Can We Improve Time Usage by focusing on the U-Index? Joe Abittan

Can We Improve Time Usage?

I believe that we can come together as a society and make decisions that will help improve the world we live in. I believe we can cooperate, we can improve systems and structures, and we can change norms, customs, and procedures to help make the world a better place to live in. I believe we can reduce the U-index in each of our lives.

 

Daniel Kahneman describes the U-index, a term his research team coined, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow by writing, “We called the percentage of time that an individual spends in an unpleasant state the U-index. For example, an individual who spent 4 hours of a 16-hour waking day in an unpleasant state would have a U-index of 25%.”

 

To a certain extent, the U-index is a measure of how well people use their time. Some of us are great at maximizing our waking hours and filling our time with meaningful and enjoyable activities. Some of us are not great at it, and some of us have serious limitations that prevent us from being able to use our time in a way that would maximize our individual U-index. “The use of time is one of the areas of life over which people have some control,” Kahneman writes, but still, there are larger structural factors that shape how we can use our time. Long commutes, limited child care, poor service quality in the public and private sectors, and limited spaces for socialization and exercise can all contribute to the amount of time people spend in unpleasant states, and are largely beyond the control of a single individual. Investments in these spaces will help improve the U-index for the people who get trapped by them. They are also areas where we can make public investments, come together as communities to improve the use of public space, and pool resources to develop new technologies that can reduce travel time, create more responsive and quicker services, and reduce the effort spent dealing with unpleasant people and spaces.

 

For things we can control, Kahneman has a recommendation, “The feelings associated with different activities suggest that another way to improve experience is to switch time from passive leisure, such as TV watching, to more active forms of leisure, including socializing and exercise.”

 

Watching TV, listening to podcasts, or reading a book can be great leisure, but we are social animals, and we need some degree of interaction with others. Unfortunately, we have become more dependent on TV and other fairly antisocial and isolating forms of entertainment. As each of us retreats into our homes (during non COVID times of course) for entertainment and leisure rather than spending time in our community with others, we reduce the opportunities for and the value of social activities. The more we get out and connect, the better our lives will be collectively.

 

And that is why I believe it is important that we believe that we can make the world a better place. There is an element of personal responsibility in making better use of our time and improving our U-index through our own choices and actions. Simultaneously, there is a social and public need for investment and collective action to help us make those choices which are more active and engaging. We won’t want to get out and take part in social activities if we have a long and difficult commute. If we can’t live in the city or in an interesting place with opportunities to interact with others because we can’t afford to live close by, then we won’t make the effort to get involved. If we don’t have safe, clean, and inviting parks and public spaces where we can engage with others, if businesses and public agencies can’t provide spaces with adequate and friendly services, then we won’t want to connect with the world. Kahneman suggest that even small reductions of say 1% to our societal U-index would be hugely impactful. Anything we can do to help reduce the time people spend in unpleasant states will mean fewer suicides, less depression and anger, and fewer negative interactions between people. Making investments to speed up travel, free people from menial tasks and chores, and make public spaces more inviting will help us connect and be happier as an entire society. At that point, it becomes easier to chose active rather than passive leisure and to be more involved rather than to retreat into our homes and Netflix accounts.
Money Priming

Money Priming

An idea I have been a little obsessed with for the last several months is the importance of community in the lives of human beings. We are social creatures, and we depend on social structures for support, connection, joy, and meaning. During the Pandemic, we have had to face an absence of community, pulling back even more from the social groups and settings of our lives. America was already isolated in many ways, and I am worried for the long-term consequences of what we will lose in terms of community from this Pandemic.

 

One reason why the United States has dealt with diminishing senses of community may be related to our pursuit of wealth. Our culture values money and success so much that we elected a man with no political experience, with a history of bankruptcy, but with extraordinary bravado around his personal wealth to be our president. We elected President Trump because many of us wanted to feel a sense of greater wealth, or at least a possibility of greater financial success, and liked the ways in which he represented those ideas.

