Being Irresponsible Might Improve Our Quality of Life

When I was studying Russian at a university in Siberia, I’d heard of a book about Richard Feynman, the late Nobel prize winning physicist, called “Tuva or Bust.”Feynman and his friend were fascinated with Tuvan culture, especially Tuvan throat singing. His friend wrote the book about their determined attempts to visit the Tuva Republic despite endless setbacks.

Tuva was a mere 12 hours from where I was living in Krasnoyarsk, and I was intrigued. If it was an obsession of Feyman’s, it must be good, right? I asked the program director for permission to make a four-day trek south to the Mongolian border. She said no. We had a test on Monday.

All summer I had been taking a bus to school five days a week, going to three or four classes a day, and bringing home hours of homework every night. The excursions we’d been promised by the university never happened. I started to yearn for an adventure. That is, after all, what I had traveled halfway around the world for.

Needless to say, I went.

The journey to Tuva proved complicated. From recruiting four fellow dissenters from the program in order to meet the tour agency’s five-person minimum to rounding up $500 to pay for a night train, five-hour taxi ride through the Ergaki mountains, local Tuvan-speaking guide and yurt to sleep in, it was a feat. It became our own sort of “Tuva or Bust.” When we finally arrived, it felt as if by miracle. Back at school the following Tuesday, I was blamed for the Tuva coup (fair enough) and the program director staged a scene. She felt betrayed. My grade in the program was dropped—about which she reminded me up until my last minute there, as I was boarding the plane to come home.

I never regretted the Tuva trip. It was the most memorable part of my summer, and maybe one of the most memorable events of my life.

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There’s a great interview with Richard Feynman in which he describes his philosophy of “active irresponsibility.” It means avoiding everyday administrative tasks in order to get at the heart of what you really want to be doing.

I think it’s these experiences, these moments of mischief and “selfishness,” that keep us alive. I’m not sure if they actually improve our health, but I’m going to suggest they might.

Feynman was full of vitality and made numerous contributions, not limited to physics, throughout his lifetime. He inspired people. Despite many knocks, including the death of his first young wife and the guilt of working on the atomic bomb, he continued to live passionately. He rejected rules and norms that didn’t serve this higher purpose. He enjoyed himself.

Aren’t we more likely to take care of our bodies and minds when we feel human? When we celebrate our souls, and value our own lives over productivity, efficiency, decorum, following rules?

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Why does time seem to pass more quickly as we age? The days and months and years blur together. The reason, Dustin Garis says in a Ted Talk, is not that our memory fades. It’s that we pursue fewer memorable experiences.

Granted, newness makes a lasting impression, and fewer events will be new as our pool of experiences grows. But it seems another reason “time flies” is that we are too responsible. Passions are postponed until retirement. We get stuck in workhorse mode, perhaps not truthfully out of necessity but out of habit. Maybe we accept the baggage of more responsibilities and consumer goods as “adulthood.” As life becomes more routine, there’s less to mark the time in our memories.

Traveling around the world, Garis found people who didn’t have this feeling. He said it was because they were pursuing a memorable life. Researchers have come to similar conclusions.

For all the stress they cause us, the grades, tests, pay raises, deadlines and rules don’t seem to matter much in the end. They’re not the stories we tell. They’re probably not what contribute to our wellbeing. Researchers published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology concluded that “If money doesn’t make you happy, you probably aren’t spending it right.” At the top of their list of ways to purchase happiness: buy more experiences and fewer material goods.

Perhaps we could spend less money on medications if we spent more on activities we love. Or if we accepted a smaller salary, we could buy freedom from being too responsible. Feyman died of cancer while waiting for his Russian visa to come, so pursuit of rich experiences clearly doesn’t make us immortal. But isn’t the goal—and the whole reason we desire to improve our health—to live a richer, not longer, life?

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Here’s also an interview I did with pro climber Nathan Williamson about why he traded his 9-5 job for rock climbing.

 

About

I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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2 thoughts on “Being Irresponsible Might Improve Our Quality of Life

  1. This TIm Ferriss quote seems apt: “I do not equate productivity to happiness. For most people, happiness in life is a massive amount of achievement plus a massive amount of appreciation. And you need both of those things.” I find that being healthy, in of itself, is an experience. It’s hard to appreciate anything when you’re sleep-deprived, eating poorly, not exercising, and beyond stressed. Being efficient and productive to lower stress levels so you can treat your body well and have the energy to enjoy more exciting experiences turns the maze of deadlines into a means into an end. Nobody wants to feel like they’re on a treadmill grind racing to nowhere.

    1. Those are great points. I’ll remember that. Perhaps if I was more efficient, I wouldn’t have to be intermittently irresponsible. :D

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