Wasting time is good for your soul; Distractions can help productivity and happiness
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 24 July 2007)

Distraction, defined as whatever keeps you from keeping your eye on the ball, has always had a bad rep. We spend our lives being told to pay attention, stick with the program, don't lose focus, and don't do anything that looks like Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), the psychiatric name for not doing what you should do.

It was probably necessary to medicalize ADD, described as "a marked degree of distractibility." It's no joke. It makes life wretched for genuine sufferers, as well as their teachers and parents. Apparently, it can even distort the economy by limiting productivity. The other day, a Globe and Mail headline solemnly announced "The next great curse: self-inflicted ADD at work."

But people can be too quick to identify as ADD forms of distraction that may be altogether healthy. Distraction's virtues are too rarely appreciated. Many of the greatest ideas (the biographies tell us) float gently into the minds of professionals who are goofing off. If forced to choose between those constantly worried about ADD and those who love distraction, I'd sympathize with the latter.

But then, I'm among them. There are times when I want to be transported, offered a separate reality to inhabit, if only for a few minutes. Many people need distraction from work because professional worries, if carried with us everywhere, can drive us crazy, and maybe drive our families even crazier. On the other hand, work itself constitutes the ultimate distraction. Thomas Szasz, the American psychiatrist best known as a severe critic of psychiatry and considered by many in his profession to be eccentric at best, made a lot of sense when he said that "The greatest analgesic, soporific, stimulant, tranquilizer, narcotic ... known to medical science is work." To Szasz, work can be a miracle drug.

Sally Bloom Feshbach, an American psychoanalyst, wrote a paper on dealing with the slow death of her husband, colleague and best friend after he was diagnosed with cancer. Work seems to have saved her. The demands of the therapy process and her relationships with patients forced her to turn away from the horror of her husband's illness and focus on other people. While working, she could "think of myself as a therapist and not as a mother facing early widowhood."

She also needed distraction from grief and even practical worries. "I deeply regret all of the many hours I spent worrying -- worrying primarily about what the future would bring."

Anxiety can be helpful when it encourages us to take potentially beneficial action, such as (in this case) seeking a second opinion. Beyond that, it leads to intensified unhappiness. Feshbach wishes that she had saved the emotional energy wasted on worrying about her husband's ill-health and instead invested it in enjoying the time her family could still spend together.

"Hand in hand with this realization," she wrote, "comes an appreciation of the virtues of distraction. There is a time for processing emotion, and there is also a time for putting upset aside and living completely in the moment."

Those who find that everyday life has become boring or distressing or both may turn to harmful distractions, like alcohol, drugs or gambling. Or they can become involved with something that may look obsessive to others but nevertheless provides the consistent healing they need.

Blogs, for instance.

Today there are 93.5 million fan blogs, a fan blog being an online presence created to celebrate in detail something or someone notable, usually in entertainment or sports. Many are created for purely commercial purposes (often by the employees of the person commemorated), but it seems that just as many are created for pleasure.

A blog is a way of playing out obsessions harmlessly, even engagingly -- and distractingly, for the blogger and for the rest of us. If someone obsessed with Joan Crawford's life spends months or years assembling everything known about her into an online Joan Crawford Encyclopedia (right down to the texts of such articles as the 1932 Modern Screen piece exploring her troubles with her young husband, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), I can only be happy for the creator of this digital museum, and happy to visit it now and then.

The Web allows us to make our distractions and our passions communal by offering them to others.

Every day, Diane Varner hikes along the northern California coast, taking pictures of anything that seems remarkable or beautiful. And every day, she puts an image online (www.dianevarner.com) to share with the rest of us. As she says, what was once a casual pastime has turned into a healthy daily obsession -- note that she inserted the word "healthy," to wave off those crowds of diagnosticians who gather around any non-profit form of individual expression.

"My hopes are such that these images will 'take you away' for a brief moment," she writes. Yes! She gets the point. That's a little miracle, the kind of distraction that should make us delighted we live in the first decade of the 21st century, the years when blogging has enabled an act of sweet altruism.

Richard A. Lanham, the author of The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information, is another blog fan: "One of the great surprises, at least to me, about the Internet-based information explosion is the extraordinary human generosity which it has revealed. People want to share their information, their enthusiasms, their way of looking at the world, and now they have a new and infinitely more effective way to do it."

What I love is the wild and unpredictable intensity of the desire to relay experience and opinion. The greatest age of mass communication has given us a multitude of ways to acquire ideas and data. It has also created millions of people who profoundly desire to communicate -- and often have much to say or show.

Many an esteemed work of literature, such as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, seems to me one long and exquisite distraction. I mention Alice in particular because Lewis Carroll inserted the word itself into his miraculous fantasy, when he had the Mock Turtle claim to have studied "the different branches of Arithmetic -- Ambition, Distraction, Uglification and Derision." A troubled individual, like many or most of us, Carroll knew the virtues of distraction. Perhaps he understood what the present moment in history tends to forget: It is possible to be too focussed.

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