The Importance of Unimportance
When I told an old employer of mine that path to lasting happiness lies in "taking life less seriously," she called me "disrespectful, ignorant, and plain fucking stupid." Her comment was based on a profound misunderstanding of what I meant. I'd like to explain the logic behind the phrase and how I think it helps untangle our street-level conceptions of self and other. So, by extension, how an experience of life becomes more brilliant and vivid when (some) things are taken less seriously. When one quantitatively cares less.
Obviously, indiscriminately and arbitrarily not caring about what goes on is a bad idea as it inevitably leads to an apathetic and hollow life. And in my opinion, if nothing in one's life matters, then that is a life not worth living. After all, it's by taking some things seriously that we get the practical shit done, AND carve out a unique idea of meaningfulness. Now there's the magic word: some.
Seriousness must be doled out in moderation. Too few fucks given, and things cease to have value, making life a dull parody of itself. Too many fucks given, and we become overly sensitive, making social life a touchy and repressed mock-fascism.
Below is a quote from Jiddu Krishnamurti that perfectly captures what I mean when I say, “let’s take life less seriously:”
“I don’t mind what happens. That is the essence of inner freedom. It is a timeless spiritual truth: release attachment to outcomes, deep inside yourself, you’ll feel good no matter what.”
- Jiddu Krishnamurti
In other words, he's telling us to emotionally un-invest in the occurrence of one event over another. By doing so, one allows themselves to accept reality as it happens to unfold and be content in who, what, when, where, why, and how one happens to be, "deep inside [themselves]." This acceptance of uncertainty and lacking is the inner freedom and peace of Krishnamurti's imperturbable happiness.
Why? Because allowing reality to be as it is, implies reconciling inner peace with the unpredictability of outer turmoil. You have to allow for the possibility of not getting what you want.
To risk over-explaining the idea for emphasis: when a child doesn't get what they want, they throw a tantrum. As adults, refusing to accept reality as it is; refusing to reorient one's inner life to reality is just as immature as a child's emotional outburst.
Yelling until your face is redder than the stoplight in front of you is childish. Berating customer service agents for inconveniences clearly out of their control is foolish (and asshole-ish). Living your life in reaction to your circumstances is an unenlightened way of existing.
I’m not saying you must be happy, bubbly, or optimistic about events that are apparently none of those things. Putting on the proverbial rose-coloured glasses is delusional. I’m saying that not everything requires an emphatic response.
Just like money, psychological energy is a resource, and ought to be treated as such. You (hopefully) don't run around all day impulsively spending money, so why would you throw your attention at fundamentally unimportant things?
Some things “just happen.” Most don’t
A question I often get (usually from my parents) when I bring up the philosophy of caring less is, "if you don't care, how do you expect to get anything done?" Well, aside from the moderation I spoke of earlier, notice that I never said – and never will say, "do nothing and feel nothing." Not minding the outcome does not mean: "do nothing to realize your preferred outcome." After all, your odds of succeeding are nonexistent if you don't try.
If you want your ideal future to become the real present, ignoring deterministic luck, you must work to make that happen. If you're going to be great at anything, or have a thing, quality, or state worth having, you've got to work hard at cultivating the skills needed to be a master of whatever it is you want to have. Mastery of an academic subject (symbolically) requires 20+ years of schooling. Command of any technique may take a lifetime. Getting good at creating the inner and outer life you'd rather live would take multiple lifetimes. It takes motivation, optimism, and empathy (to name but a few attributes) to craft the meaningful connections and relationships with others and ourselves that we deem life to be worth living for.
To summarize what we've covered: it's good to care about some things, and it's good to not care about others. Moderation and deliberation are crucial when investing time. It's all about the right amount, in the right way, to the right things, and for the right reasons.
If you're still not convinced that life is better when you take things less seriously and care less, let me give a few examples of the problems that come from caring too much about the wrong things.
Political and financial corruption are caused, on a personal level, by people overvaluing their possessions.
Racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and every other garden-variety bigotry come from people taking whom they think they are - whom they believe others are, and, generally speaking, the concept of identity too seriously. Taking ones' ascriptions of meaning to be a final and absolute truth is the root of the us-and-them mentality. There are, of course, bio-psycho-social explanations: we had to develop group identities so we could identify members of an outgroup who may or may not be a potential threat to our tribe. But we no longer live in this kind of world – we are not collections of independent tribes scattered across a few thousand square kilometers of land. The age of information has made us a global tribe… but I digress.
Social stratification and economic inequality are the results of people taking their societal roles too seriously. "I do this and you do that," is a factual statement. "Therefore I'm better than you," is twisting the descriptive statement's meaning by overvaluing one's social role and undervaluing one's humanity.
To reiterate, I am NOT saying that taking something seriously and caring about its reality in connection with your life is harmful (a stoic or ascetic would have reason to disagree with me). Far from it. To merely not give a fuck about what you want, who you are, and what you do is a surefire path to a culture of apathetic nobodies.
So caring is not the problem – it's what makes life enjoyable and, frankly, worth living. A form and degree of attachment grants access to the affectivity of life - it's why we feel feelings.
Our problems are the result of caring too much about the wrong things
To reflect back on Krishnamurti, taking things less seriously is a healthy detachment from the outcome of events and, more fundamentally, our relationship to ourselves and others. Responding to the world demands discipline and self-awareness. Pickiness becomes a favourable deprivation when we choose what will evoke in us a reaction of importance. That is how one may cultivate an omnipresent feeling of freedom and happiness. But take care not to delete yourself entirely because attachment is the sweetest part of being alive.