Hea, anyone?

Among the popular Cantonese slangs used by youngsters these days is one called 'hea'. There isn't even a Chinese character for it. It literally means 'rummage', and is taken figuratively to mean 'idle' and 'kill time'.

A recent survey revealed that close to 40% of the adolescents in Hong Kong regard themselves as 'quite hea' or even 'very hea'. 7.3% confess to spending over six hours a day to 'hea'. To them, 'hea' means 'whiling away the time aimlessly', 'having nothing to do' and 'shooting the breeze with friends'. The social worker who conducted the survey said that many adolescents 'hea' because they have no goals.

In his book Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi said that contrary to the popular assumption that being able to relax and having nothing to do is the royal road to happiness, people actually feel worst when what they do is motivated by not having anything else to do instead of driven by intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. In other words, doing something because one 'wants to do it' or even 'has to do it' is better than doing something without any kind of goal to focus attention.

Is there anything wrong with this 'hea' phenomenon? Lots, according to Csikszentmihalyi. He said:

"...the average person is ill equipped to be idle. Without goals and without others to interact with, most people begin to lose motivation and concentration. The mind begins to wander, and more often than not it will focus on unresolvable problems that cause anxiety. In order to avoid this undesirable condition, the person resorts to strategies that will ward off the worst of psychic entropy. Without necessarily being aware of it, one will seek out stimulation that will screen out the sources of anxiety from consciousness. This might be watching TV, or reading redundant narratives such as romances or mysteries, or engaging in obsessive gambling or promiscuous sexuality, or getting drunk or taking drugs. These are quick ways to reduce chaos in consciousness in the short run, but usually the only residue they leave behind is a feeling of listless dissatisfaction."

It is obvious that those youngsters who 'hea' will seek out (or have already done) many of the quick fixes Csikszentmihalyi mentioned, but besides providing a fleeting surge of pleasure, the stimulation does not bring lasting satisfaction.

That brings us back to what the social worker pointed out, that people need goals to guide them. A life without goals is not just boring. It is also dangerous.

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