Why Transcendence Cannot Be Quantified

Sometimes we just can't put a number on happiness.

Posted Jul 10, 2019

aydinmutlu/iStock
Source: aydinmutlu/iStock

Here's my family scene from a couple of months ago: My wife and I were at the airport waiting for a flight to go to New Mexico for a skiing trip. This would be the first time that our three boys (ages 7, 12, and 15) had ever gone skiing, so they were quite excited. As we waited for our flight to get to the gate, we had some time to kill.

My wife and I set some reasonable limits on our kids' screen time, but we have flexibility too. We allow them extra time when on long road trips or flights, but we wanted them to wait until we got into the air before they jacked into The Matrix.

Of course, they would have preferred to be on their screens then and there, but we didn't give them that option. They had some books to read, could horse around with each other, talk to us, explore the airport with one of us, or play with some puzzle cubes. My wife and I applied these screen limits to ourselves as well. 

As we waited, a young mother and her 15-month-old, Theo, wandered over to our gate area. Theo was toddling around, and his mother was chasing after him. He had a ball (literally) and was throwing it around and giggling. He was as exuberant as a puppy, and it was a delight to watch him. Theo saw my 7-year-old, Torben, sauntered over, and threw his ball to him. Torben had been watching Theo roam around, and rolled the ball back to Theo with a smile on his face. They began playing a fun-filled game of "catch" for about 30 minutes and were having an absolute blast. My wife and I smiled and laughed as we watched Torben and Theo play, as did Theo's mother. We were all in a good mood when it was finally time to board the plane. 

Why You Can't Measure Transcendence

Here's my question: How would we measure the impact of Torben and Theo's experience on their wellbeing? How about on me, my wife, or Theo's mom? To others who noticed? I can say for me that the experience was transcendent. It's impossible for me to put a number on it. Not only that, I can't even put it into words, which makes the word "transcendent" so fitting here.

Without a doubt, had I allowed Torben screen time, he would not have ended up playing with Theo. He would have been completely absorbed in a game like Terraria (a wonderful game) and probably not even have noticed Theo. Our limits on screen time created enough space for other experiences to unfold. 

To me, Torben's interaction with Theo was a bit magical and had an impact that cannot be captured in a number. It's not that playing games and having screen time has no value, but there is something special about the type of person-to-person interaction I was fortunate enough to witness that day. Such an interaction could not have been planned or anticipated. It just needed the right opportunity. 

As a psychologist, I am torn: One part of me wants to say that we can measure the impact of just about any experience. We rely on objective, quantifiable data to provide recommendations on how to improve our lives (e.g., spending time with friends is good for us, sleep deprivation is bad for us). Yet, another part of me knows that we can reduce all of our experiences to mere data points. 

Think of some of your fondest memories, perhaps watching a sunset on the beach with friends, getting married, or witnessing the birth of your child. Can you put on a number on any of them in terms of happiness? Even if you did, would that number really capture their impact? On the flip side, can you put a number on your greatest suffering?

No matter what type of assessment we use to try to capture the impact of our best and worst times in life, it falls far short. It is a form of reductionism to think that we can capture these moments with a scale or measure. This is not true because I'm saying it is. You can reflect on your own experiences to see the truth that you already know. 

Making Room for Transcendent Experiences

Here's what perhaps concerns me about screen time: Many of us default to looking at our screens. It's not just the kids. We flip through our phones when we are in parking lots, at the gym, standing in checkout lines, at meals, in bed, at the beach, on walks, and even in the bathtub. For too many, our default way of living is with our eyes on a screen.

There's a fundamental problem with all of this screen time. We didn't evolve to be looking at screens instead of at one another, or the world around us. As we stare at our screens, we miss opportunities for other important experiences, including transcendent ones. There's an opportunity cost beyond measure. Maybe it's seeing a rainbow, glimpsing a hummingbird as we walk to the mailbox, a chance encounter with an old friend in a parking lot, or meeting a new best friend. Or perhaps it will be watching your child play catch with a toddler at the airport. Opportunities for transcendence can arise at any time, but we need to be tuned into the world around to experience them.

Call me old-fashioned, but I just don't see many of those transcendent experiences occurring from scrolling through Instagram or Facebook posts. We know this to be true: No one on their deathbed, when reviewing their life, will say, "Oh, jeez...if only...I had been looking at my phone more. I should have (gasp) posted more frequently to my social media accounts. What a fool I was to have wasted my life on...meeting people, hiking, traveling, and spending time with my family and friends!"

These Are Days You'll Remember

As far as I know, we only have one life to live. While we often treat it as limitless, our time is finite. I am inspired by a passage from The Sheltering Sky, a 1949 Paul Bowles novel:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…

How do you want to spend your time on this earth? Do you need data from a research study to tell you what is most important in life? Of course you don't. You already know. The question is: What are you going to do about it? Transcendence beckons, and it won't be found in our smartphones.