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How was your day?
On social isolation, the emergence of the great apes, and what it means to do just a little bit of good for a whole lot of people
"How was your day today?" is one of the most routine of questions. But it can be hard to put into context just how important it is -- on either the smallest of scales or the largest.
■ On the smallest of scales, of course, it is vital for just about every person to experience at least some validation of meaning in their life with some frequency. The natural attrition that occurs to most individuals' social circles as they age explains why social isolation is a major concern not only for the mental wellness of older people, but for their physical well-being as well. Feeling needed and having robust social interactions make a meaningful difference to well-being.
■ But on the broader scale, "How was your day today?" is an unfathomably big question. There are 7.9 billion people alive right now. If you took each person's day and laid them out consecutively -- as if they were experienced in series rather than in parallel -- then one calendar day on Earth would form a chain of 21.6 million person-years.
■ For perspective, the first ancestors of the great apes didn't even arrive until probably 20 million years ago. The first beings we might recognize as human-like ancestors took millions more to show up. So every day on this planet, we experience more total person-days than there have been calendar days since "people" even came into existence.
■ There is an unimaginable amount of activity happening and experience accruing on our planet every single day. None of us can remotely fathom how much "life" is taking place. Catching up with a single friend can be a reminder of just how much experience passes through each life. And events like class or family reunions can help us start to scratch the surface of that strange realization that none of us can possibly keep up with how many things are happening.
■ That realization of the massive parallel experience of time should also drive people to realize how important it is for people to try to do good things, especially when their choices have a lot of reach. If one is capable of making some of that enormous lived experience of humanity safer, healthier, or brighter at any kind of scale, then one should seek to do as much of it as they can. Releasing a life-saving vaccine one day faster, or creating just one day-brightening recording or defusing just one terribly disruptive conflict can produce good on a scale we just aren't equipped to fully understand.
■ People connect with one another individually, not institutionally -- no government agency or private-sector firm can actually care about anyone's day. But even small improvements, when widely diffused, can do extraordinary good. As Theodore Roosevelt put it, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you are."