Idle hands and the summer I did nothing

I hate being idle.

So when faced with the choice, nearly 10 months ago, of when to have my first full day at work, my immediate impulse was to choose the earliest date. What I did instead was ask everyone older than me for their advice, and as a result I ended up with a three month long summer vacation.

Being able to take such a vacation and even having a job straight out of college are privileges that some of my closest friends don't have and they're certainly privileges that my parents never had. But what I've recently discovered is that if I ever find myself in the fortunate position to take significant time off my main hustle, I'm going to view it a bit differently than how I used to.

I've always viewed free time as an opportunity to start something new (this doesn't always mean I finish it) or work on something I've been neglecting. At college, this usually resulted in something like a summer internship at a daytime soap opera (true story) or brainstorming with my roommate on a new student group that we wanted to start on campus. From the moment I first heard the words "Common Application", multitasking became my permanent state of being. Experiencing new things feels great. It feels even better when you meet benchmarks, and back in the days when I had no idea what exactly I was doing with my life after school, it gave me the comforting feeling that I was progressing towards some kind of life outside of the books.

I decided to use the same philosophy when designing my grand plans for the summer before my first day at work. Immediate on my post-graduate bucket list were the GMATs, maybe the GREs, a new website I wanted to start, several books I wanted to read, a couple programming languages I wanted to learn, and my imminent rise to music DJ glory and fame. For many reasons, absolutely none of these things happened. I had completely miscalculated the transition out of college and the steps I needed to take to move into a new life.

Instead, I found myself taking a vacation with my family, taking another vacation with my friends, witnessing my nephew’s first birthday, and going six weeks without a desktop computer (do this whenever you get a chance). Throw in several vacant weeks in New York City and I’m surprised I haven’t been punched in the face for all the times I’ve said “I’m bored” or “I’m so ready to start working”.

I know what you're thinking at this point, dear reader. "What I learned on my beautiful, luxurious, three month long vacation is the beauty of doing nothing. Embrace the emptiness and find happiness in simplicity."

But that's not the whole of it.

What I've learned this past summer is that it's really really hot in New York City and even then people won't wear deodorant. I see them all the time on the subway. I've also learned that I'm never actually, truly, doing nothing. I get the feeling that I am doing nothing because of the value I place on high achievement activities and the value I don't place on other activities like spending time with the people closest to me, or spending time not producing, or spending time not creating work for myself.

In one of the most popular TED talks, author and Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert discusses synthesized happiness, the notion that our “psychological immune system” lets us feel truly happy even when things don’t go as planned. He goes on to say that “natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don’t get what we wanted. In our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind.”

Gilbert goes on to prove that synthesized happiness is not secondary to natural happiness. But more importantly, sometimes, or at least in my case, the events that necessitate synthesized happiness become the kind of achievements that supply natural happiness. 

Once upon a time, I would’ve said that I did nothing this past summer. Measuring out dimensions for furniture in my bedroom will not be added to my resume. Sitting at the dinner table with my parents, the most plain and ordinary of all events, is the most accomplished thing I've done all summer. 

Sometimes, I think bucket lists should be made retroactively instead of prospectively.