Do less and more of what brings joy

Speaking of her family’s possible fall into financial ruin, the indomitable Dowager Countess Grantham [Dame Maggie Smith] once observed, “One does not do more with less. One can only do less with less”.

How interesting that the word ‘less’ works in two ways in what the Dowager says. More obvious of the two, even her Ladyship knows poverty is no laughing matter. More subtly, her remark is a reminder that leisure is wealth’s cousin. To be precise, leisure is a type of license meaning the unhurried “opportunity afforded by freedom from necessary occupations”.

At one time, leisure also described thoughtful and deliberative acts. So, doing one thing at a time, doing it slowly and deliberately, and doing it completely all suggest the appeal of doing less — if one is able to make such choices.

But what does it mean to do less? Less of what? Is there a straightforward relationship between doing less and more of what brings joy? And why might these questions matter as part of a framework for daily life?

The space of time

In Conceptualizations of Time, Barbara Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk writes that time is “an abstract domain, although we experience its incessant presence” (p.ix). Because it is abstract, time is conveyed in diverse ways across languages and cultures. For example, Mandarin Chinese and certain Inuit languages work without tense, so ideas about past, present, and future are described in ways one won’t necessarily find in languages where tense is used.

As a professor of geography, I find it compelling that ideas about time always involve ideas about the spatial — anything of or relating to space. Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk clearly gets that association, pointing out the following:

· Time implicates ideas of far and near past and of present, near and far future (deictic time). These ideas are spatial because they summon other notions about order and sequence (sequential time), succession, rank and hierarchy, and distance and proximity.

· Time implicates spatial ideas related to the inside and outside — such as when time is eaten up or doled out or seems bounded and contained or limitless.

· When thought of in terms of duration, time involves scale — including expansion and contraction, and geometry — points, lines, trajectories, continua, circles and cycles, repetitions and habits, runs or ruptures, and symmetry and asymmetry.

· Time also suggests starts or origins — points of beginning, and termini or destinations — points of ending, as well as causes and consequences.

One other point remains indisputable: the passage of time is a spatial metaphor and therefore it is something we experience with growing nostalgia as we realize that the lifecourse ends with our mortality. Indeed, as the playwright Ionesco quipped in Rhinoceros, there “are more dead people than living. And their numbers are increasing” (p.19).

Perhaps this certain truth prompts the desire to do less in order to do more of what brings joy?

Doing less

Chats about doing less wander around my head like this: “Do I mean less than I have done have in the past? Which part of my past — those agitated youthful years in which I tested preferences or the blurred ones of early and middle motherhood when I was also shaping a career? Do I mean less of certain things? Or less than X or Y seem to do in their lives? Does it matter what X or Y do? And are there both mundane and exceptional times when doing more is, in fact, more appropriate than doing less?”

Once, I might have looked to X or Y for affirmation about my own choices. That urge has diminished over the decades it has taken to be comfortable in my skin. Now I do less because I have meaningful conversations with myself that involve little reference to others. As it happens, I feel as busy as I did when I did more, but the quality of my engagement has changed: it is not hurried or harried but leisurely — insofar as what I do is more considered.

In a nutshell, conversations with myself about doing less have come to focus on what I know about time and space, the responsibility I have to make choices, the importance of setting priorities, and the need to pay attention to my desires and values. Knowing the space of time available to me is diminishing, it matters that my life is good for and not just good. I’ll come back to that again shortly.

The populist “take” on doing less

The number of books on doing less borders on excessive and some assume a readership for whom basic needs are well exceeded. Doubtless the Dowager Countess Grantham would breathe a sigh of relief. I get it: it would be rank hypocrisy to duck the reality that I am one such privileged reader.

Even so, I need to remind myself that billions of people work long hours for little remuneration in precarious conditions. As Assya Barrette has suggested in this respect, though powerful as an idea and practice, minimalism has flaws — serious among them its incapacity to force structural change to capitalist accumulation and unfair power relations.

Either way, many of the ‘do less’ books on the market are based on the idea that minimalism will transform individual lives. They are plugged for their capacity to reap various dividends for you and for me: more time to more energy, effectiveness, efficiency, empowerment, confidence, health, peace, mindfulness, presence, clarity, and — yes — joy (but is that really what they mean, I wonder). Let me consider two such works by way of example.

