“Life feels so mundane,” my college friend confessed the other day, “I just go to work and pay bills.” Sadly, as we get older, every day comes to seem the same: wake up, have your morning coffee, wait for the (yet again) late 8:30 train, do monotonous, meaningless work under the harsh fluorescent lights of a grim office that is relentlessly gray, come home, repeat. Little— if anything— breaks up the tedium of our days. “Adulting” is living in an eternal Groundhog Day.
In his 1908 masterpiece of self-help How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett prescribes a potent medicine for the mundanity of modern living. According to Bennett, the greatest tragedy of our times is that we regard 8 hours— a whole third of our existence— as simply something to “get over with.” Though a great fraction of our time is spent working, few approach their jobs with a sense of fervor or eagerness. As Bennett writes, “In the majority of instances he does not precisely feel a passion for his business; at best he does not dislike it.”
Worse still is the fact that we treat the other 16 hours of our day as “free time” to waste. Of course, 8 of those 16 hours are spent sleeping but what about the other 8? After work, we fritter away these precious moments in some trivial activity: relaxing but ultimately random reading, zombified scrolling, superficial conversation, T.V. And so runs the unfortunate course of our finite lives: 1/3 spent sleeping, 1/3 spent working at a profession we find divorced from a transcendent cause or greater meaning, and 1/3 spent in trifling activity.
Bennett believed our gravest mistake was making our jobs the focus of our day. Though many of us dislike if not outright despise our jobs, we organize our lives around what we do for a living. For most— Bennett claims— the hours from 9 to 5 constitute the day: “the ten hours preceding them and the six hours following them are nothing but a prologue and epilogue.” We use the hours before and after work like money in a foreign country: we insist this time doesn’t “count,” so we spend it frivolously. After all, it’s easy to spend extravagantly in Greece if the concept of a euro means nothing.
Rather than squander our finite time on Earth, Bennet argues we should use time wisely. The forefather of self-help recommends we devote an hour and a half every other evening to some “important and consecutive cultivation of the mind.”
But why only an hour and a half every other night? Certainly we have more free time.
If we work a traditional 9-5, we probably have around 5-6 hours every day of “free time.” However, we must account for our other obligations. After commuting and grabbing our morning coffee, grocery shopping and going to the post office, making cereal for our kids and reading them bedtime stories, we probably have less than 3 hours of free time.
So why still only commit an hour and a half every other night?
As with any worthwhile endeavor, we must start small. An hour and a half every other night is a manageable amount. After a few weeks of dedicated practice to our “cultivation of mind,” most of us will spend several evenings a week engaged in our activity and prefer it to the hollow pleasures of social media and T.V. watching.
But what, exactly, constitutes a “cultivation of mind”? What should we use our hour and a half every other night for?
Watch AFI’s 100 Greatest Movies of All Time. Read all of Leo Tolstoy’s works. Train for a half marathon.
Our goals may be physical or intellectual, spiritual or emotional, the only important thing is we have a goal and that goal personally resonates with us. We can work to realize a lifelong ambition (write a novel) or revive a long neglected hobby (collect midcentury furniture). We can learn to speak Italian or play the piano or master the art of Szechuan cooking or aim to expand our knowledge of 18th century literature. The only requirement is we choose something meaningful.
Why is learning a skill or cultivating a passion or taking up a hobby so crucial? As Bennet so eloquently explains, if you learn, say, how a symphony operates, the next time you go to a concert, you’ll have an “astonishing intensification of interest in it.” That is the beauty of hobbies: they renew our fascination and rekindle our zest for existence.