Meta: This is intended to be opinionated. I think opinionated things are often useful, they just need to be read with the right perspective. The arguments aren't air-tight, but to a certain audience the ideas might "click". Mr. Money Mustache comes to mind as an example of this. I recognize of course that my arguments aren't perfect, I might be wrong, and to the that extent I am right it won't apply to everyone, but in the interest of being concise I'm not going to use too many qualifiers in this post.

During the pandemic, there was a conversation I had with a friend that has always stuck with me. Before the pandemic he had been getting into jujitsu. During the pandemic he couldn't continue with it, and he was bummed. Then later on in the pandemic when things first started opening up again, he continued with jujitsu even though it's one of the riskier things you could have been doing.

Something similar happened with my mom. There is a bagel place she goes to every weekend, and she was really bummed when it was takeout only.

Related thing: when I first met my girlfriend and moved to Las Vegas to be with her, she was really appreciative. I didn't see it as a big deal though. Why? Because substitute goods for leisure are abundant.

Yes, the summers in Vegas suck. Especially since I don't have a car and get around via walking or biking. But the way I see it, it just means that I substitute one set of activities for a different set of activities. For example, if I lived somewhere where I can walk around I'd spend more time going to restaurants to eat and coffee shops to work. If I didn't I'd spend more time cooking and using communal areas in my apartment.

Call { restaurants, coffee shops } set A and { cooking, communal areas } set B. I prefer set A to set B, but I don't have a super strong preference.

Economists have some cool terminology for this stuff. There's the concept of substitute goods.

The classic example is Coke and Pepsi. Imagine you go to a restaurant and want Coke but all they have is Pepsi. That's probably fine, right? For most people, Pepsi is 99%+ as good as Coke. When two goods are comparable like this, they're considered to be substitute goods.

In reality the extent to which something is a substitute is a spectrum. We can talk about how good something performs as a substitute. Maybe Pepsi is a "very good" substitute for Coke whereas Sprite is only a "decent" substitute and tea is a "poor" substitute.

Back to Las Vegas. I do enjoy going to restaurants. I find it fun to seek out and discover the good ones and derive joy from really good food. However, I also find it fun to cook new recipes and stuff. I prefer restaurants to cooking, but my preference isn't super high. cooking is a pretty good substitute for restaurants.

And this is the case for most leisure activities (intended to be interpreted loosely). For example, I like playing basketball but since that was a little risky during the pandemic I started playing tennis, and that was similarly fun. Tennis is a pretty good substitute for basketball.

I'm probably a little bit extreme in the extent to which I am able to substitute one leisure activity for another. It's something I've always thought about though, dating back to elementary school I think.

I like to imagine different scenarios. One TV show I watch sometimes is Life Below Zero. It follows the lives of various individual and families living in isolated parts of Alaska. I think about what it'd be like if I lived that life. I don't think it'd be that bad. On the one hand I wouldn't get to socialize and play basketball. On the other hand I'd have more solitude and time for writing.

It's hard for me to imagine[1] scenarios where the leisure activities available to me would be less than, say, 80% as desirable as the upper-middle class life I currently have in Portland. For exercise, there's always burpees. For leisurely physical activities you can do something simple like juggling. For a relaxing, mindless type of thing you can make lanyards. A simple musical instrument like a recorder goes a long way. Having books goes a long way. Having one or two people to talk to goes a long way.

Hell, simply having access to your own mind goes a long way! There's so much to think about! Sometimes I hear people talk about how they wouldn't want to live forever because they'd run out of things to do and get bored. That's always seemed like such a crazy thought to me. Just by being able to access my mind and think about things[2], I feel like that would last me an extremely long time. Some thousands of years as a ballpark. This excerpt from HPMoR comes to mind:

"I have lived a hundred and ten years," the old wizard said quietly (taking his beard out of the bowl, and jiggling it to shake out the color). "I have seen and done a great many things, too many of which I wish I had never seen or done. And yet I do not regret being alive, for watching my students grow is a joy that has not begun to wear on me. But I would not wish to live so long that it does! What would you do with eternity, Harry?"

Harry took a deep breath. "Meet all the interesting people in the world, read all the good books and then write something even better, celebrate my first grandchild's tenth birthday party on the Moon, celebrate my first great-great-great grandchild's hundredth birthday party around the Rings of Saturn, learn the deepest and final rules of Nature, understand the nature of consciousness, find out why anything exists in the first place, visit other stars, discover aliens, create aliens, rendezvous with everyone for a party on the other side of the Milky Way once we've explored the whole thing, meet up with everyone else who was born on Old Earth to watch the Sun finally go out, and I used to worry about finding a way to escape this universe before it ran out of negentropy but I'm a lot more hopeful now that I've discovered the so-called laws of physics are just optional guidelines."

There's just so much to think about. So much music to make. Books to read. Stories to experience. And create. Pictures to draw. Software to write. Rules, patterns, and puzzles to figure out. Skills to learn. Jokes to tell. Games to master. Crafts to perfect. I don't want to be rude, but given all of this, the capacity to be bored has always felt a little NPC to me.

