October 20, 2022
In 21st century Western cultures, life for the average citizen is more convenient than at any previous point in history. There are exceptions for the very wealthy and powerful, but your average Joe and Mary have never before had so many options to choose from, or so many conveniences at their fingertips.
Transportation is faster and more accessible than ever. Buying an airline ticket is in many cases less expensive than driving long distances, these days. Supermarkets are overflowing with new and exciting food products: pumpkin spice-flavored buttery spread, anyone? You can shop for just about anything online from the comfort of your recliner, with a laptop or your smart phone. And don’t forget digital workspaces which let you attend meetings and upload reports from home–or Hawaii.
But do we ever stop to ask ourselves what the cost is of all this convenience? Of course there is the dollar amount: the percentage of our paychecks that we spend on dishwashers, robotic vacuum cleaners, and takeout boxes. But there are other costs as well, and they need to be counted.
The Health Costs of Convenience
What is the cost to our health of sitting at a desk in a cubicle all day, staring at a screen and typing away, but barely moving the rest of our bodies? What do prepackaged and prepared food products, or fast food from restaurants, do to our bodies?
Numerous recent studies have shown alarming trends in rising cases of early-onset cancers, particularly those related to diet. Processed food products, food dyes, pesticides, and artificial hormones have been linked to cancers, allergies, developmental disorders, neurodegenerative diseases, and autoimmune syndromes.
Perhaps you have heard about these food-related health problems, but dismissed them as no big deal. After all, if you have been eating Cheerios for the last 35 years, how bad can they be? And aren’t most of these problems supposed to be genetic anyway?
As it happens, hereditary genetics accounts for a surprisingly small percentage of the abovementioned disorders: 5-10% of chronic conditions, on average. Epigenetic changes can account for a much higher percentage. What are these? Epigenetic changes describe the ways your genes are expressed. This is something that happens during your day-to-day life, because of choices you make: what you put into your body as food and medicine, what you do with your body in terms of exercise and activity, how you deal with stress, etc. In other words, epigenetic changes are directly related to your diet and lifestyle.
Our children have a shorter life expectancy than their parents, for the first time since 1915-1918 (when millions died during WWI and the Spanish Flu pandemic). Life expectancy in the United States dropped in 2015, 2016, and 2017. It increased slightly in 2018, but the average life expectancy has consistently stayed below the 2014 peak.
Our children are increasingly being diagnosed with chronic medical conditions. According to the CDC:
- 1 in 5 children are obese
- 1 in 8 children have asthma
- 1 in 13 children have a food allergy
- 1 in 6 children have a mental health disorder
- 1 in 44 children have autism
Type 2 Diabetes is rampant in U.S. adults, as is obesity. More young people are becoming obese, too: according to the CDC, in 2020 approximately 20% of children ages 2-19 were obese. The average American cannot even complete one chin-up, according to one study. Americans are fat and out of shape, and getting sicker by the day.
A Convenient Day in the 21st Century
Here is an example of a typical day for many people: Jessica wakes to the sound of an alarm on her phone. She showers and dresses while her electric coffee machine hisses and steams, then grabs a bagel for breakfast or zaps a frozen pastry in the microwave on her way out the door.
She lives only five miles from her workplace, but the morning commute takes her 40 minutes in rush hour traffic. Jessica arrives at her office building, frazzled and frustrated, and purchases another cup of coffee in the lobby before ascending the elevator to her cubicle on the fourth floor.
For the next eight and a half hours, she sits at her desk in front of a computer, typing and making phone calls. At lunch time, she descends the elevator to the lobby, buys a sugary yogurt parfait and some juice from the coffee shop, and returns to her desk to eat while scanning emails on her cell phone. After the workday is over, Jessica returns to her car to sit in traffic for another 40 minutes.
When she arrives back at home, she is too tired to cook supper, so she microwaves a frozen meal replacement instead and opens a bag of chips. Jessica eats alone, in front of the television or while looking at her phone. She spends the evening changing channels, shopping online, and texting her friends before retiring to bed late.
It might be easy to pinpoint the parts of Jessica’s day which are physically taking their toll on her digestion, physical fitness, and overall health. But perhaps even more importantly than these, what is the psychological cost of such an existence?
Psychological Costs of Convenience
Can Jessica be really happy living like this? She is among many people every day, yet simultaneously isolated. She chats with “friends” on social media or over text messaging, but does not talk to anyone in person who is very important to her. Her meals are solitary and rushed; it doesn’t seem to matter what she eats or when.
The combined stresses of city traffic, pressures at work, and loneliness, along with a poor diet and physical inactivity, are pushing Jessica closer to anxiety, depression, and a host of other physical and psychological problems.
If you asked Jessica, she might say she is happy: after all, she has a good job and a stable paycheck. She has money to spend on clothes and entertainment. She has fun on the weekends with her friends. She even gets two weeks of paid vacation every year.
But in gaining all this, what has she lost?