 

(I will pause for a minute to note that I think the president is reprehensible and I am glad I did not and never will vote for him. I also want to recognize that I am viewing supporters of the president in the general sense, applying a more positive lens toward them than others might. I recognize and understand that many of his supporters have dangerous and disgusting racial views that should be abhorred, but I also recognize that many of his supporters generally don’t think about politics much and like the presentation of wealth and the possibility of wealth that he presents.)

 

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman presents information about how money priming impacts our brains. Factors related to money seem to trigger specific responses and behaviors in people. As he writes, “The general theme of these findings is that the idea of money primes individualism: a reluctance to be involved with others, to depend on others, or to accept demands from others.” Money, in other words, works against community.

 

Individualism itself is not terrible. I don’t know where the balance should lie between community and individualism, and I feel myself pulled in separate directions regarding both. However, I believe it is our connections to each other and our shared goals and purposes that will help us feel a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Living in suburban homes (as I do), parking in our garages, and withdrawing into our homes to stream shows (also guilty!) is individualistic and exclusionary. It doesn’t help us have meaningful relationships with our friends, families, neighbors, and fellow citizens. It doesn’t help us work toward shared goals, doesn’t help us develop sustainable futures, and doesn’t help us better understand each other.

 

We need more community in our lives to tackle major problems in our society. Unfortunately, America is committed to ideas of wealth creation to an extent that limits our ability to build the community we need. Money priming influences how we behave in relation to each other, and it is not helping rebuild the communities that we have allowed to atrophy over the decades.
Time

Think More About Your Time

A little over a year ago I took a job that had a long commute, a little over 30 miles one way, 60+ miles daily for the round trip. Mornings were usually pretty quick, because I would be out of the house early for a work out and would beat a lot of traffic, but afternoons were often brutal for me, with a minimum 45 minute drive home. If there was an accident on the freeway, it easily became and hour and half drive home in the afternoon. The time I spent by myself in the car, listening to podcasts, occasionally calling a friend, or maybe listening to some music made me think about just how important the good use of ones time is. Each day, I spent at least one hour and fifteen minutes in a car by myself. I had to dress professionally, which meant that I had to have gym bag packed with slacks, a belt, a dress shirt, and from time to time a tie. In the mornings I woke up early to write and blog, and then I was out of the house quickly to get to the gym on time. I had to rush through work-outs and a post-work shower to make sure I had enough time to change into my business clothes for the remainder of the drive to work. After work, I felt a pressure to get out the door as quick as possible and get across the 30 miles of road to my house, minimizing the time I was on the road and the chance I would get caught in a traffic jam from an accident. In the evening I had to spend at least 30 minutes prepping my lunch for the next day and making sure I had all my clothes set in my gym bag and ready to go. As it turns out, I’m not great at this, and I frequently forget my lunch or to pack my shoes when I am on a time crunch and will need to have a bunch of stuff ready and with me.

 

I was feeling first hand, until the pandemic started and I shifted to working from home, what it is like to not have enough time. I have heard on a few podcasts (I searched but couldn’t find where exactly) that the word time is the most frequently used word in the English language. It is the one thing that we always have, but never have enough of. It is the one thing we can never get more of, and it is important that we use it well. However, as I look around at the people in my life, I see that we rarely think of how we use our time as critically as we should. As Seneca wrote to his friend in Letters From a Stoic, “Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession.”

 

We can lose our possession of time if another person takes our life. We can lose our ability to use our time if someone creates some major obstacle for us that we have to climb through (like working through identity theft). And on top of that we can squander our time in a meaningless way (like by commuting long distances by ourselves in our cars).

