Right now, I’m still in Costa Rica, finishing up the last week and a half of my international student teaching experience. The experience has been great so far, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to learn firsthand about the education system in another part of the world. I’ve worked on my Spanish (and nonverbal communication–very important when you’re frantic and can’t remember the word for “bathroom”), made some new friends, and made quite a few embarrassing but valuable mistakes.
But there’s one challenge about being here that I didn’t expect.
Because my responsibilities here are much less here than they were in the States, I suddenly have way too much free time!
I know… Not a bad problem to have, right?
It felt great for the first week to come home from school and just relax–worry about nothing, work on nothing… Just chill out and veg on the sofa with iPhone in hand. I didn’t pack any books–my usual go-to when I have free time–so I spent most of my time reading random Internet articles or browsing social media. But after a few days of this, the life of lethargy really started to wear on me. I realized that mindlessly scrolling through Facebook wasn’t bringing me any kind of fulfillment; in fact, it was leaving me tired and grumpy, leading me into the trap of lifestyle comparison that social media so enticingly offers, and overall, making me feel dissatisfied and unhappy.
I’ve been thinking about this concept for a while now. A few months ago, when I thought about how I spent my time, and why I never seemed to have time for all the interesting projects I wanted to do and new skills I wanted to learn, I realized that I was throwing away many hours of my life on what I call low-grade pleasures. These are anything we do to make us happier that ultimately leave us feeling unsatisfied and unfulfilled. My low-grade pleasures included mindlessly browsing social media, eating an excess of junk food, or anything involving sitting around on my bum instead of getting up and doing something… In sum, waiting for the world to entertain, excite, or stimulate me, instead of going out and seeking positive engagement myself.
There’s a great quote in this vein by Annie Dillard, in her beloved book The Writing Life:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
Essentially, there is no time that we can “waste” without it diminishing the overall quality of our lives, because it isn’t our great achievements or picture-perfect moments that define us. Rather, it’s our small, everyday choices that make up the bulk of our lives.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau makes the point even more arrestingly. He claims that men and women too often waste their time in useless pursuits–
“As if you could kill time without injuring eternity.”
Low-grade pleasures aren’t problematic in and of themselves. There’s nothing shameful about eating a cookie or going on Facebook. But the problem is that these quick-fixes are easy and habit-forming, and they aren’t ultimately fixes at all. Too often, they give us a quick burst of entertainment only to shortly leave us frustrated and emptier than ever, without fixing the root cause of our dissatisfaction. And when we reach for those same fruitless stimuli over and over, it’s easy to feel trapped in those same few coping methods. We turn into little lab rats, pressing the same button over and over to fix our problem without really getting anywhere, and we forget how to pursue something that will give us true fulfillment.
After hitting a low point of frustration and ennui a few days into my vegetation experiment, I realized that I had to make a change. For the rest of my time here, I decided to consciously pursue some things that I identified as higher-grade pleasures.
By my definition, a high-grade pleasure is anything that brings you joy, or more simply, anything that helps you to grow. Of course, exactly what this looks like will vary from person to person. For me, high-grade pleasures include spending time with people whose company I really love; dancing and otherwise moving my body, especially outdoors; reading a really good book; cooking; being creative in some way, especially by writing or painting… The list could go on for miles. The common threads among these activities are that 1) they require some kind of effort or planning, and 2) they always leave me feeling better by the end than when I started. I learn something or grow in some positive way whenever I do these activities. Although it can sometimes be difficult to get started, they ultimately make me a better, and happier, person.
Since I’m currently living in a rental house in another country, my options were somewhat limited as to what I could pursue. I decided to use the unlimited potential of the Internet to my advantage as I found a better way to spend my time. Over the past two weeks, here’s what I’ve stumbled upon:
- I’m learning to code.
Learning to read and write code is something that I’ve had bouncing around the back of my mind for months now, but this is the first time I’ve sat down and actually worked to do it. I discovered Codecademy, a free online resource that uses hands-on techniques to teach you the basics of HTML and CSS. For a total computer newbie like me, this is an awesome free opportunity!
2. I’ve improved my creative writing skills.
I love to write, but the biggest challenge for me is always getting started. I frequently feel like I want to write something, but I don’t have any particularly compelling story ideas in my head. If you face a similar problem, there are lots of websites that can spur your creative thinking, like this fun (and free) online plot generator. But I have found that the most meaningful source of inspiration for me has been my own past.
