Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.
Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:
“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”
I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.
For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:
“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”
Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.
“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”
Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)
The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.
“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”
Wijnand van Tilburg
The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.
“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”
John Eastwood, boredom researcher
Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.
The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.
Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.
“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.
“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.
In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.
The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.
Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.
Ways to promote deep understanding
Do the thing
Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.
You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.
Apply it to problems in your life
Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.
“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”
“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”
John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam
Discuss and debate
Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.
Analyse and evaluate
Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.
Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.
There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.
All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist
Write it down
Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.
It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.
In a few short weeks, I’m about to re-enter the world of unemployment, with the intention of moving to a writing-based career. At this point, what bothers me most isn’t the sudden lack of income, or the fear of measuring up in an unfamiliar endeavour, but the fakery that tends to accompany job interviews. These rare and awkward encounters seem to me like a game of poker, in which I’m trying to convince my opponents that I have a full house, when in honesty I have little more than a pair of two’s. The deception required to bluff through a job interview, persuading your potential employers that you have all of the necessary tools to bring value to their company, is something that I’ve always loathed. What I’d really like to do is put all of my cards on the table and say “this is what I have, and I’m a nice guy who gets along with most people. Can I have a job please?” Nothing contrived or rehearsed—just pure, unadulterated honesty.
Given our species’ penchant for putting on appearances, such a situation seems foolishly utopian. Certain scenarios require us to dance the dance that has been chosen for us, or withdraw from society completely to live on our own terms, like Viggo Mortensen’s character in the wonderful Captain Fantastic. But in my experience, the varied situations that I’ve undergone during my time as a regular, city-dwelling homosapien have proven to be best tackled by being honest, as often as possible. People just seem to like you more when you’re straight with them, and those who mutter offended scoffs can go and boil their heads. This isn’t giving yourself license to act like an arse—politeness and social niceties are essential for emotional creatures such as ourselves, with the capacity for horrific violence. It’d be impossible to make friends or get along with anyone if you’re staring them down with a chimpish grin.
“Masks beneath masks until suddenly the bare bloodless skull.”
With honesty, all manner of playacting is made redundant, and with it, all of the exhausting responsibilities required to convince the world of your brilliance. It’s the relief a theatre actor might feel when stepping away from their persona for the evening, unshackled from the obligation of remembering lines, striking poses, and fabricating emotions. Instead, every emotion is allowed to rise naturally from the depths of their soul, rather than their intraparietal sulcus—a part of the brain used when acting a role¹. New-found legitimacy engenders a wonderful lightness, as though we’ve been wearing heavy work boots for most of our lives, and have just swapped them for obscenely fluffy, Merino-wool slippers. Given the stress required to live a life of pretense, the buoyancy of honesty might even extend beyond the metaphorical, as stress makes you gain weight. As every little morsel of chicanery dissipates into the ether, our relaxation increases, until we feel able to navigate the world as unapologetically ourselves, in full defective glory. As if by magic, the words that we were previously too frightened to mutter come bursting forth, with little worry about whether it splits our audience in two, or whether we’ll upset the sourpuss in the accounts department. Honesty can have the same effect on our inhibitions as a glass of the Hunter Valley’s finest Shiraz, and feels comparably soothing. In fact, as I’ve gotten older and become gradually more honest, I find that alcohol has much less of an effect on my inhibitions, because they no longer have such a ferocious hold to begin with.
I can’t begin to imagine how much energy I’ve wasted in my life trying to paint the “perfect” picture of myself. 300 hash browns worth, at least. The kicker is, regardless of how perfect you assume your behaviour to be, there’s always a select group of people who’ll continue to dislike you. With honesty, those people are lit up like the Star of Bethlehem, which you can quickly turn your back on in pursuit of something a little more your style. Most people seem well-equipped to detect pretentious behaviour anyway—trying to hide your faults can have the unfortunate effect of bringing them into the limelight. Why not just cut the bullshit and be yourself? No longer will there be any requirement to paint yourself cool, admirable, smart, capable, attractive, or anything else that society deems important. Think of the brainpower that you’ll save for something that’s actually worthwhile, like watching season three of Stranger Things.
