In The End, We Seek Meaning

In his book When, author Dan Pink investigates how humans relate to and understand time. He considers the time of day, the timing of events, and also how we understand things based on time dimensions such as beginnings, middles, and ends. His focus on endings is one of the more surprising parts for me, someone who doesn’t read that much fiction and isn’t much of a movie buff.

 

Human life is narrative, and we can’t help but think of our lives and events in our lives in terms of beginnings, middles, and ends. We understand our lives by thinking about our end, which we will all eventually reach. We want our narrative to be happy, but Pink suggests that we also want something more than just happiness at the end of the narratives we create.

 

“Adding a small component of sadness to an otherwise happy moment elevates that moment rather than diminishes it. Poignancy, the researchers [Hal Hershfield and Laura Carstensen et al.] write, seems to be particular to the experience of endings. The best endings don’t leave us happy. Instead they produce something richer – a rush of unexpected insight, a fleeting moment of transcendence, the possibility that by discarding what we wanted we’ve gotten what we needed.”

 

Pink shows that rich emotions are what drive us. Happiness itself is not enough of a rich emotion on its own to truly provide us with the depth that we need in life. We experience sadness and the realization that our world is transitory, and come to understand that we need complex relationships in our lives. What we ultimately enjoy and engage with the most are narratives that create a comprehensive meaning from these complex and often competing emotions.

 

Pink continues, “Closings, conclusions, and culminations reveal something essential about the human condition: In the end, we seek meaning.”

 

We are looking for a life that is coherent from a narrative sense, but also has a sense of meaning and a sense of purpose. We might not enjoy every moment and might not like many of the things we must do, but a fully engaging life is one that includes a vast array of experiences and emotions with other people. When we put everything together and reach an end, that is what we are looking for, and it is often a different set of experiences and emotions than what we would have if we purely searched for happiness, fame, and material possessions.

 

This is why the end of Avengers Endgame was so powerful for so many fans. We were happy to get an epic battle that we had been dreaming of for 10 years, but sad to lose the instigating protagonist of the entire series. While the depth of the meaning might not be the most impressive in cinematic history, I think many fans would agree that the ending was strong and powerful, because it included a touch of sadness with the joy that many receive from watching super heroes kick ass. It created a more poignant moment rather than just a happy ending, giving the whole series a new sense of meaning, just as we hope happens when we reflect back on our lives at the end of any milestone.

More on Temporal Landmarks

According to Daniel Pink in his book When, temporal landmarks can come in two varieties, social and personal. Social temporal landmarks are the dates that everyone shares in common while personal landmarks are the significant dates in our own lives such as birthdays, anniversaries, and dates of significant life events. Studies presented in Pink’s book show that both types of landmarks can serve as helpful anchors for jumping off points. Students are more likely to go to the gym on a Monday, at the start of a semester, or on the day after their birthday than on other random days.

 

Pink describes the anchoring effect this way, “This new period offers a chance to start again by relegating our old selves to the past. It disconnects us from that past self’s mistakes and imperfections, and leaves us confident about our new, superior selves. Fortified by that confidence, we behave better than we have in the past and strive with enhanced fervor to achieve our aspirations.”

 

In the physical world, we can make changes that literally do shut a door on one aspect of our lives. We can move to a new city, we can sell all of our TVs and gaming consoles, we chop down a tree and pave over the place where it used to be. These changes can have physical manifestations that designate something new, something different, and prevent us from continuing on as we always have. Temporal landmarks are not physical and permanent in the same way, but can still serve a similar function for us. They break apart a continuous stream of time and allow us to make distinctions between ourselves now and who we have been in the past.

 

Pink also argues that part of the strength of temporal landmarks is in the way they allow us to reflect and think about who we are, what we have historically been or done, and what our aspirations are for our futures. He writes, “Temporal landmarks slow our thinking, allowing us to deliberate at a higher level and make better decisions.”

 

My example of making a physical world change to change our behaviors is an example of taking a deliberate step to help us make better decisions. Temporal changes don’t necessarily create a physical barrier which changes our behavior, but they do give us a mental stopping point at which we can pause and consider how and why we do something. Rather than continuing on auto-pilot these landmarks make us pause and consider whether we are going in the right direction, whether we are regressing back toward a place we don’t want to be, or whether we can change course and achieve what we want. In many ways, without actually being a physical barrier, these temporal landmarks operate in the same way. Simply because they are not tangible doesn’t make them any more real in the ways we think about our lives, the changes we experience throughout life, and how we make decisions.

