When I was younger, I did things just for the heck of it. I did things because they were fun and brought me pleasure. I played outside, goofed off with friends and watched The Smurfs, My Little Pony and He-Man on television. I didn’t worry about whether these things were making me a better person or were “good” for me, I just did them because I wanted to. But somewhere along the way, I stopped. I stopped letting joy be my guide and instead started to use guilt and ‘shoulds’. My earliest memory of this is when my parents were going out of town for a lengthy trip, leaving me and my siblings at home with my grandparents. Knowing that I would have a hard time without her there, my mother left me a well-meaning note encouraging me to engage in “constructive” activities to help pass the time. Somehow, I translated that message to mean “always engage in constructive activities” and ever since, I’ve been incredibly focused on engaging in activities that society generally views as productive. Now, I often feel like if I read, it needs to be something that will educate and enlighten me. If I play a game, it should be one that has a side benefit of increasing my brain power. In short, I should spend all of my waking hours engaged in activities that will serve to improve me in some way. This obviously leaves little time for relaxation and fun, even though research shows those things are necessary for well being also.
Sadly, I don’t think this little hang up of mine is uncommon. I think society in general places an undue amount of importance on things like working, making money and being busy. This strict work ethic is so ingrained that even when our employers offer us time off, we refuse to take it: According to the U.S. Travel Association, 40 percent of Americans don’t take all of their vacation, leaving 430 million days of unused paid vacation a year. That’s a lot of time that people could have spent relaxing on the beach. Essentially, 40 percent of Americans are saying they’d rather sit at their desks than in a lounge chair. There’s something not quite right about that.
But what can we do about it? How to break free of a culture that equates productivity with working hard? How to move away from using how much a person earns and how hard they work to determine their worth? Aren’t we so much more than that? If being a good person relied only upon how hard a person worked, terrorists would be saints. Don’t they work hard? Hitler would have been idolized. He worked pretty darn hard too. But it doesn’t work that way. Who we are as people is so much more than what we do for a living and how hard we do it. Who we are lies in our hearts. It’s in how we treat people. And that includes how we treat ourselves.
I wouldn’t for a minute consider telling the young, carefree me to stop goofing off. And I don’t think her childhood would have been any better if it had been more structured and packed with enrichment activities like violin lessons, soccer practice and afterschool meetings with the math and science club. Not that there’s anything wrong with any of those things, but they wouldn’t have been fun for her. She enjoyed her childhood just the way it was, and she deserved to. As every child does.
As I sit here thinking about it today, I think we could all learn a lot from observing children like her. In fact, I think our standard definition of productive is way off. And while I’m tempted to try to cobble a new one together real quick to guide us in a better direction, I think it would likely be equally off. Why? Because productive can mean different things for different people. What’s productive for me might not be productive for you. We’re all individuals with different needs and different goals in life, and it is these unique goals and needs that should determine our actions. Not society.
So if you need a nap today, take one. If work emails are stressing you out, turn off your computer. If you want to lounge around and watch cartoons or read a silly romance novel, by all means, do it. And for goodness sake, make plans to use up some of those 430 million vacation days, because at the end of the day, are you really going to look back on your life and be grateful for all the days you were “productive”? Or are you going to look back and treasure all the days you spent living your life in a way that brought you joy?