“To conceal anything from those to whom I am attached, is not in my nature. I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.”
The universe can be a pretty cruel place to exist, especially during those uncomfortable moments when we reflect on our own mortality, and what the hell it all means. Slipping into a role for which society would give a boring and predictable thumbs-up is dangerously easy, putting us on a cookie-cutter path that might destroy our uniqueness. The more honest that we are with ourselves, the likelier we are to discover off-roads that could lead us places that feel wholly authentic. We’re born into a greyscale world, devoid of any intrinsic meaning. Honesty is a paintbrush that allows us to colour the world with meaningful vibrancy—we know which colours make us wide-eyed, and we can use that knowledge to paint our masterpiece, with no instruction needed from a higher authority. Only when we muster the courage to be honest can we carve out a meaningful path for ourselves.
“Remember that wherever your heart is, there you will find your treasure.”
At times, reality can be a tough cookie to crack. Our existence as unique, separate beings makes us prisoners of our own subjectivity; we understand reality in terms of our senses, and from what others say about it. If everyone went about their day lying through their teeth, it’d be a lot harder for us to determine what reality actually is. Our brain’s interpretation of our senses would become king—a mediocre choice for a mass of tissue that has a ton of biases, uses mental shortcuts to make decisions, and can hallucinate the most fabulous nonsense imaginable. The level of honesty within our species plays a large role in determining our understanding of the world. If Google decided one day that its maps should only be 50% honest, you might find yourself in the middle of the desert, wondering where all of this sand came from. We owe it to our fellow humans to give them an accurate reflection of the world, whether it’s an external, shared truth such as the weather, or an internal emotional truth, like the grouchiness you’re feeling after last night’s tequila competition with a rustic hidalgo from Guadalajara. With truth comes clarity of vision for all.
“Freethinkers are those who are willing to use their minds without prejudice and without fearing to understand things that clash with their own customs, privileges, or beliefs. This state of mind is not common, but it is essential for right thinking…”
Bending the truth only seems necessary in times of peril, when the stakes are extremely high. You probably wouldn’t want to tell a suicide-risk friend that their new haircut makes them look like a deranged poodle, lest they make a beeline for the nearest precipice. The loveable robot TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar is programmed with a 90% honesty setting, claiming absolute honesty to be an unwise approach for dealing with emotional human beings. I’d argue that 99% is the preferred setting, with the 1% reserved for those rare moments that dishonesty seems to be the correct moral choice. Anything greater seems to be unnecessary, exhausting pretense—strapping on a straitjacket and a plastered smile. In an era infected with all manner of falsity—Donald Trump; tampered elections; fake news; climate change denial; the efficacy of Capitalism; Flat Earth theory; anti-vaxxers, and much more—honesty isn’t just chicken soup for our souls, but a moral necessity, to give us the strength to claw our way out of this filthy bog of crock into which we’ve fallen.
My local Aldi, despite being a regular old budget supermarket nestled amongst the modern apartment blocks of West End, Brisbane, is a hotbed of exhibitionism. It isn’t uncommon to witness a female wrapped so tightly in clothing, with flesh spilling over so generously, that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the bananas to start peeling themselves. Hoards of beady-eyed men are tracking her, their attempts to be surreptitious hopelessly botched, with every look repeatedly captured, collected, and deposited as self-esteem — a reserve most precious, and frequently in danger of being exhausted. One of the primary oglers is a perfectly-clipped gentleman in a Hugo Boss suit, who appears embarrassed to be shopping at such an establishment, but compensates for it by twirling his BMW keys around his fingers as he steals longing glances at the girl’s shapely buttocks. His perversion is disrupted by repeated doubts about his own intelligence, which assault him like the thundering cannons of an 18th-century French revolutionary force, day-in and day-out, never in danger of being defeated by an expensive German sports car. In the freezer department, a chap with an alarming fake tan and arms like over-inflated balloons is reaching for some hash browns, after apparently having spent the last two hours taking a nap nestled among the satsumas. As he locks eyes with the girl and reveals his gleaming veneers, she returns the compliment with a coy smile, and they slowing gravitate towards each other — two like-minded souls, finding lust in unexpected places.