Time for another quote. There’s a wonderful one by Flannery O’Connor that I love to apply to writing:
“Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”
In writer’s terms, anybody who has survived her childhood has enough material to write on for the rest of her days. Childhood memories are a goldmine of meaningful experiences and vivid sensory detail. Think back: What did you do when you went to your grandmother’s house when you were a kid? What did your third grade classroom look like? What did you want to be when you grew up, and why? Immerse yourself as deeply as you can in your memories, and then write whatever you see, hear, taste, touch, smell…
Writing like this can go a long way toward improving your skill as a writer, and it is also a deeply valuable way to reflect on your life. If you had a mostly happy childhood, you will be filled with warm fuzzies as you relive almost-forgotten experiences. If your childhood was difficult, this reflective writing can be a form of therapy. Sometimes getting out old emotions on paper can help us to understand and make peace with them.
3. I’m learning critical lessons about Peace Education.
I’m a middle school Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, and I LOVE connecting the curriculum to life and values outside of the world of the classroom. That’s why I was thrilled to find this free online course on peace education from Teachers Without Borders. Peace education is a pedagogical theory that rests on the idea that education is the best tool for building a more peaceful, just society. It is built on the thought of influential educators like Paulo Freire, John Dewey, and Maria Montessori, among others, and its main approaches include reflection, open-ended dialogue, and collaborative, real-world problem solving. I have learned so much from this course so far, and I know its lessons will be interwoven in my instruction as I start my first year of teaching in the fall.
If you’re an educator and social justice advocate, I highly recommend this course!! You can read as much (or as little) of the course material as you like, and everything I’ve read so far has been valuable for both my personal and professional growth.
Bonus: Teachers Without Borders also offers free courses on girls’ education, emergency education, STEM education, and more… Check out the TWB Initiatives website to see all they have to offer!
4. I meal planned for our two-week summer backpacking trip.
I actually started meal-planning for our August trip way back in January (because when I get excited about things, I am a zealous over-planner…), but the menu has undergone some serious revisions since then. This may seem like a hyper-focus on unimportant details, but if you have ever backpacked before, you probably know that food go a long way in making or breaking a trip. Getting tired of your food (or worse, getting physically sick) = less desire to eat = less energy for your body, which quickly turns an invigorating hike into a long, tiring slog. Having this free time allowed me to read lots of articles from handy websites like Backpacker.com, as well as forums where seasoned backpackers discussed their best meal-planning strategies. Now I am much better informed about how to create a menu that is as interesting, nutritious, and lightweight as possible for our 14-day ramble through the woods.
5. I learned to play Solitaire!
Okay, so this one might not be *quite* as useful as my other pursuits so far… But it was fun! 🙂 One of the few sources of entertainment that I thought to bring with me on this trip was a deck of cards. Unfortunately none of my roommates are big fans of card games, so with the help of the trusty-dusty Internet I learned how to play this fun, challenging game all by myself… (Which, as an introvert, I LOVE.)
I now whip out my cards any time I don’t have quite enough brainpower to focus on Codecademy or my Peace Education course but I still want to be mentally stimulated, or whenever I want to do something active with my hands. Plus, playing Solitaire with real, physical cards gives me a pleasing feeling of simplicity and nostalgia, and it earns me at least an extra ten points on my never-ending quest toward Official Grandma Status. (Other OGS point-earners include: Baking oatmeal raisin cookies, learning to knit, going to bed by 9pm.)
These are just a few things I have spent my time on lately. Since making the switch from low-grade pleasures to more productive and interesting activities, I’ve noticed a significant increase in my creativity, motivation, and overall contentment. (And in case you didn’t notice–everything I did was completely free! YAY for frugality.)
Of course, if you’re looking to use your time more valuably, your choices don’t have to mirror mine–the key is to find something that matters to you.
One last thing I want to say before I go. I discovered these activities because I had too much time on my hands, but I know this is a far cry from the reality for most people (and for me, most of the time.) Instead of having a surplus of free time, most likely you feel like you don’t have enough.
But if you’re stressed and always crunched for time, I think the idea of pursuing high-grade pleasures rather than lower-grade ones is more important than ever. If you have such limited time, you want to use it in the best way you can. When I was at my busiest and most overwhelmed during college, I frequently found myself trying to escape by surfing social media or excessively eating foods that I knew were bad for me. Instead of making me feel better, this just left me feeling guilty, frustrated, and more stressed than ever. But when I made the extra effort to do something I knew was valuable, it always brought great returns. It put me in a better frame of mind to do the other “stuff” I had to do, and it enhanced my overall mental health. I think it can do the same for you, whether you have free time for daaaaaays or just a few minutes.
Okay… That’s all I have to say for now. Thanks for reading!
How do you like to spend your free time?