De-Atomization is the Secret to Happiness
It may be that simple
There are at least two kinds of fun:
Type 1 fun is fun in the moment. Watching a movie, playing a video game, scrolling TikTok, reading a book. You want to have fun, you do the fun thing, and voilá, it is fun.
Type 2 fun is fun in retrospect. Running a marathon is mostly un-fun from moment to moment; you’re often either zoned out or in some form of pain. But in retrospect, it was fun.
I’ve spent over 1,000 hours playing the video game DOTA 2, but I remember almost zero of that time. It was strong type 1 fun but very low type 2 fun.
I once went to a DOTA 2 International tournament with a friend, though, and I remember most of that experience quite vividly. Significant parts were unfun: waiting in line, commuting to the arena, bumping into one of the questionably hygienic gamers whose body must be 63% pizza and getting a whiff of Geneva-violating body odor. But overall, it was very fun.
Despite being moment-to-moment less fun than playing the game, going to the tournament was ultimately more fun. Playing the videogame is very fun, but it’s monolithic. It’s just play, there’s no environmental novelty full of multisensory stimuli to hook your memory into. It blurs from one moment to the next, and like bad American Chinese food, you find yourself paradoxically unsatiated when you’re done. There’s something more fun about complex fun, even if the individual moments might score lower on the hedonometer.
But fun is just one area where we can see this phenomenon. There is a clear experiential divide between rich multisensory life and what I’ll call “atomized” life.
And atomized life is worth avoiding.
When I wrote about how much weaker we’ve gotten, several people rightly pointed out that the reason was obvious: most of us no longer do hard labor as our day jobs. When you had to walk or jog 20 miles a day for sustenance or spend all day carrying canoes and packs on your shoulders or drag bricks of limestone around for pharaoh, you were default strong. When you spend all day sitting in a chair getting enraged / entertained / aroused / whatever by algorithms, you are default flabby.
Life and fitness used to be deeply intertwined. You could not live without fitness. Now they are separate: fitness is a cute thing rich people do in their Lululemon after work or while jiggling their mouse to keep the Slack bubble green. You don’t do it to stay alive, you do it to get laid or not resent yourself or maybe if you’re particularly enlightened to “feel good.”
Fitness has been atomized: it is no longer part of a cohesive whole life. It’s a separate thing you have to try to “find time for.” When someone says they “don’t have time” to work out, they’re both stating their priorities (obviously, everyone has time)but also stating something about their life. It does not have fitness incorporated into it.
Beyond the atomization separating fitness from normal life, there is also further atomization within fitness. Let’s take biking as an example. First, biking was something you did outside, often with friends. There was scenery, socialization, exploration, sunlight, and exercise. Then the exercise element was captured in stationary bikes, placed in a gym or a spin class, and most of the richness was removed. You still got the exercise, and some socialization from being in the gym or class, but there was no scenery, no exploration, no time in the outdoors. Then we got Peloton. No socialization. No scenery. No exploration. No sunlight. Exercise, sure, and Emma is cute, but that’s it. The richness of biking is gone.
And, look, I love my Peloton, but it’s Type 1 exercise. Instead of exercise being a multifaceted activity that incorporates other essential life elements like seeing friends, getting fresh air, and looking away from a screen for a few moments, it reduces it to its simplest element and suggests that’s just as good. Maybe even better because you get a “harder workout.” The most important part of exercise, after all, is INTENSITY.
Where else do we see over-atomization? Food comes to mind. A meal should be about more than just food. Relaxation, spending time with your friends and family, fun, maybe joy. If you looked at an Italian neighborhood dinner and said “wow what a waste, don’t they know they could just drink a Huel and get back to work?” then, well, oof.
But atomization encourages us to reduce multivariate experiences, often the most important parts of life, to their single most obvious element:
Biking is about exercise, and scheduling with friends and planning a route and inflating your tires all get in the way of that.
Eating is about sustenance, and inviting friends and getting groceries and cooking all get in the way of that.
Relationships are about talking, and meeting up in person and leaving the house and scheduling are all inconveneiences.
Work is about checking off tasks, so spending time commuting to an office where you might goof off and socialize all get in the way of that.
Then when we feel lonely, painfully isolated by our atomized life, we schedule some atomized social time like going to a bar or coffee to see friends in between our lonely work and lonely dinner because we’ve removed most of the natural socializing elements from all of the other parts of life. Atomization turns an integrated day of socializing, eating, exercising, and working into discrete hurried chunks of trying to move from one thing to another, wondering why we never seem to have time for everything.
Atomization is a global version of the problem I discussed in “work life balance is impossible,” the reason you can never have “work-life balance” is that you’ve placed Work and Life at odds, as ends of a scale that needs to be balanced out lest it tips too far in either direction.
If you throw Exercise and Socialization and Food and Fun and Hobbies into some complicated hexascale with Work and Life, you suddenly feel overwhelmed and start eyeing the benzos because seriously how can you possibly oh shit did the dogs get fed today ugh when did you last finish a book can you believe she hasn’t called you back is it 5 o’clock yet?
But at the root of this overwhelm is the language we use around many activities. “I’m going to go workout” feels more responsible than “I’m going to go for a walk with a friend.” We separate “I’m working” and “I’m playing.” We want to make everything extremely efficient, so we opt for going for a run alone instead of trying to link up with people along the way. We need to “be productive” so we don’t work from a coffee shop with friends.
There is probably some blame to be put on the dumb productivity world for this too. People think they need to focus and give things their full attention as if attention is the most important resource to optimize for. For your hour or two of deep work, sure, but after that, there’s no reason you can’t hang with friends while slowing chugging through shallow work. Obviously, you can multitask. You’ve never talked to someone while walking before?
The solution to the atomization curse that both gives us significantly more time back, and makes us much happier, is to seek to reintegrate these various foci of life as much as possible. How do you turn food back into a rich, multivariate experience with friends, fun, exploration, and relaxation? How do you blend socialization and exercise and community? How do you spend less time having shallower atomized relationships through a screen, and more time having rich in-person relationships where you get the full experience of other people?
The challenge is that these “Type 1,” or Atomized, versions of activities are the most immediately appealing. Booting up my computer to play a video game is way easier and sounds more immediately fun than texting some friends to play pickleball. Crushing takeout chips and queso sounds tastier and easier than cooking steak and rice. But I know I’ll feel better afterward with the latter, and that’s what we have to try to optimize for. Integrated living is more satisfying than atomic living.
Instead of looking at some problem like “I don’t see enough friends,” or “I don’t work out enough,” or “I don’t have enough fun,” and then trying to find time to fit those priorities into, we should see how we can incorporate them into what we’re already doing. Could you make your workout less perfectly optimized so you can do it with friends? Can you loosen the reigns on your Super Duper Productive Routine to hang at a coffee shop with friends for a few hours a week? And for the love of God, can you please stop drinking fucking Huel or Soylent at your desk and talk to someone instead?
The more creatively we can integrate the various parts of life that matter to us, the more satisfied we’ll be in our day to day.
The more we atomize, the more lonely and overwhelmed we start to feel.
De-atomization is the secret to happiness.
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I started working out in high school after hearing that Obama worked out for an hour a day despite his other duties as President. I figured if he had time to make it a priority, I probably did too.
I’m not sure this is true, either. My best marathon training runs were done with a friend who was training for an Ironman. He kept subtly pushing us faster, and I was always surprised by how well I could keep up under social pressure.
Absolutely incredible post, Nat. So refreshing given the current state of affairs with hustle productivity culture.
God damn, another banger.