· For Christy Tending, doing less means doing better-but-less, which required her to think about her desires and values — about what she most wanted. The answer was time. So, in The Joy of Doing Less: 3 Ways to Reclaim Your Time, Tending describes how she decluttered and re-prioritized: audit commitments; think about time and effort involved; cull the excess and unnecessary; re-prioritize and schedule three meaningful things a day to accomplish with grace and accountability. For her, the main benefit from such practice has been a new and fulsome grounded presence that she describes as bringing joy. For me, her comments also conjure the space of time reclaimed.

· For Kate Northrup the focus is on parenting in Do Less: A Revolutionary Approach to Time and Energy Management for Busy Moms. Northrup’s aim is to challenge “the culturally inherited belief that [mothers’] worth is equal to their productivity, and instead create a personal and professional life that’s based on presence, meaning, and joy”. Northrup connects doing less and the associated capacity to harvest more time with a specific outcome, which is about being more: more confident, more accepting that ‘failure’ is part of ‘success’, more in tune with what she calls “the cyclical nature of the feminine”. Perhaps it is ironic that she provides 14 experiments for mothers to do less and more of what brings joy — in “bite-sized steps … over 2 weeks”.

Do less for more joy … so what’s that?

Thinking about doing less and putting those thoughts into practice appeals to me because that effort may indeed foster more of what brings joy — which is not to suggest that doing more has to lead to angst or despair. Yet, two things still go begging here:

· Is joy discovered and pursued (an externalizing spatial metaphor) or cultivated and maintained (an internalizing one) — or both? Personally, I suspect both, and I surmise that the two nourish each other.

· Does this axiom — do less and more of what brings joy — confuse the different historical meanings of joy and happiness, which refers to good fortune? Again, I suspect such is the case, and there are sound reasons to sort out their variances.

The term joy has been in circulation in English since around 1200 (from the French joie, Latin gaudia, and Greek gaio), and denotes a “feeling of pleasure and delight”. Among those who study the history of language there is a sense that joy’s meaning began to include happiness from around 1300, and that joy is a source of such emotions — its root-stock, if you like. Among those who study the history of joy, Adam Potkay suggests three things:

· Joy seems ever rarer and “still less do we now ‘rejoice’ … What have we lost?” (p.1).

· Joys “are implicated in larger networks of passions … based on beliefs, both general and particular, about what is good and bad, right and wrong. They are, in short, enmeshed in story telling” (p.3).

· Joy is more elusive than happiness. Since Aristotle (384–322 BCE), a happy life has been seen as equivalent with flourishing. In turn, flourishing has been seen as having “inner integrity, constancy and wisdom” (p.3). In contrast, among philosophers at least, joy involves “an expansion and at least partial loss of the self … and the crystallization of consciousness as radical otherness” (p.3).

Roger Crisp also writes at length about the differences between happiness and joy in an essay on well-being. In the process, he considers the profound distinctions between what he calls “good” and “good for” in ways that seem to mirror Potkay’s observations.

So, does happiness relate to the first — to what is good, and joy perhaps more to the second — what is good for? Is that, perhaps, what is at stake if joy emerges from surrendering parts of oneself for a greater good — care of self, of others, of Earth most fundamentally? What is brought into being by thinking about a radical otherness — a connectedness with one’s inner potential, with the goodness in others, with the miracle that is this planet?

In the final analysis, I have my own views on these questions, which may emerge in future essays here. Experience has tested these views. So, too, have reading, thinking, and listening to others who exude joy — most often in the face of deep tests to their beliefs, integrity, constancy, and wisdom. And those primary experiences and secondary insights have flowered and gained strength as a result of my growing commitment to doing less. Belatedly, perhaps, I am only really appreciating the need to distinguish between the good and good for. There are no fixed rules here, no list of “six impossible things before breakfast”. Rather, there is the space of time to ask, “what more can I do to foster joy?” and then act.

Intrigued by how we flourish in place and on the move. Professor of Geography, School of Technology, Environments & Design, University of Tasmania

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