There’s a lot going on in our daily lives. It can seem like there’s never quite enough time to do everything we want to do. It’s difficult to get enough sleep, to exercise, to spend time with our friends and family, and to have a fulfilling job. We have many obligations, from serious ones like work or study to routine ones such as the laundry or the groceries. And we have aspirations too: to build a career to be proud of, for instance, or to start a family.
If you manage to find a moment to contemplate the big picture, it’s easy to be distracted by the notifications and screens that are ubiquitous in our modern world. Easy entertainment is only a few smartphone swipes away. Yet one big picture is especially important to reflect on today.
We are very fortunate people, historically speaking. We’re exceptionally free to choose how to spend our time. That doesn’t mean we can always do whatever we like: we need a place to live and food to eat and we need to work to pay for those things. But material things are easier to come by today than ever before. And while we have social obligations too, both direct ones such as caring for our children or parents, and indirect ones such as taxes, most of us are not forced to adopt a certain religion, to go to war, or to work the farm for a landowner.
In most of history, only a lucky few members of society had as much freedom and material luxury as we do today. Even if people knew how they wanted to live—if they knew what a good life meant to them—they may not have been able to live that life. But in our time, billions of people can live life the way they want to. The problem is, it’s not easy to figure out what’s a good way to live. There are so many things you could do, so many ways you could spend your time. It’s a good problem to have, but a problem nonetheless.
At school we don’t learn how to think about how to spend our lives: our formal education tends to cover practical skills that will help us find a job. It’s not a common topic of conversation at the workplace either. The more I thought about the question, the more I realized that nobody has ever convinced me that living my life a certain way is the best way, or has even tried particularly hard for that matter. If you’re not strongly religious, chances are you’re in the same boat as I am.
I go back and forth between feeling grateful for the freedom I have and feeling terrified by the number of ways I could spend my time. And I certainly haven’t figured out yet what a good life means to me. Wouldn’t it be great if this were a topic of conversation at lunchtime in the office and at birthday parties? When it comes to figuring out how to live well, I think we could all use some help.