I have described in earlier posts how I came to the decision to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail, and how I eventually realized that I was looking for more than a six-month adventure, but rather a permanent change in lifestyle. By this I do not mean that I wish to spend the rest of my (hopefully) many days living in the woods with the bare minimum of resources, but that I wish to live more simply, and to approach life with a different perspective. This can be quite hard to do because of the way culture and economy have progressed in the last 150 years, and difficult it is to overcome the inclinations that have been ingrained in us our entire lives.
I have talked much about equipment, the challenges of walking 2,200 miles with agoraphobia, as an insulin-dependent diabetic, and my fundraising efforts for diabetes, but I have shared little of what I hope to actually do on this six month trek (besides a lot of walking). The truth is, I have experienced great frustration in the past couple years that I did not have the time to do what I believe I am most suited to do because of everyday time-consuming complications: read and write. More specifically, to finish the research I have been collecting over several years and write the book that has been percolating in me for a very long time.
Ironically, the research I have been focused on is in large part related to how complicated modern life has become, and the unintended consequences of that complication. Don’t get me wrong, I love technological progress. Without insulin, my days on this earth would be numbered. I love the web, I love my iPhone, and I love the coolest new gadgets (although I am typically a few years behind these days).But there have also been unintended consequences. There was a time when people focused primarily on a limited set of basic needs, such as food, shelter, clothing and warmth. There were still luxuries; even in the 19th century Henry David Thoreau raved about the “bawbles” that people purchased before ensuring to their basic needs (Thoreau, 1908). Today, however, our bawbles have grown in both number and proportional expense.
Technological advancements have made it possible to do our work faster, to produce greater amounts of food with less effort, and provide basic necessities like heat with less labor. An outsider, if one could be found, might look at these achievements and assume that our lives are well-oiled machines, providing for ourselves in mere hours a week, and taking advantage of one of the greatest gifts in life: time. Instead, our work hours grow longer and longer, and children go hungry in houses filled with big-screen televisions and elegant furniture. Cellular telephones are now considered such a basic human need that if you can’t afford one, one will be provided for you by the government. What happened?
I am not taking an Epicurean view suggesting that we should use these scientific advancements to give us ample time to laze about in the sun all day. Progress does not occur without hard work, but I believe that the greatest achievements emerge from passion, and very few of us have the privilege to follow our passions. Research has proven that one of the fundamental keys to happiness is to engage oneself in activities that occupy our minds and utilize our strengths, and that more shallow pleasures pale in comparison to such engagement (Seligman et al., 2003). For some this engagement could be searching for a cure for cancer; for others, maybe it is playing chess. The point is that rather than using technological advancements to allow us to follow such pursuits, the bulk of us (myself included) seem drawn to whatever activity will provide us with the best financial resources. There is evidence to support the idea that we work much more productively when left to our own devices (Taleb, 2012). Unfortunately, most of us will never know.
This is what I have been striving to understand over the past several years through the study of history, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, and sociology, among other disciplines. It all began with my pursuit of a degree in psychology, which I will complete next month. I began my studies in search of an explanation for anxiety, and how as culture pushed forward it seemed to be increasing in prevalence. I immediately began to see a trend. For example, multitasking, another evolution of our culture, has long been known to decrease performance, but we now know that, at least in the workplace, it causes mental strain and stress (Paridon & Kaufmann, 2010). This easily explains why the use of smart phones, overall, increase levels of stress.
Culture, much like the economy, is not something that can be precisely planned, if either can be said to be capable of planning at all. A myriad of forces, some more influential than others, collide in a storm of chaos with unpredictable results. What we can predict, however, is how culture will propagate. We are an individualist society, and we are certainly capable of independent thought. That being said, there is no way to deny the substantial effect environment has on the opinions we form, particularly during the developmental years of childhood. It is of little surprise that a child grows up to share many of the beliefs of his or her parents and peers. The real question is how, over time, our needs seem to continually become even more extravagant.
These questions barely break the surface of my studies, but it gives one small perspective on the continued reading I plan to do as I hike across the eastern United States, using the simple life of the trail as a backdrop for the book I will write along the way. I consider this time a luxury I do not wish to waste, and I long to finish a long list of reading from early minimalists such as Epicurus and Thoreau, scholars such as Thomas Jefferson that helped form the basis of our government and therefore our early society, psychologists and philosophers who have more in common than one might think, and finally even economists who, despite common misconceptions of the occupation, have a great deal to offer in understanding and predicting how individuals will react under different conditions.
I suppose I consider it my own personal social experiment. While I have no regrets in life, because to regret my past would be to regret who I am in the present, if I was a young man just starting out I would do things much differently. Our culture reinforces the idea of spending money today in the hopes of receiving a return tomorrow. Unfortunately, as many college graduates have learned in the last decade, sometimes this payoff never comes, or takes far longer than expected. If I wished to become a mechanic, for example, common sense would tell me to go to school for automotive technology and become certified, borrowing a small fortune along the way. A man I briefly worked with years ago, smarter than I, did things differently. He taught himself how to fix cars, bought one at auction, fixed it up, and then sold it for a profit. He continued to do this, buying more cars and of higher value as he went along, until he had built himself quite a business. Then, with his needs well-provided for, he finally did go to an automotive school to become a full-fledged mechanic – and he paid his tuition in cash. So simple, yet so brilliant.
I do not presume to change the world, but to instead present a philosophy of life in the form of a non-fiction book, backed by solid, peer-reviewed research, historical documents, and fact, in the hopes of at least making people think about the characteristics of modern life so they may come to their own conclusions. In a small way, I believe we really have no choice until we are presented with an alternative – it is very difficult to go against the status quo when so few examples exist to influence us.
Update: As my business unrelated to writing winds down in preparation for my thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, I have been able to spend even more of my time on research. I have written about 10k words in the past couple weeks, as well as a wealth of notes and an increasingly long list of research and non-fiction reading for my thru-hike. Most of my current research involves the effects of multitasking and delving into 19th and early 20th century economists who foresaw this excess materialism not only coming, but causing widespread poverty. If you feel this is an important topic and this is a book you would like to read, please check out a small financing campaign I have setup here to help raise funds to write and publish this book in exchange for a variety of perks, including free Kindle versions, signed paperback copies, and even a chance to provide input on the topics I explore! More info on the campaign below as well.
Paridon, H. M., & Kaufmann, M. (2010). Multitasking in work-related situations and its relevance for occupational health and safety: Effects on performance, subjective strain and physiological parameters. Europe’s Journal of Psychology, 6(4), 110. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.5964/ejop.v6i4.226
Seligman, M. E. P., Linley, P. A., Joseph, S., & Boniwell, I. (2003). Positive psychology: Fundamental assumptions. Psychologist, 16, 126. Retrieved from http://origin-search.proquest.com/docview/211861487?accountid=34899
Taleb, N. (2012). Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. New York: Random House.
Thoreau, Henry D. (1908). Walden, Or, Life in the Woods. London: J.M. Dent. [Kindle Version].