There’s an iconic scene in the movie There’s Something About Mary in which Ben Stiller picks up a sketchy hitchhiker played by Harland Williams. Williams tells Stiller about a groundbreaking idea he’s had. “You heard of this thing, the eight minute abs?” he asks. “This is going to blow that right out of the water. Listen to this: seven minute abs.”
“That’s good,” Stiller says. “Unless, of course, somebody comes up with six minute abs.”
“I said seven!” replies Williams, a little unhinged. “Nobody’s coming up with six. Who works out in six minutes? You won’t even get your heart going!”
These days, a six minute workout might be considered an eternity. We are firmly entrenched in the micro moment—blink and you might miss it—in which most experiences, trends, and forms of expression can be shrunken into easily digestible, bite-size morsels. One can wake up and engage in a thirty second micro-meditation to start their day. Perhaps microdose with a bit of psilocybin to kick start their creativity for the piece of microfiction they are working on. Don’t have time for six minute abs? Try a micro workout! Sick of taking up too much space? Try a micro apartment! Need to get away but don’t have the time? Go on a microadventure!
What gives? If this were a micro essay, I could simply jump right to the conclusion, word count be damned. Ah, but such an essay would gloss over the much more interesting part of the story: why micro is in, what it says about us, and what we can do about it.
What is a microadventure anyway? In a NY Times article about Alastair Humphreys, the explorer, author, and motivational speaker who popularized the term, they are described as “short, perspective-shifting bursts of travel closer to home, inspiring followers to pitch a tent in nearby woods, explore their city by moonlight, or hold a family slumber party in the backyard.” It is a way to accomplish in a small amount of time a thrilling experience you would typically conceive of as taking up a large amount of time.
Can such brief escapes from our routine truly improve our lives? Actually, yes. As Christopher Keyes notes in Outside Online, “Studies have shown that humans are hardwired for adventure; when we make unfamiliar choices, our brains reward us by releasing dopamine, a key neurotransmitter effecting positive emotions. If nothing else, by slotting in just one or two microadventures per week, I’ve found a way to mark time instead of just logging it.”
The common thread amongst micro trends, in fact, seems to be this need to optimize our time. In modern society, we never seem to have enough of it. On top of jobs and families and baby showers, and catching up on Game of Thrones, who has the time to learn a new language, or spend thirty minutes staring at a wall? This sense of inundation, however, has much more to do with our culture than it does with our day-to-day experience. Compared to previous generations, we have more time than ever before.
Liah Greenfeld, a Professor of Sociology at Boston University, explored this topic in a 2005 article for Social Research entitled, “When the Sky is the Limit: Busyness in Contemporary American Society.” She cites a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas that found the average American work week decreased from 76 hours in 1830, to 60 in 1890, to 39 in 1950, to only 34 in 2003. Discussing the lives of the average American factory worker in the 19th century, Greenfeld writes, “The hours, by our standards, were exceedingly long, the discipline oppressively harsh, the work copious and painstaking enough to keep one thoroughly exhausted by the end of the day and thus out of mischief on Sundays.”
What Greenfeld finds striking about these workers is that there is little evidence to support the notion that they felt uniquely inundated. Yet in modern society, especially with the advent of social media, people are constantly complaining about how incredibly overwhelmed they are. “And yet, things do not add up,” writes Greenfeld. “The nature of our occupations does not explain our busyness. Most of the time every day we do something that is neither particularly fatiguing nor vital in the sense that our life and the lives of those we are responsible for depend on it. But, if what we do is not the cause of our having no rest, the explanation must be sought elsewhere—perhaps, in how we do it.”
The freedom to be whoever you want is one of the defining features of the Western world, and also one of the most anxiety-inducing. Our lack of limitations can be vertiginous. Confronted by infinite choices and possibilities, we find it impossible to focus on what matters. “This disturbing inability to prioritize, which is the direct, proximate, cause of our oppressive sense of busyness, is undoubtedly related to the difficulty modern men and women, Americans above all, have forming their identities,” writes Greenfeld.
