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BERNSTEIN: Spend your free time wisely

Column: Mind You

Your free time is a limited resource, so be selective about how you choose to spend it. – Photo by Pixabay.com

There is a surreal normalcy to buses so obscenely packed that passengers might fail to hear, over the cacophony of chattering students, the sound of leaking water descending from vents to splash their backs and bookbags. After more than a year of remote learning, Rutgers University is back to bustling.

But for many students, "back to bustling" will not mean "back to normal." Even with mandatory vaccinations for students and masking requirements, the sudden return to crowded dining halls and full-capacity dorms is bound to evoke anxiety in a significant portion of the student body, especially those with compromised immune systems or immunocompromised family members.

Club meetings and social gatherings in which we once engaged freely have begun to feel like exercises in risk assessment. Let us not sugarcoat the truth: This last year was nothing short of a collectively traumatic experience, and many of us will find our emotional stability much more fragile than ever before in the coming months.

Unfortunately, natural human coping mechanisms for stress are rarely perfect, or even sustainable, even in unexceptionally stressful periods. I remember noticing this past summer, as I began to go out into the world again, my tendency to "gamble" with time, that is, to stake a few hours of my life on some social event or activity in the hopes that it would provide a novel and exciting experience.

Occasionally, I was rewarded with satisfaction. But more often, even if these experiences were altogether pleasant, I would come away from it with feelings of discontent, regret and a need to justify to myself how I spent my afternoon.

I suspect that I am not the only person who has encountered this experience. When the mediocrity of the world around us leaves us desperately searching for some rush of dopamine, social outings can feel less like an opportunity to be present and more like a wager.

Rather than live in the moment, we hope that things will go our way, and when they do not, we buckle down and put up more and more of our time, left only with dejection when our entire evening has been apparently wasted in the hunt for reprieve.

If you have been feeling lately like your (scarce) leisure time is spent frantically rolling the metaphorical dice of chance instead of enjoying yourself, it might be worth your effort to take stock of the habits that define your experience.

Resist the urge to gamble with your time rather than invest it. When you find yourself restless and seeking out positive emotional states, try returning to a hobby that consistently brings you joy rather than searching for novelty or returning to an unreliable source of happiness. 

I do not mean to warn against openness to new experiences. Proactively trying new things is a crucial aspect of a successful college life. But these sojourns into the unfamiliar can only be appreciated when the aim is to enjoy the experience itself, rather than to use novelty to fill a need for comfort. Do not surrender to compulsive spontaneity — it is by nature a bland paradox.

The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) has taught me a lot about both myself and the world in which we live, but no lesson has been more salient than this: we ought not to tolerate our impulse to treat daily life like a series of roulette spins where our time and wellbeing are the chips.

To try to force our desires and expectations onto experiences beyond our control is a losing battle and relegates potentially revelatory moments to the status of mere gambles. After a year devoid of satisfaction, it will be difficult not to entertain the temptation to press our luck. Unless we commit to mastering the art of lowering the psychological stakes, it is a temptation we cannot afford.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in physics and mathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Mondays.


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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