A dearth of happiness
Polls show that young adults today are not satisfied with their jobs (31% of adults 18-34 years old in 2022, according to Zippia), or their personal relationships, or their bodies (Barnett et al, 2020). They do not approve of the government, or law enforcement (Pew Research, 2020), or traditional morals (Barna, 2018). They take offence very easily, and verbally excoriate anyone they disagree with on social media. Depression and suicide rates are at an all-time high among young people (Suicide Prevention Resource Center). They are not happy.
On a different note, I have been reading Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder, to my children recently. Comparing the Wilders’ life in the New York countryside to the example of Jessica above, or even my own life, shows some pretty marked differences.
Before Modern Conveniences
The Wilders were farmers. They lived 5 miles from the nearest town, and the children walked a mile and a half to school. They had chores to do in the morning and evening, too: and not just making their beds and tidying their rooms. The girls helped with the housework while Almanzo and his brother milked the cows, fed horses, and mucked stalls.
Their father took care of all the animals: horses, cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens. He raised colts and calves, and kept the house and barns in good repair. He carved the yokes for his oxen and made whips and harnesses. He even made his own shingles.
Almanzo’s mother did the cooking and baking, kept the house clean, and made the family’s clothing. She carded wool from their sheep, spun it, dyed it, and wove it into cloth on her loom before sewing it into sturdy and handsome garments.
My favorite part of the book is the description of the food from Almanzo’s perspective. “It takes a lot of food to feed a growing boy,” his mother remarks; and indeed it does! They all eat lots of good, wholesome food: oatmeal, pancakes and sausages make a good breakfast, and the children’s lunch pail might hold bread and butter and sausage, doughnuts and apples, and an apple turnover apiece.
For dinner one wintery night, Almanzo enjoyed fried ham, baked beans, boiled potatoes with gravy, bread and butter, mashed turnips, stewed pumpkin, plum preserves, strawberry jam, grape jelly, spiced watermelon rind pickles, and pumpkin pie.
Mrs. Wilder did a lot of cooking, baking, canning and preserving to keep her family well fed. A peek inside her pantry showed that “The shelves on both sides were loaded with good things to eat. Big yellow cheeses were stacked there, and large brown cakes of maple sugar, and there were crusty loaves of fresh-baked bread, and four large cakes, and one whole shelf full of pies” (p. 24). She was not an idle housewife!
A Happy Life of Hard Work
The Wilder family’s days were full of hard work, but it was good and worthwhile work, and they still had time for leisure on dark evenings before the fire, after the chores were done. They popped popcorn and roasted apples, read books, carved or knitted or worked on some other handicraft. Bedtime was 9:00, and they rose before 5 in the morning.
There is no question that they worked harder than I do. They didn’t have electricity for lights or refrigerators. They couldn’t bake bread or fry an egg without making a fire in their wood cookstove. Saturday night baths involved heating water on the stove, pouring it into a big tub, and washing with homemade soap, before donning nightclothes and pulling the covers up in a bed that was mighty cold in the winter.
And that doesn’t even begin to approach the more recent conveniences of cars, supermarkets, personal espresso machines, smart phones, and Amazon Prime. But I don’t think the Wilders would have had much use for those.
Does too much convenience make people unhappy?
We don’t have any scientific studies to confirm or deny this hypothesis. But the rising dissatisfaction and depression among young people today indicates that something is certainly amiss in our society. I’m sure the problem has more than one cause: broken families, short-term relationships instead of a marriage commitment, and lack of an accepted moral code may all play a part. But it would be a mistake to ignore the surfeit of conveniences when investigating this dilemma.
I think it’s a common assumption that more conveniences = increased quality of life = greater happiness.
I disagree with that reasoning. I think that too many conveniences take the zest out of life. They take what was once a challenging yet rewarding task and either eliminate it completely or mechanize it to the point of boring automation.
Are Modern Conveniences Worth the Cost?
I don’t think the cost of convenience is always worth the result. I would much rather roll up my sleeves and wash a sink full of dishes by hand than load and unload a dishwasher every day. I would rather hang cloth diapers on a clothesline than fill up a garbage bin with disposable plastic diapers every week. I enjoy lighting fires in the woodstove to heat our cabin during the winter. (Okay, maybe it’s more like eight months out of the year.)
There are some inconveniences I don’t particularly look forward to, but I can still see their value. We have lived in a dry cabin, a wet cabin, a camper, and a 115-year-old house over the past 6 years or so. They have all had their inconveniences.
At the moment, we are living in a “damp” cabin. This means it has a gray water drain from the kitchen sink, which runs outside the cabin. We also have a small indoor water holding tank, a small water heater, and a shower. The water tank can hold 35 gallons of water, which my husband hauls in 5-gallon jugs a few times per week. We also have an outhouse. That is an inconvenience. However, that inconvenience is what allows us to afford to live in a cabin in the woods, rather than an old apartment in the wrong section of town. For us, it is definitely worth it.
Hard Work is Worthwhile
As my husband and I have discussed the merits of living various places over the years, I always come back to the thought that I feel most alive in Alaska. That may sound silly, but this is how I see it:
It takes more effort to live here than it does in, say, Pennsylvania (where he’s from). When the winter temperatures drop to -40, -50, -60 degrees Fahrenheit at times, you must be prepared for it. Your car probably won’t want to start in such temperatures, unless you have installed an oil pan heater, engine block heater, and battery trickle charger that can be plugged into an electrical outlet (with a special cold-weather extension cord).