 

My recent experiences have forced me to re-think how I have used time, experienced time, and what it means to be aware of time. When we think about our time, we can change our approach to our day and re-shape our habits, routines, and activities so that we don’t waste our time and let it slip through our fingers without control. I know I am lucky to be in a place to make changes in my life to adjust how I spend my time, and I know not everyone has the same privileges to adjust their lives in relation to time, but for those of us who can, I think it is important that we think more about our time. We should make adjustments to give time back to our lives by spending more time with loved ones or with meaningful activities that engage us with others and build a sense of community. We should avoid long commutes, we should focus on spending our time doing things that help improve our communities, and we should not be willing to trade too much of our time for money, if we are in a position to say no to the extra money we get for the time we give up.
An Addiction to Consumerism

An Addiction to Consumerism

Johann Hari doesn’t believe that the answer to solving our nation’s drug problems lies in locking up drug users and dealers. He doesn’t believe that those who develop addictions are some type of moral failure. He doesn’t think that what we need is better enforcement of laws, more policing, and better deterrence through the criminal legal process. What Hari believes is necessary is that we focus on reducing the harms of illicit drug use, and start asking larger questions about what motivates all of us, and how we interact and connect with one another.

 

There is a larger addiction than drug addiction that Hari is concerned about, addiction to consumption in general. As a culture, the United States has spent years believing that we could be content and happy in our own homes, as long as we can buy lots of things to fill our homes. We moved to suburbs where we could drive to and from work, park our cars in our garages, hire people to do our yard work, and never have to see or interact with people we don’t know. We watch TV, scroll through social media, and stay inside where it is safe and where we can be around our possessions.

 

“We all know deep down it doesn’t make us happy,” Hari Writes, “to be endlessly working to buy shiny consumer objects we have seen in advertisements. But we keep doing it, day after day. It in fact occupies most of our time on earth. We could slow down. We could work less and buy less. It would prevent the environment – our habitat – from being systematically destroyed. But we don’t do it, because we are isolated in our individual cages. In that environment, the idea of consuming less, in fact, fills us with panic.”

 

Across the United States we have developed an addiction to consumerism. We have lost the sense of community that has held together human beings for our evolutionary history, and we have limited our interactions with people in the outside world to meaningless transactions. We then criticize those who cannot find meaning in our consumerism and turn to drugs. We failed to provide them with a community and real relationships with other humans, and as a result people turned to drugs and we further outcasted them. Our consumerism has many negative externalities, and Hari would argue that isolation and addiction are consequences of our consumer culture. To solve drug addiction, he believes, requires that we re-think our ideas of consumerism, and start to look more toward re-engagement with community over individual purchases of things.
Addiction and Loneliness

Addiction and Loneliness

A little while back I wrote about the connection between isolation and addiction that Sam Quinones described in his book Dreamland. I wrote about the Former Surgeon General of the United States, Vivek Mirthy, who has also recently published a book about loneliness in the United States, arguing that we have a loneliness epidemic that is causing a number of health issues for people across the country. Mirthy was interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, and the idea of loneliness has been one that Klein has returned to over and over in his show, with small comments or questions to many of his guests during conversations about a wide range of problems in American life.

 

The connection between addiction and loneliness is also something addressed by Johann Hari in his book Chasing the Scream. Hari focuses on the importance of community in helping people avoid drug misuse and addiction, and in helping people recover from addiction. On loneliness he writes, “One recovering heroin and crack addict on the Downtown Eastside [of Vancouver, CA], Dean Wilson, put it to me simply. addiction he said is a disease of loneliness.”

 

Addiction is not limited to people who live on the streets or who have no friends and find themselves in an apartment, isolated from any friends or family. However, isolation in that manner does make illicit drug use, prescription drug abuse, and addiction more likely. Addiction is also not limited to chemical substances. Hari argues that when we feel isolated, when we lack meaning, when we have no community to participate with as part of a broader mission than buying shiny consumer products, we are more likely to form bonds with chemicals, with sex, or with behaviors such as gambling. A sense of loneliness leaves us wanting something more and something different, and often, we can find ourselves addicted to something to distract from our loneliness.

