Marie Maerz/

It’s Time to Stop Thinking We Can 'Life Hack' Our Way to Happiness

There's a dark side to hacking your way through life.

Although the phrase “life hack” was coined only in 2004, it has quickly become part of our internet lexicon. In a sense, it’s a reflection of our natural tendency to find the better, faster, and easier ways to get things done. But that doesn’t explain the real appeal of the idea.

In our hyper-competitive world, a “life hack” is more narrowly defined as the perfect shortcut—a method to achieve a good outcome with fewer resources. It’s the seductive idea that, if only you could find the trick, you too can accomplish your goals—and be just as happy.

Little wonder that there’s a whole industry ready to offer you a life hack for whatever you seek. The site Lifehacker, which launched in 2005 and offers articles with the headlines like “How to Worry Productively,” attracts more than 20 million readers every month. Tim Ferris’s books, which popularized the idea of life hacks and provide ideas about how to work only four hours a week and have a prosperous life, have sold millions of copies and have been translated into more than 35 languages.

It’s great if life hacks can help you reach Inbox Zero or cook a healthy meal in less than 20 minutes. But it’s worth exploring the mentality that drives this compulsion. Our 21st-century work culture values productivity over almost everything, and the trickle-down effect ends up harming us. The good news is that, with the help of new research and some changes in perspective, we could find a better way to live well.

The cult of busyness

In a sense, life hacks are the ultimate distillation of a movement that began two centuries ago. Before the industrial revolution, a person’s wealth was measured on the basis of the leisure time spent on extravagant holidays or wasteful hobbies. That changed when time spent working was equated with wealth.

“The more busy you were, the more value you had,” as Mary Waller of New York University puts it. “You increased your economic value if you could cram more work into an hour than someone else.”

Researchers have found ways of quantifying the societal change Waller describes. In one study, a group of 200 people were randomly split into two groups. The first group was told that Jeff was a 35-year-old who “works long hours and his calendar is always full.” The other was told that Jeff “does not work and has a leisurely lifestyle.” Each group was then asked questions to judge Jeff’s status.

“We found that these status attributions are heavily influenced by our own beliefs about social mobility,” writes lead author of the study Silvia Bellezza of Columbia University. “The more we believe that one has the opportunity for success based on hard work, the more we tend to think that people who skip leisure and work all the time are of higher standing.”

In Bellezza’s analysis of this cultural phenomenon, published last month in the Journal of Consumer Research, she notes that “an analysis of holiday letters indicates that references to ‘crazy schedules’ have dramatically increased since the 1960s.” If you’ve been seeing too many mentions of “having no life” or “needing a vacation” on social media, it’s not just because we now have Twitter and Facebook to humblebrag.

The dark side of life hacks

The internet does, however, allow ideas to spread more quickly. When the tech journalist Danny O’Brien coined the word “life hack,” he was at a technology conference. The programmers who shaped internet culture instantly embraced how hacks—inelegant but effective solutions to a computing problem—could be applied to life.

“For most people, geeks or not, modern life is just this incredibly complex problem amenable to no good obvious solution. But we can peck around the edges of it; we can make little shortcuts,” O’Brien said in a 2005 interview. “And once you point out that every one does that, once you coin the term, it’s really easy to pile a whole of lot of shared behaviors into one neat pile.”

And what a neat pile it was. The American Dialect Society voted “lifehack” the secondmost useful word of 2005, only behind “podcast.”

As appealing as the idea may be, there is a dark side to life hacks. The mindset that life is a series of problems to be fixed leads to obsession with the means rather than the end. “Maybe all the time I spend looking for better ways to do things is keeping me from, well, doing things,” wrote the “recovering life-hacker” John Pavlus.

Life hacks are supposed to free up time on tasks you can’t avoid, so that you can spend more time on activities that make you happy and let you live the perfect life. “What we want, to paraphrase Marx, is to ‘life hack in the morning—in order to nap in the afternoon and criticize after dinner,'” explains the writer Evgeny Morozov. “What we get right now—to ‘life hack in the morning—in order to skip naps in the afternoon and work after dinner’—is a raw deal.”

Those who defend life-hacking argue that if you’re wasting time searching for the perfect life hack or tweaking the life hacks you already use, you’re doing it wrong. Obsessing over life hacks is not the point of them.

Still, it’s a seductive game—and one that’s difficult to forfeit entirely.

Doing nothing

If higher productivity is your goal, paradoxically, new scientific research suggests that perhaps doing nothing might just make you more productive. In his book Autopilot: The Art and Science of Doing Nothing, Andrew Smart explains the curious finding that the brain’s resting state is vital to connect its different parts, an event that is often associated with developing new and original insights.

The brain, according to Smart, has an autopilot mode. “The autopilot knows where you really want to go, and what you really want to do,” he writes. “But the only way to find out what your autopilot knows is to stop flying the plane and let your autopilot guide you.”

Idleness is anathema to the modern world. But Smart is proposing that idleness may not just have value but that it may be necessary for creativity. “Through idleness, great ideas buried in your unconsciousness have the chance to enter your awareness,” he writes.

When the brain is focusing on, say, remembering what you ate last night, scans show that only a handful of brain regions are active. As the most resource-hungry organ of the body, the brain has to channel energy selectively to the parts needed to find the answer you are looking for.

When you do nothing, the brain remains active. This time, however, it enters the “default mode network” where the brain is able to let the greatest number of regions to use a limited amount of energy. Smart says it is in this state that maximum interconnections can occur and lead to creative insights.

Scientists haven’t yet found definitive proof that the activity of the default mode network is responsible for creativity, but it is the closest understanding we have so far. If Smart is right, it could have huge implications. It would mean that the brain needs to be idle in order to perform at its peak. (It’s a huge blow to sleep hackers—people, including myself, who try to cut down on their hours of sleep to get more done.)

Asking the hard questions

The worst problem with the life-hacking mindset is something else. “I think life hacking is so seductive because it’s simply easier than asking some bigger, harder, more important questions about where your time and attention go,” Pavlus says.

The eternal questions that plague human life, after all, don’t have easy answers. The newest life hack in Silicon Valley perhaps explain this contradiction the best.

Ryan Holiday’s books have been credited with bringing attention to a 2,000-year-old philosophy called Stoicism. A crucial aspect of Stoicism is to recognize what is under your control and what is not; then Stoics must recognize they can only control their own actions and not the eventual outcome. Holiday argues that Stoicism is “a thought exercise designed to improve your life,” and is fond of depicting the philosophy as a list of life hacks that can do just that.

“If people are interested in something more, in a broader framework to make sense of your life and decide on priorities, then one needs to study the philosophy, not stop at the level of life-hacking,” says Massimo Pigliucci, philosophy professor at City University of New York and author of How to Be a Stoic.

A life-hacks list to master Stoicism undercuts the entire endeavor. Stoicism’s real value is in making peace with a world that cannot be hacked.

None of this is meant to underplay the difficulties of 21st-century life. It is rather to emphasize that very few complex problems have simple solutions. Life hacks may help you get some stuff done, but they won’t get you to your idea of a perfect life filled with ever-lasting happiness.