Living in a single room numbed me down into a mindless being floating through time. Let me explain.
I have been living in single room apartments for almost two years now; the joys of studying abroad in two different countries. These rooms have a distinctly temporary feel to them, and often consist of not much more than a table, a chair, a fridge, and a bed. A small kitchen and bathroom may or may not be included (as in, either they are shared with others in the apartment, or I am living in a tiny studio on my own). In these rooms, I study, work, eat, relax, and sleep. Except for sleeping, this all happens at the same table, whilst sitting in the same chair. There are few physical differences to tell apart the activities with which I fill sixty-seven percent of my days. Watching lectures? I am sitting at the table behind my laptop. Working in my internship? I am sitting at the table behind my laptop. Meeting with my thesis supervisors? Again, I am sitting at the table behind my laptop. Watching the Nerdwriter on YouTube or reading through blogs and newspapers online? Table, laptop. With so much of my days physically identical to each other, it starts impacting my mental state. The extremely low quantity of new impressions causes my brain to register these days as big blurs. All activities blend into each other, and the days start to blend too. Looking back at periods of multiple months, they don't feel to have lasted longer than just a couple of weeks. And this absence of memories is a problem; time for a short interlude on happiness.
A few days ago I was talking with Jack about the pursuit of happiness. Arguably, large parts of the world's population live their lives seeking happiness. Now, Jack remarked that he thought this was a totally wrong approach to life. The pursuit of happiness is a never-ending journey, he said, there is no point in life at which you can say to have found the happiness (although there are these concepts of transcendence, enlightenment, and Nirvana that symbolize this exact moment). Practically, seeking happiness is a fruitless effort. Rather, you should just be happy. But because this also doesn't bring us any further, I pressed him on what he thought us mortals should focus our efforts instead. Achieve experiences and create memories, was Jack's answer. He further explained, that achievements are things we can concretely work towards, fulfill, and then look back on. After having achieved something, you will never un-achieve it. Unlike the quest for happiness, where one is never sure if it has been reached, is in the now, or has already passed. Living your life working towards meaningful achievements will culminate in you being able to reflect and remember on it all, which has large intrinsic value to many of us. (the point is ultimately that "seeking happiness" is less effective as life advice than "work to achieve things and make memories")
So, making memories is a good way to live life. But I also established that I wasn't doing a whole lot of that, which is thus pretty bad. And there is an additional aspect that makes it even worse. I talked about the lack of physical diversity in my surroundings as an instigator of this time blur. However, if I dig deeper, I notice that this isn't the actual problem. A more specific formulation would instead be "the occupation of my mind's attention by activities that do not create meaningful memories". Reformulating the problem like this, a new perpetrator enters the stage. Distractions. And especially the low-hanging fruit of social media distractions. Let me nuance this a bit. I wouldn't say that direct messaging is that bad of a deal; it still builds up a form of connection between actual human beings. Instead, I want to mostly take aim at infinite feed parts of media consumption. For me, this includes stuff like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit, Hacker News, and YouTube. My use of the former few is not all that excessive; between zero and three hours per day. YouTube would most often be the bigger distraction to me. But I can just as easily be distracted by interesting blog posts, Wikipedia articles, or random web rabbit holes. The main effect of all of these, is that time just speeds past. All the while, I am practically not challenging any active part of my mind. No creativity, no reflection; no thinking. This is ultimately what then keeps my mind occupied for large amounts of time in a day, because of its comforting call that is so easily answered.
This makes one into a mindless being. Becoming too comfortable in the eternal cycle of short-term gratifications that forgo any meaning on a human timescale.
(Except that watching and reading certain stuff can actually teach you lots of useful things too! The point is that one just needs to start creating something by oneself to really feel the payoff and satisfaction of learning.)
How to remedy free time? This evening I came home after having spent the day working on my Master's thesis at campus. I prepared fresh pita bread with a spicy chili, and purposefully ate it while standing in my kitchen. Just doing that single thing. Sensing joy for every individual bite I took. I cleaned up and walked back to my room, where I sat on my bed and just fathomed how good it made me feel to focus my attention on a single action. Still sitting on my mattress, I grabbed a paper notebook and started jotting down some thoughts.
What is the lesson here? It seems to me that purposeful attention makes any activity more meaningful. And I do not mean to advocate for a western Zen philosophy here. I purely recognize this on an individual and personal level as something that makes me feel better about what I do. It also inspires me to think more about what I want to spend my limited time here at earth on. This ultimately nudges me more towards activities that actually make meaningful memories in my brain; arguably leading to a more fulfilled life.
How to rhyme this with the psychological concept of flow states? These seem to be periods of time in which everything flows and only hours later you rediscover your conscious self again. Does this oppose the purposeful attention I wrote about earlier? Maybe not. The flow state might actually be seen as an ultimate form of purposeful attention on a single activity you are performing. So much so, that you don't waste any of your finite attention span on anything outside of it. A beautiful endeavor to aspire to.