What is it about contemporary American society that has produced this identity crisis? I put this question to Professor Greenfeld when we met for coffee. I’d suggested a phone interview, but she is not someone who has capitulated to the “micro” mindset, and preferred a longer and more personal form of conversation.
In traditional society, identity tended to come from one’s culture, explained Greenfeld. One was born into a social status, or profession, and within that scope did not have much opportunity or ability to transcend that role. Or one had dogmatic faith in a god that not only created a clear hierarchy but provided a blueprint for how to be. On the contrary, said Greenfeld, “In modern society, and in the United States especially, we all have to create our own identity. The individual is supposed to invent some construct. And for many people this is extremely difficult. It’s a terrible burden.” The classically American ideal of individualism and personal freedom, and the resulting social and economical fluidity, has lead to a different kind of tyranny: the tyranny of choice. If one can by anything, then one has to figure out what one should be.
Societal trends are responses to our national identity crisis. Such trends are an attempt to define ourselves, to impose limits. It can be comforting, at least temporarily, to be able to hang our hat on various identifying features, both as a culture, and as an individual. “Very recently everything had to be massive,” noted Greenfeld. “A very important part of the American psyche, the American culture, was to do bigger things than were done before.” People built mansions, drove gas-guzzling monstrosities, and wore baggy jeans. Of course, these kinds of trends rarely last, which is why we often roll our eyes at the ideals and fashion choices of previous generations, even if we were a part of them. Now, it appears that slim is in, both in what we wear and how we consume.
The Micro Moment may simply be the latest shift in the ongoing struggle to discover ourselves. “This turn to micro things, this is an innovation,” said Greenfeld. “This kind of thing fills one’s life with meaning. One feels they’ve found the solution to the universe. This is how we’re going to make life comfortable! But it is not a solution,” she concluded. “It is a trial of a solution. It won’t endure. This moment will pass momentarily.”
If only there were a tool that allowed us to observe the transient nature of the passing moment, and to be at ease with change and the fickle nature of identity. This is where contemplative practice, despite its current trendiness, might actually provide an approach that is sensible: not for its ability to provide lasting comfort, but for its ability to help us let go of our insatiable need for comfort.
It is somewhat ironic that so many people may encounter practice through precisely the kind of miniaturized approach that seems antithetical to achieving depth, but Dan Brook, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Interdisciplinary Social Sciences at San Jose State University, and micro-meditation practitioner, sees the value in small-scale engagement: “Micro-meditation is not necessarily a replacement for longer meditation, but it could be in the sense that some exercise is better than none and a little nap can restore one’s energy.” In that sense, even a brief moment of stillness can be useful for our otherwise wandering mind.
In addition, such efforts can act as a gateway to deeper practice, opening the door to many that might otherwise be meditation-averse. “It could be like a proverbial foot in the door,” says Brook. “Once someone does something easy, they may eventually do bigger and longer activities that they were too intimidated to do beforehand.” Meditation, even in its briefest incarnations, can act as a stepping stone to a more fulfilling way of life. Studies have shown that meditation can help improve attention span and relieve stress. What begins as micro-meditation could eventually have macro results, providing an important counter-balance to a culture drowning in choice.
“Lifting limits from our desires, paradoxically, places very heavy burdens on our shoulders. It is up to us to decide, which of them, our desires or our shoulders, we care for more,” writes Professor Greenfeld. The increased ability that the Micro Moment gives us to try on different hats and different identities may only increase our anxiety. But, in our endless American soul-search, we could actually stumble into solutions that help us slow down, get outside, and pay attention. In contemporary society you really can do it all. But perhaps the question we ought to be asking is, should you? It might be a question worth lingering over.
Alex Tzelnic is a writer and Zen practitioner living in Cambridge, MA.