I've been speaking about myself this whole time though, and sort of assuming that others are similar. Wouldn't it be better to go out and look at the world? See how other people feel? Maybe even, I don't know, ask them?

Well, sort of. That's definitely not a bad idea and I'd love to hear from others in the comments, but from my current life experiences and knowledge, I have a model of how humans tend to work here with respect to substitute goods and leisure. It goes something like this.

Passion requires perspective. Take someone who doesn't like physics and lock them in a room with Richard Feynman. I bet they'd come out being interested. All of these leisure activities I've been referring to throughout this post, I theorize that they are inherently interesting to the human mind. It just takes the right perspective. And the right perspective can be obtained by combining time, books and openness.

Open minds are hard to come by though. And I was cheating a little bit by just saying time. It also requires effort. In practice, it's often a little impractical to expect people to exert that sort of effort. For example, I have a very poor ability to appreciate art and music. I am highly confident that I could be taught to appreciate them, but I think it'd take a somewhat extreme situation for it to be worth the effort. Then again, send me to live alone in Alaska with books about art and a whiteboard and I think things would work out just fine.


  1. To be clear, I fully recognize and agree that there are basic human needs that must be met. Most people require some amount of social interaction, although some seem to live alone in the wilderness without social interaction and do alright. Physical activity is also something that is needed. A sense of purpose. Health. Security. Etc. ↩︎

  2. Well, I guess if you handed me a pen and paper I wouldn't complain. ↩︎

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:15 PM

the capacity to be bored has always felt a little NPC to me.

Counterpoint: Boredom is good, and our modern amenities optimize it away at our peril.

Is boredom good like hunger is good? I.e. an error signal moving us to correct it, respectively by seeking novelty or obtaining food. What might be bad in this frame is seeking substitutes that only provide fake satisfaction of the error (e.g. doomscrolling and junk food).

Yes, that seems right. In the Explore / Exploit tradeoff, boredom ensures we don't neglect exploration. Whereas engaging media like feeds or video games, and other superstimuli, satisfy boredom in such a way that we stay in exploitation mode.

A thing that illustrates this well, I think, is watching small kids interact with smartphones. The haptic feedback, swipe interfaces, videos etc. are incredibly engaging. So left to their own devices, kids can spend a long time on them without getting bored.

Ah, I really like this way of framing it. I never thought about it that way, but I think it's accurate and I like how it naturally leads to the insight of fake satisfaction of the error.

Hmm yeah that is true. I feel like there's a way for both things to be true though, and I'm having trouble thinking about why.

I appreciate this framing a lot and I really enjoyed the post.

On the topic of living forever, I worry that people who aren't super smart might not be able to find nearly as much joy in random activities/concepts. If I were locked in a room with Richard Feynman I'm not sure that I would actually love physics; I might just come out very confused and a bit drained. 

I worry that my brain is simply unable to deeply understand and appreciate theoretical physics, and even if it were, I don't know if I have the willpower to sit through Feynman explaining quartz to me for the tenth time. Would I find this willpower at some point over the span of a million/billion/infinite years? Maybe? Maybe not? 

Is it possible that smarter people have more concepts they can play with, and maybe if you're smart enough you have essentially infinite ideas to play with, but people less intelligent than this certain threshold will run out of interesting ideas after X years/decades/millennia?

(Even if this was true I still think most people would like to live forever. I just think they will likely relive/rethink the same things and visit their great-great...-great grandchildren, rather than learn the secrets of the universe. Heck, most people relive the same thing every day, and yet most aren't suicidal, so I don't think they would be suicidal if they did this for a million years rather than 80 years.)

I appreciate this framing a lot and I really enjoyed the post.

Thanks!

On the topic of living forever, I worry that people who aren't super smart might not be able to find nearly as much joy in random activities/concepts. If I were locked in a room with Richard Feynman I'm not sure that I would actually love physics; I might just come out very confused and a bit drained. 

I worry that my brain is simply unable to deeply understand and appreciate theoretical physics

I am of the opinion that this stuff is just generally interesting to the human mind, and that the core concepts actually can be simplified and framed such that the average person can understand them. Executing on it is definitely a huge task though that we are not close to succeeding at.

I don't know if I have the willpower to sit through Feynman explaining quartz to me for the tenth time. Would I find this willpower at some point over the span of a million/billion/infinite years? Maybe? Maybe not?

I think I'm envisioning it differently. I'm envisioning it being explained excellently such that you're never straining, and are always being pushed just slightly beyond what you currently know. In practice this rarely happens, but it is theoretically possible.

Is it possible that smarter people have more concepts they can play with, and maybe if you're smart enough you have essentially infinite ideas to play with, but people less intelligent than this certain threshold will run out of interesting ideas after X years/decades/millennia?

I suppose. Although I think that in practice, once you reach whatever point where people run out of interesting ideas, technology will have reached the point where we'll be able to side-step that problem.