The Leisure Class is Getting Bored

The trend over my lifetime has been towards reducing the effort it takes to do ____ and you fill in the blank here–from getting across town or the continent to buying or reading a book or making a cake.

The implicit assumption has been “the easier the better.” Our entire economy, when it’s not about profit, it is about efficiency.

Once upon a time, the fictional outcome of this enhanced efficiency of every effort was “leisure time”–shorter work weeks, more time to kick back and bask in the shade while our technologies took all of the work out of our lives, for the better.

As it turns out, there’s such a thing as “too easy.” After a certain amount of friction is removed, we get less traction and less fulfillment. “Too easy” for too much of our lives makes us lose interest, feel useless and enjoy life less rather than more.

This NewYorker piece entitled The Problem with Easy Technology tells an interesting story about “instant cake mixes” that initially required just adding water. What they found was the cooks actually wanted to be more invested in their productions, and so “add two fresh eggs” was put back into the recipe to make the mixes LESS instant and LESS efficient.

That being said, I think there’s some element of this need for friction and environmental push-back in the preferred lifestyle of many of my friends and neighbors in Floyd County.

Many of us prefer to do things “the hard way” even though these daily rituals require more rather than less effort. Our investment of time and labor in vegetable gardens, fresh eggs, or the wood heat that warms us makes us feel a part of the cycle and ecosystem of which we are a part.

Not to say we refuse technology completely in our lives. We we want, rather, is “demanding technologies” defined as follows:

[su_quote]Three elements are defining: it is technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast–like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions–usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.[/su_quote]

The ultimate risk of too little push-back, too little friction, too much EASE is that in the process, we lose muscles–of the skeletal and cerebral variety.

[su_quote]Playing the guitar, fishing, golfing, rock-climbing, sculpting, and painting all demand mastery of stubborn tools that often fail to do what we want. Perhaps the key to these and other demanding technologies is that they constantly require new learning. The brain is stimulated and forced to change. Conversely, when things are too easy, as a species we may become like unchallenged schoolchildren, sullen and perpetually dissatisfied.[/su_quote]

So “the path of least resistance” –driving rather than hiking to the mountain top–is often less rewarding. If you find yourself losing interest, think about doing things the hard way. You might actually be happier!

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Fred … you have touched upon an aspect of life that is more meaningful to some of us than even you might believe.
    I was talking to a friend at breakfast this morning. It was just him and myself at a large table that had the potential to become so noisy at a time when every chair was filled, it was difficult to be heard by the person next to you. We often go deeper into some topics than others. I was trying to express how I felt at times, now that I am 74 and those things I loved to do, like hunting, fishing, gardening and yard-work, have become so difficult and demanding, they have lost most of what made them enjoyable for me in the past. The realization for me WAS; it’s not that the activities has changed … it was ME that was doing all the changing. TOO EASY! Yes! Many things can become too easy but for so many of us, things have gotten too difficult.

    I told my friend that lately, I had this feeling of becoming separated from life as I once knew it. For me, memories are all that I have left concerning certain aspects of life. Now I fear a time when even those will be lost to me. What will being alive be for me then?

  2. Clarence, I feel your pain not far into my future. So far, the limitations are relatively minor but I think every day how I take for granted the ability to walk around our half-mile loop without giving it much thought.

    I only hope that when my memory goes I think I’m George Clooney and Ann is Jennifer Anniston.

  3. I’ve forwearded this and the links to my husband, who is bored with retired life, but finding challenging tasks too overwhelming at age 78. It’s a dilemma.