Temporal Landmarks

My general sense the last several years is that people are starting to sour on the idea of a new year’s resolution. People that I have talked the last few years seem to be getting away from the idea of making a big change for the upcoming year, or at least if they are planning on making a change, they are not admitting it. Generally, I have been supportive of killing off the new year’s resolution tradition, but Dan Pink’s book When challenged my thoughts on the usefulness of such resolutions.

 

I have had the mindset that people shouldn’t wait for a specific date to try to make a change in their life. I am also skeptical of trying to implement a resolution on January first, since it is immediately after the Christmas holiday in the United States and many people likely still have family hanging around, still have extra pie in the fridge, and its a cold and dark time of year. Trying to start a big change during this time, when the weather is demoralizing and you are not on track with a routine schedule, seems like a poor idea to me. As a result, at least as long back as I can really remember, I have never made any substantial new year’s resolution and I have not been one to encourage people to adopt a resolution.

 

The reality, however, is that people find it helpful to make a change when there is something that can delineate a new starting line for them. Pink describes it this way, “The first day of the year is what social scientists call a temporal landmark. Just as human beings rely on landmarks to navigate space – to get to my house, turn left at the Shell station – we also use landmarks to navigate time. Certain dates function like that Shell station. They stand out from the ceaseless and forgettable march of other days, and their prominence helps us find our way.”

 

I had not thought of navigating the space of time the way we navigate the space of the world around us. But it is accurate to say that days and time can blend together, and since we can’t control time, it can feel as though it relentlessly races forward. I have heard people in the Bay Area in California talk about the disorientating nature of their climate. The Bay Area doesn’t have pronounced seasons the way other parts of the country do. Most days are ok, and the temperature and weather doesn’t vary dramatically across the year. The passage of time feels different when you don’t really have a spring, summer, fall, and winter.

 

Using temporal landmarks helps us make sense of the passage of time and gives us a place to plant ourselves for our upcoming life pivots. Just as we might use another wall or a step to brace ourselves if we are pushing a heavy piece of furniture, a specific date can be a brace for us to push for a new habit. It can provide a reference point for how far we have moved and how successful (or not) we have been with any changes that we want to make.

 

So rather than looking down on the idea of new year’s resolutions or being unhelpful in telling people to just make the changes they want to see in their lives today, I can help encourage people to use temporal landmarks in a smart way. I can encourage people to think about the obstacles they will face and how long after their temporal marker they think they might face those obstacles. I can encourage people to think in time chunks with more temporal landmarks to navigate the time landscape they traverse as they implement new lifestyle goals.  Time landmarks are not just random and arbitrary, they are social constructs that can help establish shared meaning and goals across time and space.

Taking Issues of When Seriously

I wrote earlier about moving school start times to a later hour for high school students. In most school districts across the United States, our high school students start the day the earliest, and our elementary school students start the latest. Research, however, shows that swapping that order and pushing high school students’ start times back would improve learning as measured by test scores, reduce traffic accidents, and help high school students get more sleep.

 

Nevertheless, changing school schedules so that high school students start the day later would be inconvenient for adults, and we also have the idea that we need to push high school students to start their day early to prevent them from being staying up all night long with video games and social media. We choose not to consider the when of school start times, even though we will spend hours debating what books should be read in English class and whether art should be a requirement.

 

As Dan Pink writes in his book When, “We simply don’t take issues of when as seriously as we take questions of what.”

 

School start times are only one instance where we deprioritize the when. As far as I can tell, we operate with many inefficient whens in our lives without anyone taking much action to really change them. Many of us are now knowledge or service workers, and we often work 8 hour shifts for no obvious reason. Our work start times are all pretty uniform, and with our consistent 8 hour shifts, we also end at the same time, putting a huge strain on infrastructure for just a few short hours every morning and evening.

 

I see only a few whens that really seem to count for a lot in our daily lives. The start time of our work, the duration of our work, and the end time of our work. These whens are crucial and often inflexible. Every other when in our lives seems to be crammed around those three.

 

What I find disappointing, however, is that we don’t actually ask if those three whens make any sense. We focus on the whats all the time: did a report get finished, did we reach a sales target, what did the student learn? But we don’t often ask these questions in a meaningful way in relation to time: could the report have been finished in half the time, when should we reasonably expect to reach a sales target, what is the best time for student engagement with math versus art?

 

Asking if someone was at their desk at 8 a.m. and if they stayed at their desk for a full 8 hours doesn’t really tell you if they were effective or efficient. This isn’t a valuable way to look at time in our modern world and economy. Our when can be a lot more flexible, and increased flexibility, I would argue, can help improve the outcomes we actually want to see. Thinking differently about the when would help us to do better work and interact better with our world. We don’t need to hold on to rigid expectations about the timing of work or school, what we need is to find avenues to help people produce the best work and learn the most effectively.