Within this collection of marginally-altered apes that we call humanity, the need to impress appears loud, mighty, and determined, like Hulk Hogan in the 80s. For those whose self-esteem is teetering on empty, admiration can taste like a doughnut sprinkled with crack, containing nothing nutritious, and forming a nasty, skin-scratching addiction. Repeated consumption may result in years of punishing gym time, body ravaged in the quest for the perfect physique; endless twilight hours at the office, striving frantically for a brag-worthy job; or decades worth of social media posts, cooking up grams of claps on a rusty spoon, sucking them into a syringe, and spiking a collapsing vein. Admiration is a rotten, subpar source of confidence, yet one that we reach for time and time again, with desperate hope of being permanently raised from the depths.
My own fierce desire to measure up comes in the form of being intelligent, something I’ve never been fully convinced of. As a kid my dad would matter-of-factly tell me that I was smart, but without any common sense, pointing to my academic success and embarrassing ineptitude at anything practical. Having grown into the maturity of adulthood, and having had the time and wisdom to understand him more thoroughly, I suspect that much of this can be attributed to psychological projection: pointing out other people’s insufficiencies in order to suppress his own. While on holiday with the old rascal a couple of months back, as we were checking into a hotel, he somehow managed to walk completely the wrong way, and when he finally found us, the embarrassment from his foolish moment created a spew of self-righteous rage at having been left behind, directed primarily at my darling mother, who has more patience than all the saints in Heaven. Though he probably knew it was his fault rather than ours, he’d rather appear smart and angry, than stupid and humble. Such is the power of insecurity to warp our behaviours into something toxic. Every nagging doubt can create a collection of pretentious behaviours which, rather than alleviating the concern, pump it full of protein until it’s a bloated, gesticulating mess, impossible to ignore, and glaringly obvious to the rest of the world. All the lipstick in the world can’t hide the fact that there’s a pig underneath.
Nurture can’t be blamed entirely for our insecurities. Doubt may be born from a selection of naive comments, but its basis in reality gives it strength to endure. Sometimes I marvel at the retarded things that I do — for example, earlier in the week I missed my appointment to become an Australian citizen, because I misjudged the dates. I was able to easily reschedule, but the stinging embarrassment that I felt as I relayed the mistake to my friends and colleagues could only be numbed with bouts of humour, and pretending not to care about the fact that I’d been hopelessly inept — a languid smokescreen that disappears all-too-quickly. Attempting to quash our insecurities with approval is like trying to fight a Balrog with a rusty coat hanger.
Long-lasting confidence and self-esteem can be gained not from the admiration of the whimsical crowd, but from standing upright to the bounteous personal challenges that appear, lion-hearted. As a frightened, skinny 20 year-old kid I went to Ibiza to try my hand at DJ’ing, returning with a head full of confidence after spending a debauched summer spinning vinyl in the Balearic sunshine. Every drunken cheer from the swarming crowd, every hand grasping at the neon green lasers, and every smile from my cocaine-ravaged Spanish boss was proof of my capability — a challenge initially terrifying, but triumphed over spectacularly, with a burning sensation in the groin area to prove it. 15 years later, mustering the courage to hit the publish button on Medium yielded similar results. Who knows what challenges lay in the future, and the treasured confidence they’ll bestow? The social approval that tends to accompany an action is nowhere near as valuable as the personal achievement one feels when trying something difficult, and succeeding. Self-esteem obtained from the masses seems precarious, liable to dissipate at any moment. Hard-won achievement, on the other hand, is often entirely within our control, proving to be a reliable, tenacious source of confidence. The exhibitionists of Aldi are putting their money on a three-legged horse, when they could be entering the race themselves. They might crash spectacularly, faces in the dirt and moonish buttocks akimbo, or they might go for broke, straining every muscle in their bodies, and coming away with the win of their lives.
