Wasting or Spending Time

In high school, I used a lot of time watching shows like Doctor Who on Netflix. I enjoyed crafts, even though I wasn't good at many of them. My senior year, I became active on Pinterest. And there was one phrase that really, really irritated me: "wasting time."

My brother playing video games was "wasting his time." I, binging Netflix for three hours, was "wasting my time." My dad, sitting in his armchair and watching PBS after work, was "wasting time."

It took me a few years to realize exactly why that bothered me so much, but I've finally figured it out.

Activities like binging Netflix, browsing Pinterest, or playing video games aren't wrong or immoral. Most people would agree with me on that. Yet people — society — whatever term you want — tend to look down on those activities. They're considered unproductive, inferior, lazy. I could say a lot about the idolization of "productivity" and "accomplishment" in modern American culture. That would definitely be relevant, but that's not my point today. Right now, I want to talk about the concept of wasting versus spending time.

Are Pinterest and Facebook really a "waste" of my time?

Time is a resource (of the nonrenewable variety), especially in America's capitalist, career-driven, productivity-worshiping society. Resources are meant to be used, through spending or investing. Now, if someone uses three hours of their day to do homework, that's spending time — investing it in a future of good grades. If someone takes an hour to call their mom on a holiday, that's spending time — investing in a relationship. If a person works 45 hours in the office during the week, that's spending time, contributing to society and earning their keep.

It's easy for us to see the value in those activities, to understand why someone would spend three or one or 45 hours those ways. We see these as generally good things.

Why are three hours of video games then considered wasteful? On the surface, this seems like a selfish question, a self-righteous attempt to justify a lazy, self-gratifying activity with no value. But that's the thing — activities considered wasteful often, under the right circumstances, have value.

My crappy crafts are an easy example. Plenty of people see that something I make might be useless, but worth the health benefits of participating in a stress-relieving activity that stimulates the creative brain, away from the eye strains of a screen. In this way, I am spending time by investing it in my emotional and mental health.

Video game values are less obvious, but they are still present. Qualities like problem solving, thinking quickly under pressure, hand-eye coordination, and persistent patience can all be developed through playing various video games. Even apparently mindless Netflix binging can be valuable if the viewer thinks intentionally about whatever they're watching. I can spend hours breaking down the qualities and lessons in pretty much anything I watch, from The Handmaid's Tale to Doctor Who to How I Met Your Mother. But even if there are no apparent gains from a game and no valuable study to be made about a show, the downtime spent relaxing can still be good for a person who just needs a break from everyday life.

Mental skills development, socialization, relaxation:
video games have plenty of value.

I know the next argument: the problem is when someone spends too much time on these activities. Allow me to counter: a resource, like time, is really only "wasted" when it isn't used well by the person who owns it. Whether a person is using their resources well is (1) determined by their individual priorities and goals, and (2) really only their individual business.

I know there are people out there who don't subscribe to any streaming services and don't have cable, or don't own a television at all. I've heard stories of successful business people who achieved their dreams through hard work, persistence, and dedication to their goals. They sacrificed nights out with friends, entertainment, a few hours of sleep on the weekends, and other everyday life choices to get where they wanted to be in life. That's fantastic. I congratulate them. They've made it where they wanted. Great for them!

But that's not what everyone wants. And that's okay.

I don't owe society anything. Someone else can look at how I spend my free time, and they can think I'm wasting it. There have been plenty of days that I've spent three hours on Facebook. I've definitely heard of all the "better" ways I can spend three hours, like reading a self-help book or cleaning my closet. But one of my priorities in life is friendship. Since middle school, my time on Facebook has been key in building relationships like those in my writer's group. For me, three hours on Facebook is investing in people I care about. I don't consider that a waste.

I'm passionate. I've always loved the idea of changing the world, though what that looks like has shifted. But even though I've gone from fundamentalist evangelical to feminist Episcopalian, I'm still not a career-driven person. So, being the social creature that I am, if I were given the option between a career-building networking event at my university or a four-hour late-night trip to IHOP with my dorm... I'm probably choosing IHOP.

And you know what? Even if the choice were between the networking or two hours of Stardew Valley (a farming video game) in my room, it's probably Stardew Valley that wins. Stardew Valley makes me happy. Stardew Valley whisks me away from the stress of my busy college life. Stardew Valley makes me feel calm and relaxed as I make friends with imaginary people and grow wholesome crops while listening to soothing background music.

Considering what I personally want in life, I don't think that's a waste of my time at all.

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