 

Punishing people with addiction challenges, making it harder for them to be part of society, limiting the opportunities for them to have a meaningful job and work toward a social goal makes it harder for them to overcome their addiction and loneliness. Hari writes, “The heroin helps users deal with the pain of being unable to form normal bonds with other humans. The heroin subculture gives them bonds with other human beings.”

 

If we try to fight the addiction and the drug itself, we create a subculture of other lonely humans, who bond together through  their shared addiction and isolation. We almost guarantee that people struggling with addiction will be trapped, unable to find meaning in their life, stuck in isolation, and miserable. The answer from Hari is to instead focus on redeveloping our communities and social infrastructure. To fight loneliness and not addiction, to give people more meaning in their lives by developing more connections between us, and to reinvest in our communal spaces. By building institutions and cultures that push back against loneliness we address the upstream causes of addiction, and help cut away from the pressures that drive toward addiction. This is the ultimate message of Hari’s book, and it is not just a way to fight addiction, but a way to help us all have more meaningful lives.
Addiction Can't be Fought with Pain

Addiction Can’t be Fought With Pain

With the exception of the copious amounts of caffeine I consume thanks to a high coffee intake, I don’t use any drugs and don’t really have any personal direct experience with the world of recreational drug use or drug addiction.  Nevertheless, our nation’s opioid crisis has always stood out to me as an important and intriguing policy issue. Despite not having first hand knowledge of drug culture in the United States, I have been able to recognize the changing landscape as more states provided legal avenues to obtaining marijuana, as policy discussions popped into my orbit about racial disparities in drug sentencing, and as prominent American figures opened up about drug addiction in their family. To better understand the issue I selected a handful of books to read to better understand drug use and addiction in America. One of the books I read was Johann Hari’s book, Chasing the Scream.

 

Before my mini dive into drug policy and drug use literature, I didn’t have fully formed thoughts about our nation’s response to drugs. The idea that we would lock up drug addicts and those who tampered with or misused prescription medications seemed normal. I figured that putting people in prison where they would be away from drugs and monitored as they went through withdrawals made sense, and I had no reason to question the system and approaches we used to curb drug abuse and addiction. However, as the opioid crisis spread, I recognized how incomplete my understanding was, and sought out new information to better understand why our county has faced such serious drug problems. Across the books I read, what I learned was that drug policy has been racially biased throughout American history, and that drug use and addiction is often deeply tied to pain and trauma, and worsened by the loss of community.

 

These themes ran throughout the books I read and made me re-think the way we approach drug addiction and how we are so quick to punish drug abuse. My sense is that most Americans think along the same lines that I previously thought along – unaware of the deep social factors that run through so much of the drug abuse and addiction in our country.

 

Johann Hari writes, “The core of addiction doesn’t lie in what you swallow or inject – it’s in the pain you feel in your head. Yet we have built a system that thinks we will stop addicts by increasing their pain.”

 

So many of the people who fall into drug addiction originally turn to drug use and misuse as a way to ease some sort of pain stemming from a deep trauma. America’s suburbs have reduced our sense of community, and furthered isolation in our country. People with pain and trauma have minimal support for mental and emotional challenges, and as a result, often turn to drugs to attempt to manage the psychological or physical pain they live with.

 

Our response has been punishment, not support. People with deep pain and trauma cannot be healed by making their lives more painful, more traumatic, and by putting more barriers in front of a successful and healthy life. We assume drug addicts need to face more severe consequences to scare them away from drug use, but that is because we fail to see the common threads I have been writing about over the last several weeks. The result has been disastrous for those who find themselves misusing drugs and facing a road to addiction. Punishing the thing we are afraid of in an attempt to stamp it out only entrenches it further, and makes it worse for all of society. We have to recognize the reality of pain and trauma combined with a decimation of our sense of community in regard to addiction. We have to solve those problems first before we can ask people to work with us to fight through drug abuse and addiction.
Punishment Versus Compassion

Punishment Versus Compassion

An idea that Johann Hari explores in his book Chasing The Scream is that people with drug addiction need family and community support to get through their addiction, not punishment and castigation. Throughout the book Hari asks why people develop addictions, what do people do when they successfully get past an addiction, and what structures and systems work against recovery?

