We are often pressed to describe our interests in life, whether on social media, dating websites, job applications, or in common conversation. All too often, however, I believe we have mistaken objects that in themselves function as distractions for genuine and fruitful interests. A distraction is something that takes you away from yourself. An interest is something that you invest your own being within. When we treat distractions as interests, we make poor investments, and thus, rather than being rewarding interests (those that give back to us), they become consuming interests (those that eat us up).
To put this otherwise: taking an interest in something means placing a goodness of your own in that object, to some degree or another. I take an interest, for instance, in many books. Recently, I read Zena Hitz’ Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life, and found the process of reading it—of being interested in what she had to say—to be rewarding. By placing a certain good of my own, namely, my time and attention, in the book, I was rewarded. The object of my interest enriched my own being.
For a converse example, I at times will place too much interest in watching professional football, and in particular the team for which I have cheered since I was 5 years old: the Kansas City Chiefs. For many years, when they were not a very successful team, it was easy to place little interest in the outcome of their games and therefore suffer little as they lost much. In recent years, as they have been one of the most successful teams in the league, it became easy to place too much interest in their games’ outcomes, and therefore become disproportionately affected by their losses (a certain irony, there, no doubt). Is professional football a worthy object of interest—or is it merely, in itself, a distraction?
We can lose perspective on the objects of our attention quickly. Sports, video games, television, movies: primarily, these are vehicles of distraction. Distraction is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. We all need time to cease conscious control of thinking, to allow the tension of the mind a relaxation. Moreover, one can discover objects of genuine interest through distractions. One might attune to the way in which sports train discipline, or in an entertainment franchise encounter fascinating aspects of a particular culture or even philosophy. One can be elevated by literature, presented in the novel or the miniseries.
We can identify whether our interests are fruitful or consumptive by a simple reflective process. That is, we can ask ourselves: does this make me a better person when I am not engaged with it? Do we have to rationalize our investment within it? If we answer “no” to the first question and “yes” to the second, likely we are in need of some reorientation.