Optimizing for Conviviality


A few months ago, while chatting with my friend Steven about the heuristics and algorithms people apply to our lives, it occured to me that a heuristic that I’d been applying (not necessarily strictly or perfectly) to my own life for the past several years could be summarized as “optimize for conviviality.” Working from the idea that this is a pretty good heuristic to be applying in one’s life, I started toying with the idea of maybe writing about it a bit on the internet.

Now (not counting a bit of delay in actually posting this) I’m visiting Steven at his monastery (I may write later about monasteries in the context of conviviality), and part of the structure here is a scheduled Vow Day. From what I understand of the explanations I’ve received, on Vow Day, the work periods are spent on self-directed tasks that the person doing them feels to be the most effective way they can be of service to the world. (Steven, having previously worked at Google, described it to me quite succinctly as “monastic 20% time.”)

Since I generally find myself much happier when more of my interactions are convivial, and additionally feel a subtle but pervasive pressure towards less-convivial social interactions, I expect that other people may benefit from increasing the conviviality in their own lives — and also that this benefit may spread to the people around them. All that considered, actually sitting down to write this seems like an appropriate use of my Vow Day.

Now that my motivations for writing this have been addressed, it’s almost certainly useful to clarify what I mean by “conviviality”. In using this word, I mean it in a sense close to the meaning given by Ivan Illich: “autonomous and creative intercourse among persons” and deeply connected to an Aquinian notion of austerity identified as “[marking] the foundation of friendship”. (These quotes and references are pretty much directly lifted from Illich’s book Tools for Conviviality.)

There is another sense of “conviviality” that I don’t want to entirely exclude: the sense of being cheerful, lively, friendly, and enjoyable. Rather I just consider it as being somewhat incomplete. If instead of directly seeking friendship and good cheer, we seek social relations that bring us together in ways where we recognize and support each other’s autonomy and creativity, my own experience suggests that friendship and good cheer follow as a natural consequence.

In the interest of keeping my posts on this topic brief enough to be easily digested (and to restrain myself from going too far off on rants or wild tangents), I think that I’ll hold off on digging into the Why or How of this particular optimization for now, saving them instead for future posts. There’s certainly enough depth to the topic to make at least a few additional posts (I have notes already), and little point in trying to do everything all at once.

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