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We must stop worshiping at the altar of convenience


France stirs up controversy again, with yet another of its bans. But it’s not burkas this time, or anglicismsor even using meaty words to describe plant foods. This time it is a sacred principle of modern life that the French have dared to wage war against: convenience.

A new law entered into force last week banning the public use of domestic domestic flights when a train journey of less than two hours and 30 minutes is available, as part of France’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The decree contains so many exceptions that in the end it may not have much effect on emissions, but the message is clear: our culture of convenience cannot go on indefinitely.

Cue fulminations about “forbidding convenience” from one right commentator, and annoyed tweets from others. But given how much of a hassle it is to get yourself and your belongings in and out of a flight, the idea that having to take a high-speed train is an inconvenience seems a little strange.

Anyway, should we place so much value on things being convenient? What about the importance of enjoyment, for example?

We seem to have become so intoxicated with the idea that everything should be immediately available to us that we would rather make decisions based on what is convenient than based on what would make us happy. Convenience was meant to help us live better lives, but we’ve elevated it to such a level that we seem to have become subconsciously addicted to it. And that makes our lives worse.

One problem is that convenience is an ever-moving, ultimately unattainable goal, and as such a most unsatisfying pursuit. We can never achieve complete ease because there will always be ways to make things just that little bit more frictionless. There was a time when there was an idea that you could lay yourself down in one cheap, comfortable train seat in Paris, grabbing a device that can instantly connect to the rest of the world, and arriving in Lyon 1 hour and 55 minutes later would have been unthinkably convenient. Not anymore.

The internet itself is built on the idea that people want infinite convenience. As co-founder of Twitter and former CEO said Evan Williams back in 2013, “Convenience on the Internet is essentially achieved through two things: speed and cognitive ease… When you study what the really great things on the Internet are, you realize that they are masters of making things fast and not to make people think.”

The more convenient things become, the more we rely on them, and the more we treat these former luxuries as a kind of God-given right. That makes it all the more annoying when they don’t work as efficiently as we expect. I remember how amazed I was when I ordered an Uber for the first time. These days I’m annoyed if I wait for more than five minutes.

But the main problem with convenience is that too much of it takes the joy out of life. “Life takes time and effort. That is, when we eliminate time and effort, we eliminate life’s pleasures,” writes Zen Buddhist monk Shunmyō Masuno in the Japanese bestseller Zen: the art of simple living.

The good life is generally believed to consist of two kinds of happiness: hedonism, associated with sensual pleasure and comfort, and eudaemonia, associated with meaning and purpose. While convenience rates high on the former, it doesn’t fare well on the latter. And it also scores poorly on a third dimension of emotional well-being that University of Chicago psychology professor Shige Oishi calls “psychological richness,” characterized by variety, perspective-changing experiences, and challenge.

“Striving too much for efficiency — getting things done, not wasting time — will cause people to miss out on the joy of serendipity and deprive them of psychological wealth,” Oishi tells me. “Convenience doesn’t make a good story, so it doesn’t make a good memory either.”

It is precisely the clumsy things that give life its meaning and richness. I can order elderflower syrup from Ocado and have it delivered directly to my door. But later this week I’m going out into the Hackney Marshes and picking elderflowers in the sun, after waiting months for the buds to open. I soak them in water with lemons picked from my own tree, strain the liquid and then boil it up with sugar to make my own liqueur.

The final product may end up being less refined than the store-bought version. But it’s the effort itself, and the sense of pride and accomplishment it brings, as well as the opportunity to connect with the natural world, that matter to me. It’s not useful. But as so often, the fun is in the journey.


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