The Time for Being Moral

Morality and our behavior is one of the spaces that I think demonstrates how little our actions and behaviors seem to actually align with the way we think about ourselves and the level of control we have in our lives. We believe that we are the masters of our own sails and that we are in control of what we do in the way that a CEO is in control of a company. We blame people when they make mistakes, hide our own shortcomings, and are pretty tough on ourselves when we don’t do the things we said we would do.

 

We hold ourselves and others to high moral standards and approach morality as if there is one fixed standard that is set in stone, but in our lives we don’t actually live that out. However, small factors that we likely ignore or completely fail to recognize play a huge role in our actual behaviors, and shape how we think about morality and whether we behave in a way that is consistent with the moral values we claim to have. One example is time.

 

In his book When, author Dan Pink looks at the ways that humans behave and interact with the world at different times of the day. Most people start their day out with a generally positive affect that peaks somewhere around 4 to 6 hours after waking up. Their mood then plummets and they experience a trough in the middle of the day and afternoon where their affect is more negative, their patience is shorter, and their attention is dulled. But, luckily for us all, people generally show a tendency to rebound in the late afternoon and early evening and their mood and affect improve. Night owls show the same pattern, but generally reversed starting out in more of a rebound phase, running through a trough in the middle of the day, and peaking in the evening.

 

Studies seem to show that this cycle holds for our attentiveness, our mood, and also our morality. Pink writes, “synchrony even affects our ethical behavior. In 2014 two scholars identified what they dubbed the morning morality effect, which showed that people are less likely to lie and cheat on tasks in the morning than they are later in the day.” Pink continues to explain that subsequent research seems to indicate that we are more moral during our peak. Most people are morning people and are most moral in the mornings. Night owls seem to be more moral in the evening when they hit their peak.

 

It seems strange that we would have certain times when we behave more moral. For the standard story we tell ourselves, we are rational agents who are not influenced by cheesy commercials, by insignificant details, or by the random time at which something takes place. We are the masters of our own destiny and we are in control of our own behavior and thoughts. This story, however, doesn’t seem to be an accurate reflection of our lives. If simply changing the time of day during which we have to make a morality decision changes the outcome of our decision, then we should ask if we really are in control of our thoughts and actions. It seems that we are greatly influenced by things that really shouldn’t matter when it comes to crucial decisions about morality and our behavior.

Start High School After 8 A.M.

I’m a super early morning person and I have been since high school, but I was definitely a bit of an anomaly in high school and throughout college. Most high school students, not necessarily through their own poor decision-making or bad habits, go to sleep a lot later at night and don’t wake up very early. It is a pattern that is made fun of in families and in popular culture, but it is a pattern that seems to be pretty stable and should be considered when we think about designing a school system for teenage children that maximizes their educational opportunities and efficiency.

 

This is an argument that Dan Pink presents in his book When. In most places in the United States, my hometown of Reno being one of them, our high school students have the earliest start time. Middle school students head to school next, and our elementary age children start school the latest. This allows us to have three different bus schedules that pick up the oldest kids in the early morning, then get the next youngest group, and finally get the little guys. What we prioritize is an efficient bus schedule that feels safe for our youngest kids, not necessarily our kids learning.

 

The problem with this schedule is that it is a bit backwards for our oldest and youngest children. Our younger kids tend to wake up a little sooner and would actually do better than our teenagers with starting school early in the morning. Teenagers need just as much sleep as kindergartners, but rarely get enough. Moving school back for them would actually help them get more sleep and be better students. Their learning would improve, their driving would be safer, and hopefully outcomes for our high school students would be better in the long run.

 

Pink references a study of start times for schools writing, “one study examined three years of data on 9,000 students from eight high schools in Minnesota, Colorado, and Wyoming that had changed their schedules to begin school after 8:35 a.m. At these schools, attendance rose and tardiness declined. Students earned higher grades in core subject areas of math, English, science and social studies and improved their performance on state and national standardized tests. At one school, the number of car crashes for teen drivers fell by 70 percent after it pushed its start time from 7:35 a.m. to 8:55 a.m.”

