Spend five minutes or so watching this great YouTube video, which animates a wonderful short speech by Alan Watts:
Here’s a transcript, to the best of my ability:
Existence, the physical universe, is basically playful. There is no necessity for it whatsoever. It isn’t going anywhere. That is to say it doesn’t have some destination that it ought to arrive at. It is best understood by an analogy with music. Because music, as an art form, is essentially playful. You say that you “play” the piano. You don’t “work” the piano. Why?
Music differs from, say, travel. When you travel, you are trying to get somewhere. One doesn’t make the end of the composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who play fastest, and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts to hear one crashing chord, because that’s the end! The same with dancing: you don’t aim at a particular spot in the room at where you should arrive. The whole point of dancing is the dance.
But we don’t see that as something brought by our education into our everyday conduct. We’ve got a system of schooling that gives a completely different impression. It’s all graded, and what we do is we put the child in the corridor of this grade system with a kind of “Come on, kitty kitty kitty!” You go into kindergarten, and that’s a great thing, because when you finish, you go on to first grade. And then, come on, first grade leads to second grade and so on, and then when you get out of grade school you go to high school, and it’s revving up, the thing is coming, and then you go to college and, by jove, you get into graduate school, and when you’re through with graduate school you go out and join the world. Then you get into some racket where you’re selling insurance, and they’ve got that quota to make. And you’re going to make that.
And all the time that thing is coming! It’s coming! It’s coming! That great thing! The success you’re working for! And then one day you wake up about forty years old, you say, “My God, I’ve arrived! I’m there!” And you don’t feel very different from what you’ve always felt.
By expectation, look at people who live to retire, and put those savings away. And then when they hit sixty five, they don’t have any energy left, they’ve gone impotent, and they go rot in a senior citizen’s community.
And it’s because we’ve cheated ourselves the whole way down the line. We thought life by analogy was a journey, a pilgrimage, with a serious purpose at the end and the thing was to get to that end: success, or whatever it is, or maybe heaven after your death.
But, we miss the point the whole way along. It was a musical thing, and you were supposed to sing or to dance the whole way along while the music was being played.
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Those opportunities are right out there in front of us, every single day. Today, you can live a life true to yourself. Today, you can choose not to work so hard. Today, you can choose to have the courage to express your feelings to someone. Today, you can get in touch with friends old and new. Today, you can let yourself be happier.
Can you note something that all of those things have in common? They don’t involve spending money. You don’t need to have a lot of money to live a life true to yourself. You don’t need money to express your feelings to someone. You don’t need money to get in touch with friends old and new. You don’t need money to let yourself be happier.
That fifth one, not working so hard? It’s possibly the most pernicious of all, because people tend to work hard to earn a lot of money, and it turns out that money doesn’t buy happiness. It doesn’t buy the things people want at the end of life.
When I look back at the 40 years of my life, the most unhappy period I had was when I was working incredibly hard and spending every dime I made along the way. I wasn’t building new meaningful friendships and I was letting old friendships atrophy. I was bottling up a lot of feelings inside. I kept telling myself I was happy and that I was going to be happy, but I wasn’t.
It wasn’t until I dropped much of that facade that things got better, and it started with cutting back drastically on my spending. Doing so alleviated so much of the pressure to work so hard; I still work efficiently, but I have time for my hobbies and time for my family and time for my good friends, and there’s no amount of money in the world that would make me want to lose that time again. My life got a lot less stressful, as I didn’t have money worries any more.
It’s that stuff – time spent building friendships and finding new ones, time spent doing things you really love, time spent doing work that’s meaningful to you, time spent without an omnipresent stress of finances breathing over your shoulder, time spent feeling okay being whoever you are rather than molding yourself into something you’re not to appeal to clients and coworkers and bosses and people you think you’re supposed to be socializing with – that’s what Watts is talking about. That’s dancing. That’s music. That’s treating life as something to be lived along the way, rather than hoping you’ll reach some amazing destination that never comes.
Live today, not by spending money, but by not spending it. Money won’t buy anything that will really make you happy. Live today by getting ahold of an old friend. Live today by doing that thing you’ve stuffed down deep inside of yourself because you don’t think it’ll be approved of by the people you think you’re supposed to impress. Live today by writing a letter to an old mentor who changed your life or a teacher who really meant something to you. Tell someone you love them. Turn up some music and dance a little. Laugh. Cry. Think. Every day.
Fill your life with those things instead of things you buy at the store. Take that money you’re not spending and use it to unlock the handcuffs of your life, the ones that keep you chained to a job, the ones that make you afraid of your boss, the ones that make you stressed out about money.
Remember that the advice of living today like there’s no tomorrow doesn’t have anything to do with shopping, because the kind of joy and meaning that comes from living in a way that blows those regrets to pieces isn’t bought on Amazon. It’s not found on basic cable.
It’s found in doing things that you truly love, deep inside, regardless of what other people think. It’s found in strong relationships with other people. It’s found in having the courage to share your thoughts and feelings. It’s found in simply choosing to be happy about things. Those things don’t require you to spend money, so use that money to make yourself as free as possible to do those things. Get rid of debts. Give yourself a financial foundation so that you don’t have to be under the thumb of a boss ever again, so that you don’t have to feel financial stress ever again.
You won’t find any of that on the shelves of your local Target.