Even if your car starts, there might be too much snow to get to work–or the grocery store. We have always lived outside of town, and it takes a good 2 or 3 days after a snowstorm before the plow trucks make their way past our cabin. I keep my pantry well stocked, especially in the winter. Snow tires are also a good idea.
Venturing outdoors during the Alaskan winter requires some forethought as well. Hats, mittens, warm coats and boots, snow pants and long underwear are essentials every time you step outside for half the year.
Now, I don’t pretend to say that Alaska is better than Pennsylvania, or any other place in the world. Nor do I choose inconveniences just to prove I can take them. But the more effort something requires, the more of yourself you invest in a task, the more worthwhile it feels to complete. Perhaps living through an Alaskan winter feels more worthwhile because it takes more effort.
Missing out on the Adventure
I know that there are plenty of people who would say that living in Alaska is entirely too inconvenient, because of the things I mentioned. It’s not for everyone, certainly. There is nothing wrong with preferring a less harsh climate!
But I do not wish to eradicate all the inconveniences from my life. A life where you don’t have to work hard for anything sounds impossibly dull and depressing to me. There is value in hard work, and value in overcoming challenges.
Furthermore, once you see the value in something, you don’t even see it as an inconvenience any more. G.K. Chesterton once said that “an inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered”, and I entirely agree.
What would have happened if Frodo Baggins had said to Gandalf, “I’m sorry, old chap, but this trip you want me to take just sounds too inconvenient. I’d much rather stay here in my cozy hobbit-hole and smoke my pipe in comfort”?
He would have missed out on an adventure, and more than that: he would have missed his chance to save the world. What do we lose when we dismiss an opportunity as inconvenient? All too often, I think we miss out on adventures and experiences that will make us wiser, nobler, and better men and women.
Growing in Gratitude
Living in an Alaskan cabin is an adventure, and I gladly accept the rougher parts most days. Limited water and plumbing makes me more grateful for water itself, and especially for hot showers, short though they must be!
That brings me to another point: when children are given everything they ask for, they feel entitled to those things. I wish to raise my children to be grateful for the blessings they are given, not entitled to a list of rights. I want to keep a spirit of gratitude in my own heart as well.
How do you practice gratitude? Living without something for a while helps a lot. When our first child was born, we were living in a dry cabin. We hauled our water in 5-gallon jugs and kept one jug next to the sink for cooking and washing. I heated water on the stove to wash the dishes after meals. During the summer, I washed the laundry by hand in a big tub, and dried it on a clothesline outside. We dragged a tub designed as a water trough into the living room for bathing, and hung a camping shower bag from the loft above it. None of that was convenient by modern standards, but it did teach us to be grateful for water!
You don’t have to live primitively in order to practice gratitude, though, effective as it may be. Here are a few more ideas:
How to be more grateful
- Sort through your clothes, shoes, books, toys, kitchen gadgets, sports gear, and the like. Keep only what you really need and donate the rest. Having too much stuff tends to stifle gratitude.
- Wear items of clothing more days before you wash them to decrease your water and energy use for laundry. Consider hanging clothes to dry instead of always running the dryer.
- Don’t buy your children toys whenever they see something they want. Keep gifts for birthdays and Christmas.
- Cook a meal from scratch and share it: with a neighbor, coworker, or an elderly gentleman from church. The point isn’t entertaining; it’s gratitude for the fruits of the earth and for fellowship.
- Fast for a day. This is wonderfully clarifying for the mind and heart. (Not for pregnant or nursing mothers.)
- Abstain from meat, sweets, social media, or the Internet for a weekend. Or longer.
- Don’t use your car for a day. Walk, ride a bike, or just stay home.
Is this starting to sound like a list of things Catholics give up for Lent? There’s a reason for that. The three main disciplines of Lent–prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–are oriented toward the goal of detaching the soul from worldly things and raising the mind and heart to God. This also happens to be an excellent method for growing in gratitude.
Making Life Worth Living
By examining the costs of convenience, I do not suggest that all modern conveniences are bad or unhealthy. Far from it. I could not write this article without electricity, the Internet, or a computer. But I do think each one of us should examine our use of these conveniences and try to determine if we could benefit from stepping back from some of them for a time.
If you are beginning to feel that your life is boring or pointless, or if you get anxious or depressed about trifles, those are good indications that letting go of a few modern conveniences might be beneficial.
Even if you are generally satisfied with your life, giving up some conveniences for a short period will help you to be more grateful for things you might otherwise take for granted. And you just might begin to see life as more of an adventure than a daily grind.
For my part, I would rather embrace some inconveniences which are optional these days, so that I have more space in my life for things that matter to me: time with my family, the satisfaction of working with my hands and creating something new from materials in my home. Crawling into bed physically tired out from a long day of work is a feeling I wouldn’t trade for all the convenience in the world. It makes me feel that life is worthwhile.