 

I understand that we don’t want to encourage teenagers to stay up all night on phones and computers, and I recognize that many people would be afraid that pushing the start of school back would do just that, but as it is now, we force teenagers into settings that are not conducive to learning. We make them start school early, prevent them from getting enough sleep, and put them in dangerous situations due to fatigue. What our current system reveals is that we value efficient bus schedules and perhaps a feeling of safety for our smallest kids over the actual learning that is supposed to take place in school. Perhaps it is fine to express our values this way, but we should take a critical look at the learning taking place in our schools and make sure that we are ok with the values we prioritize when it comes to our children’s school schedules. Making a switch would likely help our students learn more and save lives, two outcomes that should be high priorities for society and our education systems.

Racial Bias Manifests When We Are Tired

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all make cognitive errors that result in biases, incorrect assessments, and bad decisions. Daniel Pink examines the timing of our errors and biases in his book When: The Scientific Secrets to Perfect Timing. It is one thing to simply say that biases exist, and another to try to understand what leads to biases and when such biases are most likely to manifest. It turns out that the time of day has a big impact on when we are likely to see biases in our thinking and actions.

 

Regarding a research study where participants were asked to judge a criminal defendant, Pink writes, “All of the jurors read the same set of facts. But for half of them, the defendants’s name was Robert Garner, and for the other half, it was Roberto Garcia. When people made their decisions in the morning, there was no difference in guilty verdicts between the two defendants. However, when they rendered their verdicts later in the day, they were much more likely to believe that Garcia was guilty and Garner was innocent.”

 

Pink argues that when we are tired, when we have had to make many decisions throughout the day, and when we have become exhausted from high cognitive loads, we slow down with our decision-making process and are less able to think rationally. We use short-cuts in our decisions which can lead to cognitive errors. The case above shows how racial biases or prejudices may slip in when our brains are depleted.

 

None of us like to think of ourselves as impulsive or biased. And perhaps in the morning, after our first cup of coffee and before the stress of the day has gotten to us, we really are the aspirational versions of ourselves who we see as fair, honest, and patient. But the afternoon version of ourselves, the one who yells at other drivers in 5 p.m. traffic, is much less patient, more biased, and less capable of rational thought.

 

The idea of implicit biases, or prejudices that we don’t recognize that we hold, is controversial. None of us want to believe that we could make such terrible mistakes in thinking and treat two people so differently simply because a name sounds foreign. The study Pink mentions is a good way to approach this topic and show that we are at the whim of our tired brains, and to demonstrate that we can, in a sense, have two selves. Our rational and patient post-coffee self is able to make better decisions than our afternoon I-just-want-to-get-home-from-work selves. We are not the evil that manifests through our biases, but rather our biases are a manifestation that results from poor decision-making situations and mental fatigue. This is a lighter way to demonstrate the power and hidden dangers of our cognitive biases, and the importance of having people make crucial decisions at appropriate times. It is important to be honest about these biases so that we can look at the structures, systems, and institutions that shape our lives so that we can create a society that works better for all of us, regardless of what time of day it is.

Peak, Trough, Rebound

Dan Pink’s book When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing includes a lot of interesting information about time, how we think about time, and about how humans and our societies interact with time. The book is one of the books I recommend the most because it includes a lot of interesting ideas that Pink does a good job of combining in ways that can really help with productivity and organizing one’s day. We all deal with time and never have enough of it, and Pink helps us think about how to best manage and use our time.

 

One interesting study that Pink shares has to do with mood and affect throughout the day. A study of twitter showed a striking pattern among people across the globe. For most people, excluding night owls, we tend to have our peak of the day about 3 to 4 hours after we wake up. From there, we slowly trend downward until we hit the middle of our trough in the mid-afternoon. But, we rebound and our mood and affect improve in the late evening. Pink writes, “Across continents and time zones, as predictable as the ocean tides, was the same daily oscillation – a peak, a trough, and a rebound. Beneath the surface of our everyday life is a hidden pattern: crucial, unexpected, and revealing.”

 

The study Pink references shows that we are not simply continuously in the same mood and attitude throughout the day. We have a point where we are at our zenith, and best able to tackle the challenges that come at us. However, our energy drains, and our mood and attentiveness diminish. We become irritable and easily distracted, and we can see this happen through the adjectives and emotion included in people’s social media posts. Through breaks, and the end of the workday, however, our energy levels come back and we rebound, becoming happier and more creative. We get through the low part of our day and can be functioning human beings again. This isn’t just something that we sometimes feel, it is a clear pattern that is common to humans across the globe.

 

What I find so interesting about Pink’s book and why I have recommended it so much is that timing is everything for us. So much of our lives is impacted by the way we relate to time, but very few of us ever think about it. There are patterns all around us relating to time, but usually these patterns are hidden and unknown to us. When we look at them and understand them, we can start to adjust our days and how we schedule things that we do.

