40% of the average life isn’t worth living

The broke my heart a little bit today:

Three psychologists ran an experiment on 8,500 people to measure happiness / contentment. And they used a novel method.

At random times of day they’d ask the people to write down the activity they were doing and how long it would last. They’d then get them to answer this question: “If you could, and it had no negative consequences, would you jump forward in time to the end of what you’re currently doing?

The outcome would be the same as if they’d done the thing. They’d only skip the experience itself. Like Will says, “if they were making a cup of tea, they would imagine that they could blink and their next experience would be drinking the cup of tea that they had just made.”

On average, people chose to skip a massive 40% of their waking hours. That implies that almost 6.5 hours out of each day wasn’t really worth experiencing for them.

Source: Ali Abdaal‘s newsletter

(Yes, this is also the plot of that Adam Sandler movie “Click“.)

Ali is quoting the book What We Owe The Future by William MacAskill there. I went hunting for the original study and came up empty because, according to the book, it’s currently unpublished. Here’s where the book references it:

Author: William MacAskill

The internet doesn’t turn up anything interesting for the names of those three psychologists, so I have no way of verifying anything. But for now, let’s just assume that the results are legit.

Time for a little napkin math. Say that you’re an “adult” from age 20 until you die. The study took place in the US which has an average life expectancy of 77 years. So that’s 57 years of adulthood.

So the average US adult would choose to skip 6.5 waking hours per day for those 57 years. If you group that all together, that’s 23 years per person. The average adult would choose to skip a combined 23 years of their adulthood.

If we’re choosing to skip something, we’re saying that thing is worse than nothing. So I see three ways to interpret this data:

  1. We should try to stop doing that stuff that’s worse than nothing
  2. We should try to make that stuff more enjoyable (i.e., better than nothing)
  3. We should stop whining because doing that stuff is a part of being an adult

I think all three are probably right, in varying degrees depending on the person and the activity.

Look at your schedule for tomorrow. How many of those things would you skip over if you could? What does that say about how you’re spending your life?

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