Making Our Lives Golden: The Choices We Have

Now that our last child is about to leave home, K and I are talking about getting television service. For about 20 years, we have been without it. The idea was that our children would become better readers without the distraction – and that objective was achieved. All three of our boys are voracious and skillful readers.

But now, as empty nesters, we are thinking that it would be kind of fun to watch some shows together – to spend an hour after dinner, sitting next to one another, laughing at the same things.

To test this hypothesis, we jimmy-rigged an antenna connection for the television set that we’ve been using to play DVDs.

The results of that experiment were mixed. There was something wonderful about watching those programs together – the double pleasure of the experience itself and knowing that your mate is “getting it” too. But when it was over, we found ourselves feeling like we used to when we watched television – a little sad and empty inside. As if we were mourning the time we’d lost.

That got me thinking about how people spend their recreational time – how much time they devote to it, the things they do, and whether the time they spend is spent wisely.

Broadly speaking, you fill your day with four kinds of activities: working, sleeping, eating, and relaxing. And it seems logical to assert that – up to the point of mental or physical exhaustion – the more hours you spend working, the more successful you’ll be.

That said, we must acknowledge that all work and no play makes Jack a dull… or cranky… boy.

You do need some recreation. The question is: How much?

The answer to that is pretty simple. Just ask yourself how far you want to go in life. How smart you want to be. How high you want to rise in your industry. How much money you want to make.

What accomplishments you want to achieve.

Determine how ambitious you are… and then find out how many hours of work were done per day by people who have already achieved what you want to achieve. Unless you are exceptionally gifted (or exceptionally slow), chances are you will have to work about as hard (i.e., as many hours) as they did.

Take the number of hours you sleep and eat and add to that the number of hours successful people in your industry typically work. Subtract that from 24, and you will be left with the number of hours you can safely devote to recreation.

But there is another question that must be asked: Does the kind of recreational activities you engage in make a difference? Does it matter whether you are sitting in front of the TV watching Jerry Springer or lifting weights or playing a musical instrument?

In general, there are three ways you can occupy yourself during down time. You can amuse yourself with activities that, though fun, are harmful (like getting drunk). You can busy yourself with mindless distractions (like junky novels). Or you can choose to do something that requires a bit more energy but will give you both a high degree of pleasure and the knowledge that you have somehow improved yourself (like practicing yoga).

It seems to me that whether it is the work we do, the sports we play, the vacations we take… we have the same three choices. We can do something that:

1.  Improves us somehow

2.  Leaves us more or less the same

3.  Damages us in some way

Look at almost any activity, and you will see what I’m talking about. In the books you read. In the friends you keep. In the jobs you take. You name it. Some choices will improve you and some will damage you… but most will fall somewhere in the neutral zone: They won’t harm you. But they won’t help you either.

If we fill our lives with mediocre experiences – does that make sense?

Every day, we are given dozens of choices – from which foods to eat to which parts of the newspaper to read to which words to say in any given conversation. Many of these choices seem to be insignificant. But when you string them all together, they determine the quality of our lives.

At the lowest end of the scale, there’s the person who spends his time using drugs and prostituting himself or stealing to pay for his addiction. At the highest end of the scale – well, I don’t really know who that is. But when I think of rich guys in limos or holy men on mountains… that just doesn’t work.

Most of us live in the middle ground, mixing quality experiences with neutral ones while trying not to harm ourselves… but doing so anyway. We recognize that some of the choices we make are better than others, but we don’t always have the willpower to make the better ones.

It’s interesting, isn’t it? The best choices are often the hardest to choose… because they require more of our energy. The worst choices are usually the easiest to refuse… because we are frightened by them. But when we have experienced them and found them to be pleasurable, they have the greatest pull on us. The neutral choices – the actions that do little more than get the job done – are the most popular because they are relatively easy and benign. They don’t require much energy and they don’t leave us hurting.

If there is one thing that life gives us all in equal portion, it is the hours in a day. Everyone has 24. We can’t determine (with any certainty) how many total hours will be allotted to us, but we can decide how to spend those that we have.

As I pointed out earlier, the more time you spend working, the more successful you’re likely to be. But I acknowledged that even the most ambitious and hardest workers need to take at least a few hours out of their day to do something that gives them pleasure. Something that isn’t work.

The question then becomes, “What should that ‘something’ be?”

Think of the best choices – the ones that improve you – as Golden. Think of the neutral choices – the ones that just help you pass the time – as Vaporous. And think of the worst choices – the ones that damage you – as Acidic.

It’s up to you how much Gold, Vapor, and Acid you are going to have in your life.

When I think of my own choices – good, bad, and neutral – I notice that they have the following characteristics:

Golden Choices

My best experiences tend to be with activities that are intellectually challenging and emotionally engaging. Because they demand a lot from me, I shy away from them when I am low in energy. But when I do get into them, they build my energy and, thus, make it easier to continue. When I am through with a Golden activity, I feel good about myself and content with how I have spent my time.

Vaporous Choices

These activities are easy to slip into and easier, too, to stay involved with. They are the choices we make when we don’t feel like making choices. The time we spend when we don’t much care how we spend our time. Welcome to the Vapor zone, the neutral, happy world of poker and sitcoms and gossip.

When I’m ready for some relaxation, my first impulse is always to choose a Vaporous activity. Having “worked hard all day,” I want something simple and mindless so I can gear down. And most people would probably say the same thing. Getting into the Vapor zone is easy – and staying there is easier still.