At school, for a period of a few years, I was a racist little bastard. Most of the black kids in my school were taller, wider, and a hell of a lot tougher than I was, putting their physical prowess to use by skipping lunch queues, taking the best seats in class, and shouldering me effortlessly off the ball during games of football, as though I weighed about the same as a cocktail sausage. During break, they’d nestle into their desired spot in the playground, and blast the surrounding concrete with the tinny, harsh sounds of 2Pac and Busta Rhymes, to the distaste of every Verve or Lenny Kravitz fan in the vicinity (this was a boy’s school, so no self-respecting lad in the 90’s would own up to liking the Spice Girls). These injustices, together with the fact that I could do nothing to restore them without receiving an eye-watering pummelling, created a burning rage inside me, discharged among friends with mutters of “fucking wogs” or “those black bastards are at it again.” At the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world; a righteous point-of-view that dragged us from the lowly position of pathetic, weak and useless, to an elevated position of power and superiority, even if it was just in our minds. Puberty was the boggiest of slogs, and when you’re just trying to drag yourself through something in one piece, reality and truth seem to have less importance. Racism just happened to be a readily-available psychological defence mechanism, used to cover up feelings of ineptitude and worthlessness, protecting my meager sense of self-esteem. I just felt like a skinny, useless white boy, surrounded by all manner of kids who were bigger, stronger, and smarter than me. I was like the frightened little dog that barks because of its fear, fooling nobody aside from myself.
In the first year of sixth form, I escaped what would have undoubtedly been a severe beating, after my racists comments were overheard and passed onto the most enormous black kid in the entire school—a six-foot brick shithouse who, if my memory serves correctly, went by the name of Kwame. The charge against me was “wanting to stab a black boy”, which proved to be a complete lie on the part of the informer—a compact Indian kid who wanted to embellish my intolerable racism as much as possible, in order to see me punished. After weeks of successfully dodging the formidable wall of muscle that wanted to squeeze me to death, the snitch pointed me out to him in our common room, and after politely asking my nemesis to step outside (a request that he took as an invitation to fight), I talked myself out of the entire pickle by declaring that someone with mixed-race cousins such as myself wouldn’t dream of saying something so abhorrent, because such a thing would technically apply to my very own flesh and blood, as though I harboured desires to stab my own family to death because of their darker complexions. That part is true, by the way—I do have mixed race cousins. My silver tongue saved me from a trouncing on that day, but in hindsight, I probably deserved a smallish beating.
Today, whenever a racist peeks over the parapet with a unintentionally blatant comment, my first response is usually contempt. I marvel at their ability to pigeonhole an entire race of people, while conveniently forgetting that I used to do exactly the same thing, for probably the same reasons. Thankfully, my confidence and self-esteem increased with age, blessing me with fresher, clearer perspectives, and a hardier ego that didn’t require cowardly racism in order to protect it. For the remaining racists wandering the world—shaking in their steel toe-capped boots whenever a burly black gentleman passes them in the street, and cursing them quietly under their breaths—changing their views might be a lot more difficult, particularly when surrounded with like-minded friends, each one more chicken-hearted than the last. Many racists appear to be nought but frightened pussies who never developed the true confidence of adulthood, but instead remain in pitiful immaturity, shielding their fragile self-esteem with hateful vitriol, but lacking the knowledge or the motivation to understand why they behave in such ways. To know thyself is tough, but judgement is easy, and feels oh-so-good. The easier path is always more tempting, particularly for the psychologically weak, who might trapse along it comfortably for their entire lives, lacking the courage and will to take the harder road, and forgoing a happier existence in the process. Ignorance is most certainly not bliss.
Art has a way of blessing us with truth and understanding, in unintended ways. Aside from an increased sense of confidence, a turning point for my own bigotry was reading Lee Harper’s To Kill A Mockingbird, a book so beautifully written, weaving a story of such crystal-clear clarity, that you’re left with the fiercest sense of injustice for the main characters, and a greater sense of empathy for their terrible plight. I suspect that Harper has softened the views of many a small-minded bigot, with the potential to remedy many more, but in our age of ignorance, where social media and tabloid journalism serve as dominant teachers, conveying little but righteous outrage and fear, the likelihood of such a person reading the book seems about as feasible as Tommy Robinson marrying Malala Yousafzai. These types of noxious media can act as tribalistic echo chambers of disdain, shrinking our world down to scant collections of regurgitated hate, with little existing outside of it, and little chance of us breaking away to something good and admirable. Such comfortable bubbles have a limited amount of oxygen, before we suffocate. An exceptional story, on the other hand, can be a masterful teacher of empathy, and help to shift the views of the most stubborn extremist, if we could somehow force it upon them without impinging on their freedom.
