One of the “central delusions” of 21st-century living, says Brian Klaas on Substack, is what I call “the Red Queen Fallacy”. This is the notion, named after the perpetually running character in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, that life is a “frantic race to keep up”. You know the mentality: “If you’re not hustling, you’re falling behind.” We fill our calendars to make ourselves feel busy. We keep on top of our emails to maintain “inbox zero”. Those not on the treadmill are viewed with suspicion: the person who wanders aimlessly is an “eccentric”; the solo diner a “weirdo”. This approach has “massacred” our ability to be alone with our thoughts. In one study, scientists put individuals in a room with nothing but a button that would deliver them a painful electric shock. Given the choice of either sitting quietly or electrocuting themselves, 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose the latter.
The paradox of this “checklist existence” is that “doing more often means savouring life less”. We don’t treasure interactions with people, because we’re always thinking about the next interaction. We don’t look at natural beauty with a sense of awe; we look at it through our smartphone as we take a picture. We all know, deep down, that these are the moments we should cherish. But we don’t. Shaking ourselves out of our hyper-active mindset isn’t easy – mortgages have to be paid, children looked after. But we should at least do our best to enjoy the bits of life that are actually enjoyable. Kurt Vonnegut said his uncle had a good approach. “We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime,” the author wrote, “and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, ‘If this isn’t nice, what is?’”