 

Early in the book Hari references a conversation he had with pastor and civil rights activist Eugene Callender about singer Billie Holliday. Hari writes, “Callender had built a clinic for heroin addicts in his church, and he pleaded for Billie to be allowed to go there to be nursed back to health. His reasoning was simple, he told me in 2013: addicts, he said, are human beings, just like you and me. Punishment makes them sicker; compassion can make them well.”

 

Hari argues that community is the cure for drug addiction. He sees drug addiction as a consequence of trauma, pain, depression, adverse experiences, and a loss of a sense of togetherness. When people are isolated and don’t truly feel as though they are part of a larger community where they belong and where their lives and actions matter, then people can’t take personal responsibility, they can’t work for more, and they often turn to drugs to blunt the pain and fill the empty voids. What this means, is that addiction is a consequence of everyone’s selfish actions, it is not just a moral failing of the individual. Consequently, we all have a role to play in the recovery of those in our communities dealing with addiction.

 

What Reverend Callender noticed, as highlighted in the quote above, is that people dealing with substance addictions need support and guidance to get through their struggles. People turn to drugs in times of pain when they feel something lacking in their lives. Taking more away from them, limiting their ability to interact with a community, and pushing more challenges at them only worsens the underlying psychological stress and trauma that drove them to addiction in the first place. Punishment is harmful, whereas compassion and forgiveness is what gives people a second chance and encourages them to improve their lives. If we don’t treat people facing addiction with dignity and respect, can we ever expect them to treat themselves with the dignity and respect needed to overcome addiction?
Health Care Supply

Health Care Supply

Dave Chase makes an argument in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call that healthcare has a substantial supply side drive, not just a demand side drive. This argument doesn’t align with standard pictures of healthcare, the idea that people seek care when they are sick, and don’t use care when they are well. Its troubling, but evidence does support the idea that the healthcare market is in some very important ways a supply driven market, meaning that as supply and capacity increases, demand also increases.

 

I’m not completely sure I understand this idea, but it is important for us to acknowledge and think about, especially if we live in growing cities, gentrifying regions of the country, and areas of the United States that have real opportunities for reinvention. When looking to the future of healthcare in the United States, Chase includes many elements from Bruce Katz and Jeremy Nowak’s book The New Localism and thinks there is an important role for new models of city and local government to play in shaping local healthcare ecosystems. He is also heavily influenced by Jim Clifton’s book The Coming Jobs War and the importance that local communities invest in sectors that are likely to be highly productive in the future. Chase writes,

 

“Sooner rather than later, we can expect other developments along the same 3.0 spectrum [More info on Economic Development 3.0 here]. Cities will incorporate true health needs into mater planning and review building permit applications with a deep understanding that health care is a supply-driven market. The more supply there is, the more demand will increase, with little regard for value and community well-being. Approving more health care build-out virtually guarantees a massive burden on local citizens.”

 

It is important that we think about what it is in healthcare that actually provides value. If simply adding more healthcare capacity will lead to greater demand and utilization, then we need to take steps to ensure that an uptick in services is actually accompanied by improvements in health. When communities are redeveloping and growing, they should be focused on upstream social determinants of health rather than just hospitals and healthcare service buildings. Designing communities that will have ample green space for outdoor activity, that will control noise, and will have well lit parks and outdoor areas will help build healthy communities. Plopping a hospital in a space that doesn’t include these elements might give people a place to go when they are stressed, overweight, and injured by debris in the streets, but it will not help people actually live healthier, it will capitalize on a broken environment that fails to support health.

