Is the trip to Aligarh a burden or a beautiful day in the big city?
You had previously mentioned the notion of gamification, and I think understanding the answer may be related to notions of work and play. Mark Twain had written in his 1876 book The Adventures of Tom Sawyer:
If he (Tom) had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.
But this does not consider when work enables play. In her recent book, Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal makes the point that good hard work is a great source of happiness and that is why we are drawn to games. But just like Twain, she says this has to be hard work that we want to do, not what we are obligated to do. On p. 29:
When we don’t choose hard work for ourselves, it’s usually not the right work, at the right time, for the right person. It’s not perfectly customized for our strengths, we’re not in control of the work flow, we don’t have a clear picture of what we’re contributing to, and we never see how it all pays off in the end. Hard work that someone else requires us to do just doesn’t activate our happiness systems in the same way. It all too often doesn’t absorb us, doesn’t make us optimistic, and doesn’t invigorate us. What a boost to global net happiness it would be if we could positively activate the minds and bodies of hundreds of millions of people by offering them better hard work.
Does a trip to the big city activate the mind and body in the same way as invigorating work? I certainly like random walks through reasonably calm urban jungles, perhaps even more so than walks through natural forests, but I’m not sure about others (the pace of life in cities is certainly quicker).
As you know I very much appreciated the opportunity to ‘walk around’ both physically and metaphysically in my graduate studies. If Bradford’s law of information scattering is to be believed (and there is quite a bit of empirical evidence in its favor), this may not have been the most efficient way of doing disciplinary research, though perhaps it was a good way to achieve happiness. Something that certain people find surprising is that I primarily stick to television for my fiction entertainment rather than reading novels, exactly for the reason described in this article:
Novel reading was very different when it developed, especially in the 18th century – novels were viewed as engrossing and escapist entertainment, which was typically enjoyed in a nice comfy chair. Interestingly, this kind of reading, which we try to encourage in our children today, worried people in the 18th century. Wouldn’t girls especially get carried away by flights of fancy? People thought it important to control reading. For instance, it was considered better to have girls read in a circulating library since a public setting imposed limits on how far they could get carried away. So some of the fears parents have today about kids playing video games used to apply to reading.
I often find reading novels too engrossing. And coming back to it, that is why I really like physical walking around: a good balance of invigoration without being escapist. Unfortunately, many places in America are not conducive to walking around. In a series of four essays mixing transportation engineering theory, culture, and philosophy, Tom Vanderbilt talks about how to increase walkability: perhaps a way to increase gross happiness?
And in closing this meandering blog post, let me mention some work of my former roommate Sertac Karaman. As it turns out, there are fundamental limits on how fast one can walk around in cluttered environments: below this ultimate speed limit, one will almost surely never crash and above which one will crash infinitely often. I saw Sertac when I was walking around Cambridge a few weeks ago, but that is a story for another day.