of these options out. If you have children young you could miss out on at least five years of a career, perhaps some music festivals or a few years backpacking, but by the time they’ve grown up a bit you can learn a second language and concentrate on earning enough money to age disgracefully. It’s equally fine to put breeding off to focus on your career (or music festivals, or backpacking), or just not to breed at all. You just need to recognise that you’ve made a choice for yourself, and that choosing one thing means not choosing several others. If life is like visiting a restaurant, then you should remember that if you attempt to try everything on the menu you’re probably going to spend the next morning stuck on the toilet.
Don’t let other people tell you what your priorities are
The most irritating manifestation of our anxiety about not being able to do everything, is that many people will try and justify their own choices to themselves by giving you advice on yours. This is most obvious on the part of those people who think the experience of raising a child makes them a universal expert on life, but exists to a lesser extent in anybody who gets a bit too smug about having narrowed down their own options. Sanctimonious parents are the absolute worst, but it’s common to receive the same passive aggressive lecture from people who think they’ve achieved enlightenment because they’ve “travelled the world” – which is just a coded way of saying they’ve been middle class tourists. It’s the same from people who’ve mastered some obscure aspect of culture, or those who don’t realise that talking about your gym routine is only slightly more interesting than telling people whether you wipe up or down. I honestly don’t care if you think I’m missing out because I’ve never been skiing, have never seen The Phantom of the Opera, or haven’t planned my daily diet around kale enemas. It really doesn’t matter if I die before hearing the first Oasis album, or seeing the Grand Canyon. If these people were, deep down, satisfied with every choice they’ve made, it is unlikely they’d find the motivation to be so judgemental about somebody else’s decisions.
Instead of worrying, trying to fit too much in, and bullying other people with advice, it would be much healthier for our society if we spent more time being thankful for being able to make those choices at all. Most of our ancestors were preoccupied with eating, breeding and avoiding an untimely death, and in fact this is still the daily existence for a significant proportion of people living around the world. They don’t worry about what to do with their excess leisure time because they don’t have any, and there’s no time to stress about a fulfilling career when you’re lucky just to have enough of an income to provide food and shelter. We would probably be better off if we thought about how fortunate we are, and tried to remain thankful for the choices we can make. I admit this does sound like the kind of advice you get at the end of a yoga class, but in this instance the hippies have got a point. You’ll be much happier than people who try and do everything and end up enjoying nothing. Just live a good life, be happy you have a choice of things to put in a sandwich, and be grateful you haven’t been eaten by a grizzly bear.