For me, school was a time for survival, rather than self-improvement. I’m fortunate enough to have been raised with the support of kind, caring parents, satisfying the majority of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and once school was over, affording me the luxury of self-actualisation in the guise of endless books. Some people aren’t so fortunate. It’s tempting to become immediately self-righteous when faced with intolerance, but such a response displays a lack of understanding in itself, the exact same source as the racism. Babies don’t emerge from their mothers with their arm held aloft in a hateful seig heil, but instead develop such behaviours as a way to soothe their fear, protect their delicate egos, and forgo the effort needed to actually understand the world. What is a racist, after all, than a frightened dog, yapping to protect itself?
Last week, the CEO of my company came to my desk and asked for a chat. I’ve been working at the organisation for over seven years, almost since its inception—part of the furniture, you might say. I’ve always had a good relationship with the man who was leading me silently into a meeting room, each step more ominous than the last.
“It’s not good news I’m afraid” he said, after closing the door.
My heart sped up a little, but then immediately slowed down to its normal pace. As he explained the reasoning behind the loss of my job, I felt the oddest sense of serenity, like a wizened old Buddhist atop a rugged Tibetan mountain. I quietly marvelled at my sense of calm—why wasn’t I climbing the walls in anxiety? Chewing my nails down to tender pink nubs? Heart racing like a jackrabbit after a can of Red Bull? I’m relatively calm by nature, but redundancy is a big deal, especially for a job that you’ve held for almost a decade, and I didn’t feel concerned in the slightest. I still don’t.
Daniel Gilbert is an American social psychologist, and his work on affective forecasting—our ability to predict our future emotional state—can offer some insight into my odd sense of serenity. For many, the loss of a job might be viewed as catastrophic, accompanied by mental anguish and stinging embarrassment, healed only by disappearing into the duvet for 24 hours. But Gilbert and his colleagues uncovered an important truth about our ability to predict our future emotional state: we’re terrible at it¹. We constantly misjudge. Events that we consider to be life changing end up being brushed off with ease. Gilbert dubbed this wonderful resilience of ours a “psychological immune system”, protecting us from big negative events, so that we can continue to function without descending into unbounded, gloomy dismay.
The psychological immune system works as a kind of salesman, who convinces you to buy into your new, altered reality. The negative aspects of your previous situation become highlighted—the tedious day-to-day tasks; the missing sense of making any kind of real difference; the insufferable penis in charge of accounts. Such afflictions are brought into sharp focus, and your freedom from them is sweeter than a packet of jelly babies. Similarly, positive aspects of your new situation begin to emerge in your mind—the excitement of fresh challenges; the prospect of a better wage; the opportunity to make new friends. The psychological immune system transforms the situation from a depressing failure into a glorious opportunity, and it does this by making us believe that our new situation is better, and our old situation worse, creating a silver lining so thick as to be impenetrable.
The part of our brain responsible for decision making is the pre-frontal cortex, which works as an experience simulator¹, running through various scenarios and determining whether they’re agreeable, or disagreeable. When it simulates an extreme experience such as the death of your spouse, the cyclonic destruction of your house, or the loss of your job, it usually concludes that you’re going to suffer miserably, for a long time—a term known as “impact bias.” But when these undesirable realities actually hit, your psychological immune system kicks into gear, and rather than concurring with your pre-frontal cortex’s woeful simulation, narrates an entirely different story infused with confidence and hope, which you’re all-too-willing to accept to relinquish the anguish that you’re feeling. Why would you choose to believe the grim story from your pre-frontal cortex, when you can believe the comforting story of your psychological immune system?
In our scientific age, the idea of choosing which story to believe might seem fanciful and wishy-washy, as though we’d rather exist in a cotton-candy fairytale land filled with joy, than live in the hard-edged, gritty real world. It’s like choosing the blue pill, instead of the red pill. Objective truth, however, is a tricky thing to pin down, especially regarding subjective emotion.
