the Fleabag problem

Here’s the problem: I never feel like I can relax. Despite having ample amounts of time and money, I’m constantly paranoid about wasting either. It always feels like there’s more I could—should—be doing. I’ve been calling this my Fleabag problem, after the show I’ve wanted to watch for months, but have never felt like I have the time to. So many of my friends say this resonates. They have their own versions of Fleabag—their own enjoyment forever denied—but the constant background hums of unease and stress are the same. 

Probably, you already vaguely know what to blame this on—social media! the concept of productivity!—so my project today isn’t to say anything too novel. Instead, it’s to meticulously trace the exact mechanics of the problem. Why is there such a disconnect between reality (having ample time and financial security) and my perception (that I haven’t done enough, that I’ll never do enough)? I hope that understanding how this trap is set can make it more bearable today, then some day allow us to escape it entirely.

I recently realized that the random assortment of books I’ve read over the last two years (lots of psychology, statistics, mindfulness, and cultural criticism) weren’t random after all. They layer together beautifully as a single extended conversation to explain my Fleabag problem. Here’s my current understanding: Our brains clamor for more more moreeven though more has stopped being helpful. Unfortunately, everything’s working as designed.

clamor for more more more   

Our brain’s job is to make us want more, and our modern world surfaces ever more extremes to aspire to.

It starts with our brains. Why Buddhism is True argues that surprisingly, your brain has fundamentally different goals than you do as a person: you want to be happy, but your brain just wants to keep you alive at any cost. This means it reacts all the time in ways that are not helpful for you: extreme pressure to fit in; strong loss aversion; intense desire for anything that seems like it could help survival. We’ve known about the hedonic treadmill for decades (centuries, really): that even after major life changes, our happiness levels quickly return to what they always were. But your brain will never actually understand this. Instead, its job is to always agitate to get more more more.

This worked okay back when getting more just meant eating as many berries as possible. But our world has rapidly evolved, far more quickly than our brains could keep up. A humble example is the bag, perennially underrated as an invention. Before we had bags, you could only eat or use enough to meet your current needs before moving on. The bag brought in the specter of our future selves. Could this be helpful later, or traded for something? Better put it in the bag, just in case. When our brains urged us to eat as many berries as possible, the urge to accumulate was limited by stomach capacity. But when the challenge became to amass as many berries as possible… suddenly, the limits expanded before eventually disappearing.

A larger-scale version of this argument appears in Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, which claims that the biggest mistake humanity ever made was agriculture. Before agriculture, Harari argues, humans actually had relatively high quality of life. They’d spent a few hours every day gathering enough food to stay alive. Then, the rest of the day, they could just hang out and play with their children. But as soon as we invented agriculture, we invited in the specter of our future selves. Humans started working basically all daylight hours, doing backbreaking labor. They became vulnerable to bad harvest years. Breeding livestock made disease epidemics far more likely. Diets became less varied. We effectively traded off lives of mostly ease with occasional spikes of danger or food insecurity for guaranteed constant drudgery. (Medieval farmers lived through a similar pattern.) In the name of trying to provide for our future selves, we robbed our present selves of quality of life.

Now, multiply that by every system, The Black Swan suggests. It points out how different the physical world is from the culture we live in. In the physical world, which our brains evolved to deal with, there’s a bounded range of what’s possible. Humans can only be so short or so tall; the day can only be so cold or so hot. But in the world today, with elaborate shared fictions like the economy, the extremes are no longer bounded. The top-selling book doesn’t do a little better than the next—it’s an order of magnitude or more. The wealthiest people aren’t a little more wealthy—they’re incomprehensibly wealthy. Our brains see those extremes with unmatched intensity and frequency, thanks to social media and the internet. We internalize these extremes unconsciously as the benchmarks for success, while never being able to grasp their sheer unlikelihood.

more has stopped being helpful

Having more was once helpful but is no longer. It keeps getting harder to have “just enough.”

I’ll now cautiously invoke capitalism, the economic system in countries with generally high quality of life for the past several hundred years. But this historical coupling of capitalism and quality of life seems like a happy coincidence that is starting to diverge. Research indicates that money predicts happiness up until $105k a year per household in the US; after that point, incremental dollars can’t buy happiness. We can read this to mean that there’s a specific threshold of material goods that you need for quality of life (including adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health coverage). Capitalism helped households reach that threshold quickly (the happy coincidence) but after you hit the threshold, it’s not like capitalism retreats meekly. We’re motivated to keep attaining money even though it no longer has any bearing on our happiness. 

