Why ‘Quality Time’ is a Damaging Myth- 8 min read

Image of a hand holding sand which is pouring out of it like quality time slipping through our hands
Jerry Seinfeld, the most successful (and wealthy) comedian of all time, laid siege to the idea of ‘quality time’ in an interview he gave about fatherhood:

I don’t need any special days. I mean they’re all special. We spend a lot of time together and I enjoy every second of it. Again, I’m a believer in the ordinary and the mundane. These guys that talk about ‘quality time’ — I always find that a little sad when they say, ‘We have quality time.’ I don’t want quality time. I want the garbage time. That’s what I like. You just see them in their room reading a comic book and you get to kind of watch that for a minute, or [having] a bowl of Cheerios at 11 o’clock at night when they’re not even supposed to be up. The garbage, that’s what I love.

When we divide time up into “quality time” and “whatever the rest is called” time, we are placing “quality time” on a shiny pedestal and making it into a precious resource.

In a culture that idolizes hard-work, quality time sounds like something we have to strive for and throw money at.

We are told by a culture that thrives on marketing, advertising, and spending sprees that the moments that matter is the “special” ones: Christmas, foreign holidays, fancy parties and fancier presents.

In reality, however, great memories are in no way tied to the big trips abroad or the major holidays like Christmas. That is not to say that these times don’t stimulate great memories, just that their importance is vastly overemphasized and functions as a distraction from the many more opportunities that slip by while we are counting the days to these big moments.

When I think back on my childhood, I have many treasured memories from family holidays and big Christmases.

But I also remember covertly collecting conkers with my brothers every autumn; how we would sneak into our reclusive neighbor’s garden with its giant horse chestnut trees and how we would fill our brown basin to the brim with the shiny new conkers; how we would knock the spiky shells from the trees with a long stick and crush them under our soles in hopeful anticipation of finally finding the king of all conkers.

I remember the cooing of the wood pigeons and the collared doves, a sound anchored in that twilight of autumnal freedom before school starts again in September.

And I remember the drives to my grandmother’s house in West Limerick and the smell of my father’s cigarettes being buffeted through the car by the breeze of the open window. I remember the fresh air and smells of the country that filled that breeze and the distinct smell that cigarettes have in a car that they have nowhere else; and I can still hear the music that would play in the car on those journeys: Blackberry Way, Tijuana Taxi, Penny Lane.

These memories cost nothing. There was nothing dramatic or spectacular about them, but they beat as loudly in my heart like the memory of any special holiday. They are simple and mundane but eternal, and that makes them precious.

They are sweet little nothings, and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

The Devil in the Details

If you were to search for one reason why the big events are more memorable as adults, it might simply be that we are moving at a slower pace. At such times we are stiller, and so we are more able to appreciate the moment we are in.

We consciously choose to tune out the noise from the rest of life at these times. We choose to be present because we recognize these moments as special.

With this mindset, fretting about the unimportant things would undermine the entire point of the travels and the holidays.

I have no doubt that these family holidays were more memorable to my parents than anything I’ve mentioned above.

All of which seems to point to an even larger and more insidious problem:

In modern Western culture, we are short on time even if we are long on material wealth.

Now, more than ever, we are faced with the Biblical dilemma of gaining the world and losing our souls. To quote Charlie Chaplin’s goosebump-infecting speech from The Great Dictator:

We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these traits, life will be violent and all will be lost….

As we enter the busy hive of adulthood, we move too fast to appreciate the conkers of the horse chestnuts and the cooing of the pigeons and doves.

It often takes the pitch and moment of Christmas and travelling to remind us to be present and to be grateful.

In his book Authentic Happiness, the founder of Positive Psychology Martin Seligman makes a very startling observation:

Mounting over the last forty years in every wealthy country on the globe, there has been a startling increase in depression. Depression is now ten times as prevalent as it was in 1960, and it strikes at a much younger age. The mean age of a person’s first episode of depression forty years ago was 29.5, while today it is 14.5 years. This is a paradox, since every objective indicator of well-being — purchasing power, amount of education, availability of music, and nutrition — has been going north, while every indicator of subjective well-being has been going south.

Money, it turns out, is as inadequate at buying happiness as it is at buying love. Those who are paid the most are often the ones who have the least time to enjoy the fruits of their wealth.

It is sad to think of an individual buying an incredible, sprawling house with a gorgeous view and yet barely having a moment to spend in it because of the work they have to do just to keep up repayments.

This extreme is just a caricature of the way our culture as a whole carries on.

More money⁠ — and the holidays and presents it can bring⁠ — is not correlated with higher happiness. On the contrary, studies have found that once your income moves above the poverty line, money brings diminishing returns of happiness.

As the sylvan philosopher Henry David Thoreau says in Walden:

The cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.

Or to put it in the words of the freewheeling Tyler Durden in Fight Club: “the things we own end up owning us”.

We must be careful that we do not exchange too much life on bad emotional investments; we must become shrewd accountants when it comes to balancing the things we have and the time left to enjoy them.

This is not to say that we should cast off the evil yolk of money and work and head off into the sunset with our hobo stick held aloft.

What it does mean, however, is that there is always a price to be paid; there is always a balance to be struck, and there is always a line to be drawn between work and life.

When evaluating what we spend our lives on, it helps to be conscious of what we are gaining. Man does not live by bread alone.

What We Can Do

We are not doomed to perpetually repeat this cycle of wading through garbage time to get to the quality time. Nor do we have to cast off all we have built to make a change.

In fact, over the previous decade, there had been a global discussion about the importance of work-life balance. Many companies across the world are already reaping the benefits of the four-day workweek and, with happier and more efficient workers, it does not even seem to be accompanied by an economic loss.

On a personal level, there are three lessons we can keep in mind when seeking to build a life with more memories and to escape the trap of living most of our lives in anticipation of some quality moment.

1. Quantity Over Quality

The first lesson to be learned, if we are to rethink our evaluation about quality time, is that the important things in life are often entirely unrelated to the things dictated by the calendar and the diary.

It is the moments that matter.

How many moments of bliss do we miss in the chase for that one special moment? As Jerry Seinfeld taught us, there is no special moment or quality time; it is all quality, or none of it is.

2. Put Your Money Where Your Heart Is

The second lesson is caution. What we esteem so highly now⁠ — and what seems so important at this moment⁠ — is likely to be deemed utterly trivial in the final evaluation on our deathbed.

We only have this one life and the hours are continually chiselling away at what we have left; by remembering what’s truly important, we can make the most of what we have.

There is an art to appreciating your kids eating Cheerios; there is an art to appreciating a sunset and that art has nothing to do with having a good photo of it.

3. Slow Down

The final lesson is about altering the pace of life. To appreciate the little things, you need to move slower and more inefficiently; such an act of stillness is the ultimate form of revolution in a culture of never-ending movement and progress. “We must wage peace with ourselves” as Ryan Holiday says in his recent book on the importance of stillness. Or to quote Charlie Chaplin’s legendary speech once again:

In the 17th chapter of St Luke it is written that the kingdom of God is within man⁠ — not one man nor a group of men but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power⁠ — the power to create machines. The power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure…Let us use that power

Quality time is a distraction from the abundance of opportunities that are open to us every day. The eternal moment that breathes through your greatest memories⁠ — and that we are all constantly striving for⁠ — is always right here, in the present moment, just waiting for you to stop rushing and instead begin the work of living.

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