Humans enjoy being entertained. We like watching funny, engrossing, exciting shows, movies, and plays. We love good tunes. And we enjoy watching a great stand-up comedian at work, the kind that makes your abs sore from laughter. But why? Well, it boils down to our need for sensation. Simply put, we need to laugh, cry, tense up from excitement, experience emotional highs and lows, and we enjoy the activation of our adrenal systems – whether it’s due to something happening to us in real life or to an imaginary character on a screen somewhere – because we have the equipment necessary to experience all those things, and we need to use it. Feeling sensations, emotions, excitement, then, is a prerequisite for being a healthy, happy human. An ancestral expectation.
This makes sense when you think about it. Everything that we had to do to survive, like hunting, fighting, exploring, and climbing to tall places, naturally elicited powerful sensations. And if we were going to continue to perform those actions and survive long enough to reproduce, the sensations had to be rewarding on some level. The flush of adrenaline that came with killing an antelope had to be enjoyable, or else we’d be less likely to kill again. Even simple socializing, while not necessarily thrilling or exciting, is highly entertaining because it reinforced an activity that allowed us to exchange ideas, solidify relationships, and learn new things, tips, and tricks. You want to know where the tastiest berries are? You gotta talk to someone to find out.
But look at the passive voice we use when we talk about entertainment nowadays. We are entertained, we like being entertained; we do not entertain ourselves or do exciting, hilarious things that also entertain us. We are largely passive participants in entertainment, while “entertainers” are an elite, select group of professionals who make good money entertaining us, and “entertainment” has come to signify the various mediums through which we consume entertainment – TV, Internet, video games, etc. Entertainment is very much about things being done to and for us, while we lay back and take it all in.
The numbers are pretty staggering. In an average American household, the TV is on for 6 hours and 47 minutes each day. 66% of Americans regularly watch TV while eating dinner. The average American kid watches 1,500 hours of TV a year, and over half of 4-6 year olds polled preferred watching TV to “spending time with their father.” But the television has been around for decades, and it’s always been popular. In fact, research suggests that people watched almost as much TV back then as they do today (PDF). I watched plenty as a kid, but I still managed to get out into trouble, run around, play, and experience life in between episodes of Bonanza and the Andy Griffith Show, so what explains today? Well, these days 93% of teens and adults aged 12-29 also go online daily, with more than a third using it several times a day. When you factor in mobile and smart phone usage, every waking hour is consumed by electronic entertainment, the vast majority of it passive. For a people mired in media, there’s simply no time left for active entertainment.
What did people do before television? Before the Internet? How did people keep themselves entertained during those occasional five second periods of inactivity without a smartphone to pull out? How did people occupy their time when they weren’t working, going to school, or procuring food? In other words, how did people back then keep themselves entertained without the wealth of media options available to us now? Did leisure time consist of staring at walls, the ground, and/or the ceiling, or if you were lucky and weather permitted, shapes in the clouds?
10,000+ years ago, folks had nought but their own imagination, their community, and the wild world around them. When they weren’t procuring food, shelter, or safety (activities that were often exciting and engrossing in their own right), Grok and co. could play games with and talk to each other, explore the environment, tell and listen to stories, play games, and practice hunting skills. I’m probably missing a few activities (and there’s no way to know for sure what specifically went down, unless perhaps we unearth a paleolithic version of Twister somewhere), but we know what they did not do. They did not lock the door, shut the blinds, plop down on the couch, and watch TV for half the day. They did not go to the movies. They did not surf the web late into the night. The closest thing to passive consumption of entertainment was listening to someone tell stories, but even that was a participatory act, since the listener was in the same room, probably knew the person telling it, and would respond and react in real time to their words. Oh, and there were no commercials. Basically, if Grok wanted entertainment, he had to go out and do things to make it happen. And if he wanted to be entertained, say by a storyteller, he had to go directly to the source. There were no other options.
When you take everything into account, it’s difficult to lay too much blame on folks today. Most of us grew up in a world where entertainment and sensation came prepackaged and easily deliverable, and that’s hard to get around. After all, humans love the easy route. Heck, animals in general prefer the easy route, because easy routes are few and far between in the wild. So when you see one, you take it! Ten thousand years ago, the only way to feel anything was to go out and actually experience it. Today, it’s easier to watch other people’s experiences on a screen, and it’s sometimes more effective, especially when they’re enhanced by sex, violence, explosions, special effects, audio, and teams of writers/actors/directors working to make the experience that much more intense. And remember – feeling those powerful sensations is not optional. We crave and need them to function well, so the path of least resistance and most abundance will also be the path most traveled. I think we’re just too far removed from real experience, from having to engage with the world. To counteract that, we have to consciously decide to turn away from the easy route, to go out and do things differently, and that’s hard to do for an animal wired to take the path of least resistance.
But we gotta do it.
So here’s my challenge for the day: be engaged with the world and those who populate it. Get off the computer and off the couch. Find/do/explore/feel the real thing. How you do so is up to you, but I have a few suggestions.
If you’re complaining that this is all too hard, that everyone else you know lives on Facebook and only text messages, change that. Invite them out. Think about how much you wish you could have more real experiences and realize that everyone else probably feels the same way. Like you, they’re just waiting for someone to take charge. Be that person who takes charge.
With all that said, I have to ask: how are you going to be engaged with the world? How do you plan on living an active, versus passive, life?