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The surprisingly difficult art of doing less

Taming our impulse to experience everything could make us happier, says the author of The Joy of Missing Out.

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It’s a hallmark of modern life to always be on, to always try to cram as much experience as possible into as little time as possible. But at some point, this mad pursuit becomes counterproductive. There is just too much happening too quickly, and it’s impossible to keep up.

A new book by Danish philosopher Svend Brinkmann, The Joy of Missing Out, offers some useful advice: Let it go. Stop trying to do everything and instead do less. In fact, sometimes it’s best to be left behind, to enjoy where you are right now.

Brinkmann isn’t the only one concerned about our happiness. Published this spring, How to Do Nothing by Stanford professor Jenny Odell and Digital Minimalism by Georgetown University computer science professor Cal Newport also tout digital and spiritual detoxes. Brinkmann has been mining the subject from a philosophical perspective for years, however. The third in a trilogy of books he’s written on the topic, The Joy of Missing Out argues that self-restraint may be exactly what we need.

A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Brinkmann follows.

Sean Illing

What is it about modern life that pushes us to constantly chase after the next pleasure or goal or experience?

Svend Brinkmann

I think we should see this predicament in light of consumer culture, which we have created for ourselves. Our culture depends on us constantly wanting more, constantly buying more and doing more. To be satisfied nowadays is almost a vice, because it means you’re content with what you have and therefore you’re not already chasing after the next thing.

Today, for example, we talk a lot about personal development, about lifelong learning and the ability to constantly develop your competencies. But I see this as part of the same vicious cycle of wanting more, wanting new stuff, and always feeling the need to do things differently or better.

Sean Illing

You also see secularization as part of the puzzle here — why?

Svend Brinkmann

Well, the idea that we don’t live in order to obtain some kind of salvation in the afterlife leads naturally to the belief that we have to achieve everything that is worth achieving in the here and now, in this one life that we have. So we try to pack as much into this life as possible.

And if we miss out on anything in this life, it’s seen as a kind of existential failure. You failed because you didn’t get to experience everything you could have experienced, or travel as much as you could have traveled, or had as many romantic partners as you could have had.

So we have this whole mentality of always doing more that is built into our consumerist society, which, carried to an extreme, is really tragic because it’s not the recipe for a good life for most of us.

Sean Illing

And why is this a particular problem for the wealthiest nations?

Svend Brinkmann

The short answer is that in the wealthiest nations, we have more opportunities, more possibilities of realizing whatever desires we might have. Of course, I’m not advocating that a poorer life is necessarily a better one. But there is some research that suggests the results are pretty mixed.

It turns out that additional wealth, beyond a certain point, will not make you happier. So there’s no real reason to madly pursue more money once you’ve reached that level. But of course if you’re struggling to find a meal, or a proper place to sleep, then an excess of choices is hardly a problem.

So this is really a problem for the most privileged societies, where people are bombarded with choices and temptations.

Sean Illing

So what exactly is the joy of missing out? What do we gain by doing less?

Svend Brinkmann

We gain the chance to engage in activities and experiences that are existentially deeper and more meaningful. If we live with the mentality of fearing that we [will] miss out, then we are constantly worried that something better might be waiting for us and we only need to move away from what we’re currently doing to have something better and something more.

And so everything becomes a means to the next thing. I do A not because A is intrinsically meaningful and important, but in order to achieve B, and perhaps B is better. And so I move on to B, which is also only temporary because I really want to achieve C, and so on and so forth. This is how a lot of people move through life.

But if we only live to experience more things, we miss the fact that certain things are inherently valuable and meaningful, not only instrumentally, not only in order to achieve something else, but in and of themselves.

This is really what I mean when I talk about the joy of missing out.

Sean Illing

Is all of that to say that we’ve basically become victims of our own prosperity?

Svend Brinkmann

That’s a wonderful way to put it. It’s sad because so many people believe that the key to happiness is to have more choices, to have more experiences, but it’s really the opposite. This is what the American psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the “paradox of choice.”

Sean Illing

Do you see your book as a defense of what’s often called “mindfulness”? Or at least as a call to live a more engaged, present life?

Svend Brinkmann

Yeah, I do. In previous books, I have been rather critical of mindfulness, but not as a way of treating people with stress or helping people with depression. I think it’s a useful tool in many ways. But I also think it’s a kind of Band-Aid. It helps temporarily, but in the long run it’s really just treating the symptom instead of finding the root of the problem.

For example, I live in Denmark, and here it’s very common to have mindfulness instructors and coaches help employees so they won’t develop stress-related disorders. But wouldn’t it be better to organize ourselves in ways that didn’t make us stressed in the first place?

I suppose my only concern is that by focusing on tools like mindfulness, we risk individualizing the problem. But we can only truly solve this problem if we begin to regulate our practices collectively.

Sean Illing

What do you recommend people do to find stillness in this kind of environment? Obviously, asking the individual to overturn the culture in which she lives is a bit much, so for most people, it’s a question of orienting themselves to an unavoidably chaotic world.

Svend Brinkmann

It’s a good question, and it’s why something like mindfulness is part of the answer at the individual level. But I just think it’s crucial that we keep trying to do something on a more collective level.

I’ll say this, though: We should be careful, as individuals, not to blame ourselves for things that afflict us, that actually result from these more overarching levels. We’re all victims of the culture in which we live, one way or the other, and so it’s not our fault if we reflect the worst parts of it.

But we do have some freedom as individuals. We can micromanage our lives and our habits. We have to work on our self-control the same way we work on our bodies in a gym. We have to develop the strength to resist these constant temptations.

Sean Illing

Are you encouraging people to just opt out of the culture altogether or to just find some compromise within a system that will constantly work to undermine any practice of self-restraint or moderation?

Svend Brinkmann

I mean, I’m living within the system. I’m guilty of these things too. But I’m trying to criticize the system and tweak it while at the same time trying to take advantage of whatever possibilities I can.

I admire people who can opt out. In most cases, they can only do so together with others, and so I’m quite interested in all sorts of new movements that organize themselves in opposition to this society of acceleration and perpetual growth that we have created. I think it’s necessary to start moving in that direction.

But there’s no doubt that it’s very difficult to do this, and the choice for most people is to try and make the best of it within the system we have.

Sean Illing

Are there any simple or concrete steps people can take to at least get themselves on the path of missing out a little more?

Svend Brinkmann

I actually wrote about this in a previous book called Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze. I tried to turn conventional advice on its head. So instead of focusing on the positive things, I encourage people to focus on the negative things because we should be able to talk about the problems that exist instead of just being happy and positive all the time. We have to see what’s wrong to have any chance of fixing it.

I also think things like reading a novel or dwelling on the past can be genuinely useful. It’s about ritualizing your life, developing habits and routines that will make it much easier to focus and to miss out on all the noise and all the distractions.

This ancient art of reading, of getting immersed in a book, is very disciplining. In a way, it’s a bit like mindfulness, only you focus on something different. In mindfulness, you sort of register whatever happens in and around you. But we practice this in a different way when we read a book.

Many people have lost the ability to sit for hours and read a book. They constantly become distracted and want to check their smartphones. I do that as well. But practicing these routines are small steps we can take to learn to live within a culture that is constantly pulling us in a million different directions.

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