A friend recommended This American Life to me at the start of this year and since then, I’ve been hooked. It’s a radio show that’s been going since 1995. Each week has a different theme and you can download it as podcasts. What makes it so good is that they transform topics you wouldn’t expect to be interesting into compelling stories.
It’s also changed the way I think about exercise. You see, a podcast is an odd form of entertainment. You can’t sit in the lounge and listen to it the way you’d watch TV. It also doesn’t have music’s functional uses. It’s not something you can play in the background and you can’t dance to it either. The most suitable time to listen to a podcast is when your hands and eyes are preoccupied. It suits driving, but car journeys tend to be too short to enjoy an hour-long show.
What I’ve found is that it’s a perfect accompaniment to a jog to the Green Point Park. Both take an hour to complete. So doing exercise has become the only way for me to listen to new episodes. As a result, my mind associates the two, making me more enthusiastic about the jog because of the expectation of new entertainment.
I borrowed this trick from Duke University professor Dan Ariely. In the introduction to The Upside of Irrationality he tells the story of how he was the only patient to complete a gruelling 18 months of Hepatitis C treatment. He had to inject himself with a new drug called interferon thrice a weekend. The side-effects of the drug were headaches and vomiting that lasted 16 hours, every single time. It was an awful experience, but he was determined to shake the disease:
Every injection day I deeply wanted to avoid the procedure. But I did have a trick: I love movies, so I decided to motivate myself with movies. Every injection day, I would stop at the video store and pick up a few films. Throughout the day, I would think about how much I would enjoy watching them later. Once I got home, I would give myself the injection. Then I would immediately jump into my hammock and start my mini-film fest. That way, I learned to associate the act of the injection with the rewarding movie experience.
Ariely’s story shows that it’s possible to manipulate our connotations. We can change the way we think about tasks in order to get them done and be happier.
It’s funny to think that we’ve taken many of the chores that burdened our ancestors and turned them into leisure activities. In Bobos in Paradise , David Brooks looks at America’s new educated elite, who he calls “bourgeois bohemians”, abbreviated as “bobos”. They spend their wealth on sports utility vehicles, gardening equipment, industrial strength toasters and clothing made for Mount Everest. In the 19th century, the kitchen was a reviled part of the house. It was seen as a separate space that upper class women preferred to avoid, but today’s upper class have massive kitchens that swallow up adjacent rooms. They use it to entertain guests and equip it with professional stoves that cost more than the car they drove in their 20s.
There’s obviously a difference between the motivations behind these two examples. Ariely made an unpleasant experience bearable by associating it with leisure. The bobos turn work that they could easily pay someone else to do, into a lifestyle. You could see it as diligent or extravagant, but it’s no better than angling fish.
It makes me wonder, what chores of today will future generations do for fun?