 

I find it incredible that we can look at people on twitter, and see their mood based on the adjectives and words used in their posts. What is even more incredible, is that we can watch the mood and attitude of a region change through a day, and change in a rhythmic pattern. If we want to be effective, and want to help others to be effective, we should think about these patterns and organize our days and activities in a way that corresponds to these patterns. I have tried to do that in my life, and find it helpful to set up my day so that I am doing particular activities in line with the peak, trough, rebound flow of my days. Timing is important, and should be a purposeful part of our days.

Evaluating What Really Matters

I really wish that the work week was not 40 hours long. I really believe we could be just as productive working 6 hour days rather than 8 hour days, and I think that we could use our extra time to build meaningful social capital in our societies and lives. (As an aside, I do recognize that a shorter work day would really just mean our cities would sprawl more and we would live further from work and spend more time commuting for work). Where we are right now, is in a weird position where we have allowed our work to consume almost all of what we do for reasons we don’t like. We work 8 hours a day and 40 hours a week because we want more and we want things that don’t really matter so that we can impress people we don’t really care about. We are focusing on things that are not that important and giving up large amounts of our lives to pursue these meaningless things.

 

In Letters From a Stoic, Seneca writes, “it is easy to escape, if only you will despise the rearwards of business. We are held back and kept from escaping by thoughts like these: What then? Shall I leave behind me these great prospects? Shall I depart at the very time of harvest? Shall I have no slaves at my side? No retinue for my litter? No crowd in my reception room?” It is hard to look at the opportunity for material gain and turn it down in favor of enjoying time. It is hard to draw back when we see an avenue for promotion, a way to work more to earn more, or a chance to gain more status and prestige. Often however, we hate the time we spend working and we put ourselves in situations that are dangerous to our health (even if you are not going into a mine, going into an office that spikes your blood pressure every day is unhealthy).

 

“Hence men leave such advantages as these with reluctance,” Seneca writes, “they love the reward of their hardships, but curse the hardships themselves.”

 

I recognize how important hard work is. I understand that without everyone working together to get stuff done, society does not advance, we don’t grow and prosper, and we don’t have any way to enjoy our leisure time. But I think we may be at a point where we are no longer working to enjoy our leisure time. We are not seeing our levels of work decline as we become more prosperous, we see the opposite. Productivity growth is slow, but the hours we spend working are increasing. This suggests we are putting ourselves in places we don’t want to be, not really working that hard when we are there (because we hate it) and then getting rewards we don’t even have time to be happy with.

 

I think we should step back and reconsider the things that really matter. We should find ways to pull back from work we hate and dislike. We should find ways to give people time and should encourage people to use that new time in a way that brings communities together with shared purposes and prospects. Rather than selfishly working for ourselves, we should spend more time engaged in a community and working together for others.

Time For Ourselves

Early in the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a story is recounted and includes a conversation between two people about time. The story specifically looks at how we think about our time and the story we tell ourselves about our time. Jumping right into the middle, the story goes:

 

“Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.” The story continues,
“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

 

I really like this story because it shows how much our understanding of time is influenced  by the stories we tell ourselves. There truly is not anything that breaks up the segments of time that we have throughout our days. There is no real barrier that we transition through as we go from one hour to the next and even real demarcated time shifts, like the shift from day to night, are gradual without an exact point where one can say, we have officially moved from day to night. With our day, we simply transition out of daylight into twilight, and then from twilight into night, and at a certain point we can all agree it is night time, but not at a specific identifiable point. What is more, the time of day at which these transitions occur constantly changes, not adhering to the stories well tell ourselves about 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m. or 9 p.m.

 

Recently I have been focusing on the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we create for ourselves as we live our lives. I am fascinated by the fact that the reality we experience hinges on the interpretations and experiences we have within that reality. We construct narratives and stories that fit what we want to be true and live within these stories. Time is just another example of how the stories we tell impact the way we experience the world. Our views and perspectives of time take something that is truly concrete and fundamental in universe (even if not fully understood), the phenomenological ordering of events, and creates stories and structured ways of perceiving it.

 

Allan is simply pulling back the stories he tells himself as he goes about his days. He has recognized that there is nothing that determines that something is time for him versus time for anyone else. There is simply the moment and his experience and consciousness. That time is his as long as he does not try to force the time to conform to a specific narrative. Recognizing the power that narratives hold in our lives gives us a chance to feel more free as we recognize which parts of our day and existence are built from concrete facts and empiricism and which parts are built by our interpretation, imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves about what everything means.