As an example, I have a suspicion that my girlfriend no longer loves me, which makes me sad. While the thought itself can be objectively scrutinized for its truth (maybe she does love me, after all), the emotion that came from the thought cannot be denied—the sadness has been experienced, therefore it exists, and is true. So why not believe the emotionally-positive, hopeful story of your psychological immune system, instead of the woeful prediction of your pre-frontal cortex? The emotions from both stories are still subjectively experienced, making them true. Rejecting your psychological immune system’s story just seems like unnecessary suffering. What are our emotional lives, after all, than the stories that we tell ourselves? Acceptance Commitment Therapy—a relatively new treatment effective at reducing anxiety2—even has a concept called “cognitive fusion” to explain the harm that we do ourselves by buying into our negative stories, counteracted with “defusion” techniques.
“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
In my case, the psychological immune system seems only partly responsible for my blasé attitude towards the loss of my job. I’ve known for a while that I want to change careers, with a switch of company inevitable. This knowledge, combined with the anticipation of a redundancy payout, might have been enough to explain my calm demeanour. But the comfort and confidence that I feel going into the future is undoubtedly a result of my psychological immune system, convincing me that everything is going to be alright, like a best friend, nestled inside my own head. It’s telling me that a chapter of my life is over, and is about to be replaced with something more exciting and fulfilling.
Many people in Western society seem to harbour the impression that their lives are somehow lacking; that their current position in the world, their numerous, shiny possessions, the relationships that they maintain, and the emotions that they feel, aren’t entirely up to scratch, as though what they’re experiencing is just a lacklustre pre-show—a taster before the main event. Though our days may be peppered with stimulating challenge, favourable encounters, and a great deal of comfort, there’s still something missing. Surely thiscan’t be it?
We carry within us an insatiable desire for more—a destroyer of contentment; a hankerer of stuff, status and success, that we assume will assassinate our demons, or at least muffle them for a little while, as though the fulfilment of our wantscan somehow repair our yearning souls.
Where does this voraciousness come from? There’s a few culprits, each with their own part to play.
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
One of the most depressing misconceptions in Western society is the idea that accumulating stuff makes us happy. Observe the terrifying fracas of a US shopping mall on Black Friday; hoards of consumers dashing for cut-price products, more than willing to thrust their elbows at anyone who gets in their way. Consider the tacky line of super-bright Lamborghinis that might appear outside a Monte Carlo casino—their gold-dripped owners assuming that admiring looks from the public will help to camouflage their deficits of character. Contemplate the ever-expanding wardrobe of the average person, every square inch of space being used, and yet nothing to wear.
Materialism is baked into our capitalist economy, driven by the nonsensical belief that every purchase carries a little bit of happiness with it, but in reality, leaves us both financially and spiritually emptier. Excessive materialism has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. The things that are being rapaciously sold to us—our irises continually flashing with the bright reflections of persuasive adverts—are making us miserable. A study undertaken by the American Psychological Association found that materialistic values are driven by insecurity, with sufferers buying more stuff in an attempt to assuage their harrowing self-doubts.
“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.”
“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.”
“The point is, there is no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others”
In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser explains that those hell-bent on obtaining possessions tend to experience fewer positive emotions every day. On the flip-side, those who report high levels of life satisfaction are liable to entertain fewer materialistic values, and have better relationships. We’re much more materially affluent than our grandparents, but are slightly unhappier, with a higher risk of depression and social pathology. Materialism not only fails to increase our subjective well-being, it causes us damage. Every happiness-promising advert that flashes before you is tainted with a sickening irony.
“For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”
As social animals, status is naturally important to us. We’re anxious to stand out from the crowd—to tower over our peers so that we may win their respect, and so their love. We abhor the condescending glare that we might receive when paying for a train ticket with mountains of small change, as though our temporary financial hardship is something disgusting, to be placed at a far away distance so that it cannot infect the more fortunate among us.
Much of our craving for status is created from our inherent desire to be loved, fuelled by the assumption that we’ll be treated with benevolent respect if we’re able to show off our expansive seven-bedroom mansion, our platinum gray Armani suit, or our Instagram model girlfriend, lovely to look at, but with the conversational skills of a hyperactive parakeet. Status is compensation for inadequacy—the idea that we’re not good enough, and so must surround ourselves with luxurious wealth, creating a facade that might trick our audience into thinking that we’ve really got it together.
