Stop Trying to Make Life Easier for Yourself
Because you’re probably just making it harder
For many thousands of years, we’ve been obsessed with the idea of making our lives easier.
At around 10,000 BC, Homo Sapiens began planting seeds and herding animals, leaving behind their hunter-gatherer lifestyles to become farmers. They spearheaded what we now call The Agricultural Revolution.
The result, they had hoped, would provide for them a much more convenient life. Food would be readily-available, harvest would be plentiful and they could spend more time in leisure, freed of their need to forage every hour for food.
Yet, much to their dismay — life quickly became harder than it had ever been before. The agricultural revolution was a trap.
As more and more crops, mainly wheat, were planted, villages grew larger. The rate of childbirth soared and farmers were forced to work laboriously. If villagers stood a chance of feeding their young, they would simply have to produce more food.
Yet feeding newborn babies a diet consisting primarily of wheat left their immune systems weak, and many died; so more people had babies to compensate, and thus more people were forced to farm, and settlements grew rapidly in size.
Once the ball of socio-economic growth had begun rolling, there was no going back. Even though peoples’ lives were becoming more and more miserable, the old days were simply too far gone.
After all, if a village grew from a population of fifty to sixty, which ten people would volunteer to starve so that their neighbors could live how they used to? Probably none.
In the words of Yuval Noah Harari,
Once people get used to a certain luxury, they take it for granted. Then they begin to count on it. Finally they reach a point where they can’t live without it.
The same principle applies to many of our modern norms — like money. We’re obsessed with the idea of making our lives easier by earning more money.
However, in a twisted turn of irony, our ancient quest for convenience has only made life more difficult.
On Saving Time
Modern society places a great emphasis on saving time.
Just take a moment to consider how many appliances inside and out of your home exist with the sole purpose of taking some mundane task off your hands?
There are dishwashers and washing machines, mobile phones and computers, vacuum cleaners, ready meals, central heating — you name it. They’re everywhere. But do these tools actually help us?
Indeed, they save us all the trouble of having to execute these tasks ourselves, like collecting wood to light a fire and warm our homes, but do we live more relaxed lives as a result?
In his book, Sapiens, Harrari takes the example of modern-day emailing systems.
Before we could send emails, people had to write letters, post them by hand and wait weeks or months for a response to return to them. They could not simply write the first thing that came to mind and fire it off instantly to another person in some distant continent. Rather, they would have had to carefully consider whether such a message was worthy of their time.
Naturally, they wrote far fewer letters and received fewer in response — perhaps only a handful every month.
Today, however, my inbox is inundated with emails from across the globe, from friends, clients, people I’ve never even met before, all expecting a prompt reply and often within the hour.
In an attempt to save time by stamping out letter-sending altogether, we’ve only ended up with more congested inboxes and more things to do. Is that really an upgrade? Were things not far simpler and less stressful before?
Humanity’s search for an easier life resulted in immense forces of change that transformed the world in ways nobody envisioned or wanted.
These profound transformations have created a life that in foresight was blissful, but in hindsight, has only made us more stressed and miserable.
A Modern-Day Trap
Discussing the periods of growth that sustained our ancestors is interesting, but it isn’t exactly relatable. We know little about what happened back then, and not much of it is relevant today anyway.
Let’s consider, too, a modern day example of how our quest for luxury often only results in pain. Take today’s college graduate, for instance.
From the moment he begins school he is taught that his efforts today will grant him a place at university in the future. He is told to envision his dream job, and conditioned to believe that only diligent study and hours of hard work shall bridge the gap between his current position and his fantasy.
At eighteen, he leaves school and enrolls in a university course, during which he will be required to work hard — harder than before — for a further three years.
And at twenty-one, he eventually finds himself working in the job that he had wished for, but the journey doesn’t end here. He isn’t earning nearly enough money to sustain himself, let alone a family in future. He must work harder and earn a promotion.
After ten more years of struggle, his wife gives birth to their first child. Finally, a release. Two weeks’ paternity leave. The break is welcomed, but he knows that when he gets back to work, he must double down in order to earn enough money to support his new family.
So he works harder, and at fifty, when his child is fully grown and moves out, he can relax a little. The pressure is off, but time has already passed. After many decades of solid work, only now can he take his foot off the accelerator to reflect.
Perhaps, he considers, his life would have been far more enjoyable if he’d just appreciated each moment rather than treating it as a means to an end; if he’d been truly present, rather than always striving for more. If he’d prioritized his happiness over some future paycheck or status symbol.
Our friend would surely be far happier were he to follow the advice of Roy T. Bennett,
“Do not set aside your happiness. Do not wait to be happy in the future. The best time to be happy is always now.”
Because if we do not learn to be happy now, our delayed misery will eventually catch up with us.
The Easy Route is Seldom Easy
If there’s a lesson that we can all learn from the endeavors of our ancestors and neighbors, it’s that the easy route isn’t always easy.
An apprentice accountant that dreams of becoming a painter knows that bookkeeping is far more lucrative than artistry, but does that make it the better option?
Society would tell us that the answer is, of course, yes. That’s because society wants you to earn lots of money and pay taxes and fuel the growth of its economy — like a cog in a machine that never stops running.
But which yardstick do you want to measure your success with — money or fulfillment? Wealth, or happiness?
We should be mindful that our efforts to make life easier often do the exact opposite. Granted, we should work hard to actualize our dreams, but never at the expense of our happiness and wellbeing.
What use are forty weekly hours of work if we’re stressed out of our minds, hate our jobs and can’t wait to retire?
The aspiring painter would gladly paint for forty hours each week, and earn a fraction of his accounting friend’s salary.
He would live merrily in a cozy one-bedroom apartment with his partner, taking great pleasure in walks, seeing family and creating masterpieces — caring little for the superyachts and boutique holidays that his friends strive for.
And that’s okay, too. It’s okay to go against the grain sometimes, especially where work is concerned. After all, only you know what’s right for you.
As Leo Tolstoy writes,
“A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one’s neighbor — such is my idea of happiness.”
To me, that sounds far better than a stress-filled life of long hours, convenience food and misery. Perhaps I’m just crazy.