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Time and Meaning: How to Make Our Lives More Meaningful

A philosopher discusses ways of spending time that can increase fulfillment.

Key points

  • Time on earth is a limited resource, so it's important for people to reflect on how to best use their time.
  • Philosopher Cheshire Calhoun distinguishes four ways of spending time: primary, filler, entailed, and norm-required spending.
  • Primary spending, devoted to activities that are valuable for their own sake, makes life meaningful and can be determined by personal values.

In her new book, Doing Valuable Time, philosopher Cheshire Calhoun focuses on time and meaning in life. Our time, which is our life, is limited. From birth to death we live only for several decades (if things go well). Time, then, is a finite resource that could be easily wasted. If we want to live meaningfully, how should we spend this limited time that we have?

4 Ways to Spend the Time We Have

Calhoun distinguishes between four ways of spending our time. She calls the first primary spending, that is, spending our time on what we take to be valuable for us for its own sake. Calhoun takes this to be the best way of spending our time.

Calhoun calls the second type of spending time filler spending. Sometimes we spend time on things because we have nothing better to do with it. We just “fill" the time with something, as for example when we are just waiting for an appointment or for a train.

The third type is called entailed spending. In order for primary spending to take place, we often have to spend time on activities that allow it. For example, if, for us, primary spending is to ride horses, then the time spent on earning the money to pay for the rides or for the horse would be entailed spending.

Calhoun calls the fourth and last way norm-required spending. We often spend time in ways required by various norms. Spending time with a person one doesn’t like only because one “should” is an example of norm-required spending of time.

Many would be glad, if they could, to omit from their lives the last three ways of spending time. A more meaningful life includes more primary spending and less of the other types of time spending.

Determining Primary Spending Depends on Our Values

What would primary spending be for people? Calhoun's reply is that different people have different normative outlooks. What is valuable for its own sake and is thus also primary spending for one person may well not be so for another, and that is fine. Each person should determine, according to their norms and views, what is primary spending for them.

Thus, people who show the same degree of primary spending, each according to his or her normative outlook, may be engaged in very different activities. And people who engage in exactly the same activities may have very different degrees of primary spending if they have different normative outlooks. Calhoun, then, is a subjectivist about meaning in life.

Practical Implications

Doing Valuable Time includes also many other important and interesting points, but we can already identify some of the book’s practical implications. First, those of us who want to live more meaningfully should be well aware of the fact that time is a limited resource that will end in several decades (at best). We should ask ourselves whether we are wasting it. Our time is our life.

Second, we should try to distinguish well between the different ways we spend time, maximizing as much as we can the first and minimizing the others.

But third, to do so, we need to think well and hard on what would be primary spending for us, or on what is worthy for its own sake for us. Then we can reorganize our lives so as to live meaningfully.

Some Challenges to Subjectivism

Here, however, are two difficulties I have with Calhoun’s account. One has to do with her subjectivism. Since I am not a subjectivist, I find it hard to accept the view that a person for whom primary spending is, for example, murdering members of some ethnic minority or torturing small animals for fun is having a meaningful life. I agree that, as a matter of psychological fact, such a person may be sensing their life as meaningful. But I do not think that it indeed would be a meaningful life.

This seems to me to be similar to a case in which a person feels pride in what she does although it isn’t in fact valuable and doesn’t merit pride, or to a case in which a person has guilt feelings although he is not in fact guilty. I am aware of problems in the objectivist position, but I think that subjectivist accounts are even more problematic. I should note, however, that Calhoun is aware of this criticism and replies to it in her book; I do not have the space to discuss her reply here, and hope to do so in a future post.

Second, many people find meaning in what Calhoun calls entailed spending, that is, in striving for or in working towards goals that they take to be worthy for their own sake. And sometimes, when attaining their goals, they in fact lose the sense of meaning they had when they were on the way to the goals, that is, when engaging in entailed spending. This may be at odds with the claim that enhancing primary spending and diminishing entailed spending would enhance life’s meaning.

This way or that, however, for those interested in time and in meaning in life, and for those who want to enhance the meaningfulness of their lives, there is much to learn and to gain from this book.

References

Calhoun, C. 2018. Doing Valuable Time: The Present, the Future, and Meaningful Living. New York: Oxford University Press

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