The big problem with Vaporous activities – and this is a very big problem for me – is that they leave me feeling enervated instead of energized. And empty. Vaporous activities do for me what Vaporous foods (i.e., comfort foods) do: They fill me up but tire me out.

Acidic Choices

Everybody has vices. At one time or another, I’ve had just about all of them. I have never smoked crack, but I’ve done plenty of other things to destroy, reduce, or disable myself.

Why I do those things, I can only guess. Sometimes I think I need the challenge of surviving self-imposed obstacles. Whatever my reasons, the result of making those choices is the same. I get a dull pleasure that is mixed with a barely discernable level of pain. Even when the pleasure is intense, it is clouded by a foggy brain. It feels like I’m having a great time… but I am not sure. And if the actual experience of Acidic activities is mixed, the feeling afterward is not at all ambivalent.

It is bad.

The interesting thing about Acidic options is how attractive they can be. Nobody would argue that they are good choices. We pick them because we are too weak to pick anything else, and we use what little mind we have left to rationalize our self-destruction.

Let’s Take a Closer Look at These 3 Categories

When we are at our best – confident and full of energy – we can easily choose Golden activities over all the rest. When we are feeling just okay, we can usually reject Acidic choices but find it hard to opt for Golden moments over Vaporous ones. And when we are at our worst – low in energy and full of doubt – that is when we are most susceptible to making Acidic choices.

Golden activities include:

  • Meditation
  • Yoga
  • Watching an educational and inspiring documentary
  • Listening to complex, uplifting music
  • Appreciating art
  • Watching a really, really good movie
  • Reading a very good book
  • Making love
  • Tasting a really good wine

Vaporous activities include:

  • Getting a massage
  • Going to a sporting event
  • Watching most “entertaining” TV, like The Office, CSI, The Tonight Show, etc.
  • Reading “beach” novels and page-turners
  • Listening to most mood music, including most rock ‘n’ roll
  • Having sex
  • Drinking beer or whiskey

Acidic activities include:

  • Getting drunk
  • Listening to rap music
  • Watching stupid/degrading TV shows like Jerry Springer, Cops, and The Bachelor
  • Doing things you’d be ashamed to talk about

You may not agree with some of these designations. Not to worry. You can (and should) make your own list. But in creating that list, consider the following:

When Choosing Gold…

  • The activity/experience is intellectually challenging. It teaches you something worth knowing or develops a skill worth having.
  • It is emotionally deepening. It helps you understand something you hadn’t understood before and/or makes you sympathetic to experiences and/or situations you were closed to.
  • It is energizing. The experience itself charges you up spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. You have greater strength and more endurance because of it.
  • It leaves you happy with your choice. During the experience and afterward, you have a strong sense that you are doing the right thing.
  • It builds confidence. Because you know that you are improving yourself, choosing Gold makes you feel better able to make wise choices in the future.

When Choosing Vapor…

  • The activity/experience is intellectually and emotionally easy. It feels comfortable and comfortably enjoyable. You have done it before and it amused you, so you are sure that if you do it again you will be equally amused.
  • It is usually passive rather than active. It is watching TV rather than going to a stage play. It is getting a massage rather than practicing yoga. It is chugging a brewsky rather than savoring a good wine.
  • It tends to be habit forming. Because it feels good (in a medium-energy sort of way) and is so easy to do, you find yourself doing it over and over again.
  • Doing too much of it is not good for you. Whether it’s eating starch and fat or sitting on the couch and staring at the TV screen, a little bit doesn’t hurt. But too much leaves you with the unpleasant feeling that you’ve wasted your time.

When Choosing Acid…

  • The activity/experience is physically or mentally damaging. Often, it kills brain cells. Sometimes, it gives you cancer.
  • Although it is bad for you, it is alluring. There is something about the way the experience takes you out of yourself that you find appealing.
  • It attracts bad company. Since most healthy people don’t approve of it, you find yourself doing it with another set of friends. Eventually, you reject the friends and family members who don’t “get it.” They are too strait-laced or lame to understand, so you figure you don’t need them in your life.
  • It disables you intellectually, emotionally, and physically. While engaging in Acidic activities, you are less capable of performing complex skills or dealing with complex emotional or intellectual issues. If you engage in Acidic activities a lot, you become less capable of peak performance generally.
  • Acidic experiences have ever-extending thresholds. What gets you off in the beginning is never enough to get you off later on. You have the mistaken notion that more is always better.

Will This Make a Change in the Choices You Make?

Once you’ve drawn up your own list of Golden, Vaporous, and Acidic activities, use it to keep track of the way you’re choosing to spend your time. (A good way to do that is to make notes in your journal.) You may be surprised – and disappointed – by what you discover.

So make your own list. Track your own life. Ask yourself what you could become if – starting right now – you began making better choices.

In the meantime, I am going to have a talk with K about our tentative plans for installing cable TV in our house. I will tell her my fears:

  • That I will become addicted to it
  • That I will begin to watch the worst kind of shows
  • That in watching more and more Vaporous TV, I will spend less time on Golden activities

She will point out that she is content watching her three or four favorite shows on video while she is on her Stairmaster. She will tell me, “Do what you want. It makes no difference to me” – and she will mean it. Which will make me entirely responsible for figuring out how much of my free time will be Golden or Vaporous or Acidic.

What about you?

[Publisher’s Note: This essay originally appeared in the Feb. 20, 2010 Michael Masterson Journal.]

[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]