Making Our Lives Golden

 “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.” – Groucho Marx

I have always been a strong opponent of television. But, as I told you on Friday, K and I recently started watching it together. Just a little bit here and there, but enough to get me thinking about the way people spend their recreational time… and make me wonder if the kind of activities we engage in during our down time really make a difference.

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

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

As I said, just about any activity we choose to do can fit into one of three categories. It can:

  1. damage us in some way
  2. improve us somehow
  3. leave us more or less the same

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 hurt 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 such an 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 these 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 generally 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 Friends, 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 up 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 of 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 attractive.
  • 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 straight-laced or lame to understand, so you figure you don’t need them in your life.
  • It disables you intellectually, emotionally, and physically. During the moment, 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.

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 to talk to K about our 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 Gold 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?

[Ed. Note: To read Michael’s unedited, uncensored (and sometimes unexpected) ruminations, check out his blog here.] [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.]