France is stoking controversy again, with another one of its bans. But it’s not burkas this time, or Anglicisms, or even the use of meaty words to describe plant-based food. This time, it’s a holy tenet of modern life that the French have dared to wage war against: convenience.
A new law came into force last week that bans the public use of domestic internal flights when a train journey of less than two hours and 30 minutes is available, as part of France’s efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions. The decree contains so many exceptions that it might not end up having much effect on emissions at all, but the message is clear: our convenience culture cannot carry on ad infinitum.
Cue fulminations about “banning convenience” from one rightwing commentator, and irritated tweets from others. But given what a faff it is to get oneself and one’s belongings on to and off a flight, the idea that having to take a high-speed train constitutes an inconvenience seems a touch off.
Either way, should we be placing such value on things being convenient? What about the importance of, say, enjoyment?
We seem to have become so intoxicated by the idea that everything should be instantly available to us that we would rather make decisions based on what is convenient rather than on what would make us happy. Convenience was meant to help us lead better lives, but we have elevated it to such a level that we seem to have unwittingly become enslaved to it. And that’s making our lives worse.
One problem is that convenience is an ever-moving, ultimately unattainable goal, and as such is a deeply unsatisfying pursuit. We can never reach full convenience because there will always be ways to make things just that little bit more frictionless. There was a time when the idea that you could sit yourself down in an inexpensive, comfortable train seat in Paris, take out a device that can instantly connect with the rest of the world, and 1 hour and 55 minutes later, arrive into Lyon, would have seemed unthinkably convenient. No more.
The internet itself has been built on the idea that humans want unending convenience. As Twitter co-founder and former chief executive Evan Williams said back in 2013, “Convenience on the internet is basically achieved by two things: speed, and cognitive ease . . . If you study what the really big things on the internet are, you realise they are masters at making things fast and not making people think.”
The more convenient things become, the more we rely on them, and the more we treat these former luxuries as some kind of God-given right. That makes it all the more inconvenient when they do not function as efficiently as we expect them to. I remember how amazed I was the first time I ordered an Uber. These days, I’m irritated if I’m left waiting for one for more than five minutes.
But the main problem with convenience is that too much of it saps the joy out of life. “Life requires time and effort. That is to say, when we eliminate time and effort, we eliminate life’s pleasures,” writes the Zen Buddhist monk Shunmyō Masuno in the Japanese bestseller Zen: The Art of Simple Living.
Living the good life is generally thought to be made up of two kinds of happiness: hedonism, associated with sensual pleasure and comfort, and eudaemonia, associated with meaning and purpose. While convenience might score highly on the former, it doesn’t do well on the latter. And it also scores poorly on a third dimension of emotional wellbeing that Shige Oishi, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, calls “psychological richness”, characterised by variety, perspective-changing experiences, and challenge.
“Striving for efficiency too much — getting things done, not wasting time — will make people miss the joy of serendipity and deprive them of psychological richness,” Oishi tells me. “Convenience doesn’t make a good story, thus doesn’t make a good memory.”
It’s precisely the inconvenient stuff that gives life its meaning and richness. I can order elderflower cordial from Ocado and have it delivered straight to my door. But later this week, I will go out into the Hackney Marshes and pick elderflowers in the sunshine, having waited months for the buds to open. I will soak them in water with lemons picked from my own tree, strain the liquid and then boil it up with sugar to make my own cordial.
The final product might end up being less finessed than the shop-bought version. But it is the effort itself, and the sense of pride and satisfaction it produces, as well as the opportunity to connect with the natural world, that matters to me. Convenient it is not. But, as so often, the joy is in the journey.