 

I think that is part of the idea that Chase argues for. We should maintain the healthcare capacity and services which actually improve health, and we should be weary of systems that provide healthcare but fail to demonstrate real health improvements for citizens and communities.
Harris Rosen's Program to Invest Locally

A Program that Invests Locally

Harris Rosen runs a hotel chain in Orlando Florida. He has eight hotels in total, and his company does something almost no other companies in the country do. They provide real, meaningful healthcare services to their employees. They save a ton of money on healthcare by actually providing more of it, and better quality services at that. With the money Rosen saves on healthcare, he has developed programs in a neighborhood called Tangelo Park in Orlando to ensure children can attend school, get support to graduate from high school, and attend college on scholarships provided by Rosen.

 

Dave Chase writes about his efforts in his book The Opioid Crisis Wake-Up Call, “The cost over 24 years of the Tangelo Park program has been $11 million – roughly the amount Rosen saves in one year on health care. … For Harris Rosen, the approach is simple: Get involved; care for your people.”

 

$11 million is not a small amount of money, but what Rosen’s example shows is that you don’t have to be billionaire to make a meaningful impact in your community. $11 million is not an unattainable sum for many companies, communities, and philanthropists who want to make real changes. Mayor Bloomberg spent $500 million on failed presidential election campaign, money that could have helped almost 50 Tangelo Park neighborhoods.

 

What is important to see here, is that we can actually provide people with more healthcare, better preventative services, and easier access to good healthcare to save money in the long run. Money that could be invested back into the communities where it can have the greatest impact. Reducing crime means more savings for local communities by reducing resource demands for policing and jails. Improving education achievement means more people have the tools they need to grow and pursue the American dream. Improved health for employees means they are more productive and live happier, healthier lives.

 

We don’t make these kinds of investments for lots of reasons in the United States, but Rosen shows that we can. We are spending the money that we could use for these programs, but we are spending it in the wrong areas. If we looked critically at where we put the money, and where it could go to actually improve lives, then we could really make a difference in our communities and our countries. It starts with caring for people, helping them to become their best, and encouraging our communities to build together.
Addiction and Community

A Final Thought on Addiction and Community

In the afterword of his book Dreamland, author Sam Quinones includes a quote from an obituary written for a 24-year-old man who lived in Avon Lake, a town of about 24,000 people just west of Cleveland. The parents of the young man who died from addiction wrote in their son’s obituary, “They say it takes a community to raise a child. It takes a community to battle addiction.”

 

Everyone, including those of us who are not parents, know that it is true when we say it takes a community to raise a child. Historically, new parents have been in their early to mid twenties (this is changing now – possibly for these communal reasons), and with lower incomes in early stages of their careers and fewer immediate resources, new parents have relied on family members and friends to help with child rearing. As kids get older, they enter public schools, where everyone, parents and non-parents, contribute financially, typically through local property taxes. We know that it is hard to raise a kid on your own, and that it makes a big difference to live near family, to have close friends who are raising kids at the same time, and to have supports from work for the times when our kids are sick and need extra love and attention.

 

The quote from the parents in their son’s obituary, and all of Dreamland demonstrate that the same is true for how we should approach addiction. Asking someone to overcome addiction on their own is like asking a child to raise themselves. It can happen, but it doesn’t often turn out well. People battling addiction need supportive relationships in their lives. The family members and friends of people with addiction need help, because it can be challenging and taxing to help someone else stay sober and find meaning in life beyond addiction. We need communities where we can help each other, watch out for one-another, and provide support in times of need. Many of us have lost this along our way, as our culture has pushed us toward staying inside, watching TV in our own homes, and filling our lives with stuff rather than with the people we love and care about.

 

This is a tough time to find new connections and community as we work to prevent the rapid spread of a new virus, but we should be thinking forward nonetheless to a time where we can better connect with those around us and find new ways to live in community with those who matter. It might just save the life of someone we know whose struggle with addiction has been hidden from us.