A quick pause here for some caveats:
1) A huge percentage of the world is still experiencing life-changing improvements in quality of life.
2) There’s ongoing debate about how to quantify happiness. If you measure a different metric like life satisfaction, it does correlate with money without plateauing.
3) There are many reasons to care about achievement or careers outside of money, and I don’t mean to detract from any of those.
4) Finally, I’m not here to suggest a replacement. I just want to illustrate how capitalism further spurs on our brains’ unhelpful tendencies.

I once read a wildly entertaining argument that spreadsheets are the devil (haven’t been able to find it again). Recently, I watched someone very dear to me nearly accept a job that was worse in every possible way but paid more. So much important stuff is nearly impossible to quantify and compare: happiness, quality of life, respect from your peers, job security. But it is trivially easy to plug in salaries into a spreadsheet and sort desc. Our brains are wired to want to compare, but today, the easiest things to compare—salary, followers, etc—are far from the most meaningful.

So if happiness stalls out at $105k, shouldn’t we just hit “enough” and then chill? Capitalism won’t let us. It seems there’s a shrinking number of jobs that are truly just “good enough.” Instead, there are increasingly more temp or gig economy jobs that pay much less. You stack them on top of each other with no health insurance. Lower-earning jobs used to actually be interesting, but that’s also changing rapidly. In Drive, Daniel Pink argues that job satisfaction requires mastery, autonomy, and purpose. Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, gives the example of bank tellers in the ‘50s who used to have real autonomy to make consequential decisions (eg whether to approve loans). Now, many jobs revolve around obeying computer orders, even when they’re senseless, and being quantified ruthlessly on efficiency alone. Forget mastery, autonomy, or purpose.

On the other side of the hollow, new grads can make much more, working insane workweeks, tethered to Slack and email. Markovits points out that for centuries, the highest-paid workers worked the fewest hours (think long liquid lunches versus factory shifts). But now, for the first time, those workers actually have the longest hours. The old cushiness has been replaced with extreme competition to continuously advance. 

We’re becoming increasingly miserable on both extremes, but capitalism is working exactly as intended. Your happiness was never supposed to factor into the system at all. It’s a happy accident that it once helped us get to good enough, but now we’re zooming far past that with no signs of slowing.

everything’s working as designed

So if my brain wants me to always acquire more, even if it won’t make me happier, it makes sense that I feel constant stress and dissatisfaction. 

It is logically coherent to feel like there’s no free time or free money, because anything you could do is better spent for your future self once you factor in compounding. Take investments, which are “smarter” than fancy clothes or nice meals that I could buy. Or time: the best time to start any virtuous habit is now. But that’s based on believing that our future selves will be happier with more money and skills, and that there’s no cost for skipping relaxing or enjoyment now. 

It’s true that Mozart didn’t get to be who he was by waking up, bleary-eyed, and patting around in his bed until he found his phone, then watching Youtube videos and dazedly scrolling Instagram for 45 minutes, sending danger photons directly into his eyes long before feeling the sun or wind on his face, running fluoride on his teeth, or saying anything kind to another human being. 

But how instructive is Mozart? 

I now catch myself taking work concepts like performance and competitiveness and bringing them into my life, instinctively judging my personal life against them. I spend all my time ambiently frustrated that i’m not a real writer yet. But the problem is, I’m adopting work concepts without any of the supportive structures of work. At work, I have a manager to help me chunk things up into manageable goals. We rigorously argue over metrics and whether they’re actually measuring the right things. We have built-in periods of relative quiet and rest, such as holidays and ends of quarters. In the rest of my life, I try to achieve as if I were at work, without any of the help that work provides. 

Where do we go from here?

(This section is the shortest because I’m still trying to figure this out for myself!)

I’ve argued that the problem is that our brains and capitalism urge us to constantly try to achieve, but there’s a mismatch because our lives lack work-like support structures. There are two possible solutions.

One is technically you could recognize this disconnect and stop expecting or wanting achievement in your personal life. Knowing myself and my brain, I think this is highly unlikely. If you were born being able to do this, or if you can train yourself to do it, bully for you. Send me a postcard from that mythical land. 

Or, you could learn to give yourself the help that work provides. Define small SMART goals. Don’t be mean to yourself unless it’s against a specific one of those. (Better yet, maybe don’t be mean to yourself at all.)

In the meantime? Fuck it. Join a coop where you have to do manual labor to be able to shop. Volunteer. Cook even though it’s wildly inefficient. Go backpacking the second the seasons turn. Do anything retrograde you possibly can (as unspreadsheetable as possible) and feel the entire time that you are getting away with something.

Love and thanks to

this piece’s instigators: Elena, Ian, Belinda
and editors: Joy, Amit, Kevin, Eric

Reading list

Mentioned here
Why Buddhism is True
The Black Swan
The Meritocracy Trap

You’ll probably also like
Trick Mirror
Winners Take All
My Year of Rest and Relaxation
How to Do Nothing
The Age of Surveillance Capitalism

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