“By faithfully working eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.”
“Having worked professionally with several multimillionaire malcontents, I can say that what they really craved were those things intrinsic to happiness laid out at the beginning of this post [supportive relationships and self-acceptance]. The transient highs that accompanied their wealth accumulation were never much more than a hormonal rush anyway. And even though in the eyes of the world they were enormously successful, continuing frustrations and insecurities gave testimony to the fact that the blast of ‘feel good’ chemicals their success yielded was all too easily exhausted.”
“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?”
Self-help gurus tell us that CEOs read a book a week, and that we can do the same when purchasing their cut-price course, eventually eclipsing the achievements of our colleagues and accelerating away from them towards career dominance, a position where our perpetual emptiness might finally be filled. It’s bullshit, of course. Status and wealth may produce admiring glances, but they cannot create what we really need—the love and compassion of our fellow humans, and patient, sympathetic self-acceptance.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.”
Sadness, and its accompanying, so-called negativeemotions, has a tendency to be rejected by Western society, as though there’s no place for it in our lives. We’re taught that happiness is our natural birthright, and sadness a disorder to be cured. Naturally, during our darker, melancholic moments, we suspect that there’s something wrong with us, and that the situation is somehow unnatural. We’re not supposed to be this way!
Sadness—along with the other six basic emotions—is a permanent part of our biology. This inevitable, painful emotion will appear countless times over the course of our lives, often at the most inopportune of moments, challenging us to a battle in which we have little desire to partake. Instead, what we usually do is attempt to numb the sadness in some way, whether through alcohol, drugs, shopping sprees, or any other vice that offers nothing but a band-aid with weak adhesive. Our unreasonable desire to expel sadness from our lives helps to feed an addiction to positivity, a compulsion doomed to failure. We simply cannot change our nature.
“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”
Now that the some of the culprits of our perpetual yearning have been unearthed, what can we do to battle them? How can we learn to become content with what we have? You might consider trying the following.
Gratitude is like kryptonite to our greed for more; a neutralising element that drains its destructive power. The field of positive psychology has shown that a gratitude diary can increase feelings of contentment, because it forces you to focus on what’s goodin your life, rather than what’s lacking. By paying attention to the things that we love, we stumble upon the realisation that our lives contain much joy, and our thirst for more is temporarily diminished.
“You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”
Mindfulness meditation is an exercise sent from the gods, offering benefits such as reducing stress, controlling anxiety, and much more. Though it certainly requires practice and patience to become an expert, the process itself is simple, and requires no equipment.
Meditation helps to fight our desire for moreby forcing us to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of us, as opposed to frantic, anxious thinking which tries to soothe itself with destructive behaviours such as gluttonous shopping. Our new-found calm carries an enhanced sense of self-awareness, allowing us to catch ourselves in the act of pernicious thinking, whereby we stop for a moment, realise that we’re about to engage in a toxic act, and decide to do something healthier instead.
Self-acceptance and self-compassion
Self-acceptance is allowing, accepting and welcoming all parts of yourself, whether good or bad. It’s about accepting your shadow—the dark, grisly side of your nature that you’d rather keep locked away in a dusty cupboard. There’s not a person on earth who doesn’t have flaws, the trick is learning to accept them. Unconditional self-acceptance allows us to live full and honest lives, embracing each and every aspect of our personality.
“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.”
As we become more self-accepting, we also become more content, which weakens our incessant yearning for more. By reminding ourselves that we’re worthy of love (from ourselves most of all), we’re instilling our lives with genuine, clear-cut value.
“You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less than perfect. You will often perform well, but you will also err at times… You always and unconditionally accept yourself without judgment”
This practice can be accompanied by self-compassion—being kind, gentle, and supportive to yourself at all times, even when you make the most horrifying of mistakes. Self-compassion allows you to distinguish between making a bad decision, and being a bad person. Gaffes are being made everywhere all the time, and a typical reaction is to attack ourselves for the indiscretion, creating destructive feelings of shame and unworthiness. Treating ourselves with sympathetic kindness is the favourable alternative.
“Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.”
Friends make us feel loved, creating a sense of belonging and a deep-seated satisfaction, vanquishing our desire for more. Voracious shopping sprees or glistening palaces are no longer needed to make us feel better about ourselves—our friends do a much better job. Side-splitting laughter, or serious, soul-touching conversation, is no substitute for an oak-panelled corner office in a Manhattan high-rise.
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”
All of the money, material goods, and status in the world cannot quench our incessant desire for more. Often, it backfires and our craving is strengthened, leaving us in a worse state than before. Our insatiable desire for more can be allayed through consistent gratitude, regular meditation, self-acceptance and self-compassion, and strong relationships. Eventually, we’ll come to realise that we don’t needa million dollars or a house full of expensive gadgets in order to feel content. Eventually we’ll realise that we have just what we need—we have enough.
“Two men graduated from the same high school. One of them went to college and graduate school and became a professor, making a professor’s salary. The other went out and became a billionaire in the business world.
At a reunion, the two got together, and the billionaire was boasting about all the things he had accomplished and was able to buy with his billions. The professor said, “I have something that you will never have.”
The billionaire said, “How can that be? I can buy anything with the money I have. What do you have that I will never have?”
Throw unacquainted humans into a close-knit social gathering, and observe the plentiful, awkward small talk. Though often uncomfortable, such events can be important to one’s social life, so we must trudge through them, in the hope that we’ll exit the building having skilfully skimmed the surface with our conversation, never diving too deep, committing social taboos, or generally upsetting people with overly-intimate topics.
Small talk has a reputation for being banal, and for good reason. Pointing out the fact that it’s raining seems as ridiculous as pointing out the fact that you have a head—you’re fully aware of both things, and don’t require an outsider to confirm them. But despite being obvious and often painfully dull, small talk has an important role to play, allowing us to leap over a number of social obstacles towards improved, meaningful interaction.
“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.”
Emily Post, Etiquette
Humans can be sensitive souls. We each have our boundaries and lists of potential upsets, which when breached, cause us to either gently back away to an alternative position in the room, or become angry at the infraction. Small talk is first and foremost a way to test the waterswith an unfamiliar person, so that you may better understand their temperament. When finding yourself positioned closely to a person who you know little about, it’s much safer to point out the rain-soaked sky than to launch into a political tirade about your views on transgender pronouns. Until you know the person more intimately, heavier topics should probably be kept under wraps, lest you find yourself on the receiving end of a cold, offended stare.
“[Small talk is] the human equivalent of dogs sniffing butts.”
Though trivial, small talk still has great revelatory power. When talking with fellow humans, much of our soul is exposed through non-verbal communication, despite our fear of being vulnerable. A response to “how was your weekend” can unveil much about the person’s character. The length of their response might indicate their level of confidence; the tone in their voice an indication of friendliness; their slightly lowered head–as if protecting themselves from attack—a exposé of a regrettable history of bullying. As a species we’re excellent communicators, and though small talk might seem bland, it’s the ideal way to learn about a person with who you’re uninformed.
As more of a person’s character is uncovered, we have the insight needed to determine whether to broach more meaningful topics—the things that we actuallywant to talk about. Few of us have passion for banal small talk; as soon as we understand someone more intimately, our inclination is to talk about subjects that are meaningful; questions that latch onto our soul and don’t let go. Conversation is a great educator, and deep conversation creates lasting bonds with our fellow humans, forging precious friendships that paint our lives with vibrant colour. Such friendships begin with small talk.
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”
We cannot conceive of a new person fully without modest first steps; the necessary, cautious introduction to somebody’s soul. Great friendships have small beginnings— profundity is preceded by much insipid natter, whether it be about the city-darkening rainclouds, the football results from the weekend, or the latest remarkable idiocy from Donald. Shallow topics are an invaluable stepping stone to greater things.
“Thomas’s mistake, like most of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that.”
Small talk is also a way to communicate that you’re interested in somebody—idle chat that reveals a desire to understand the person a little better. This may be painless for an extrovert, but for those crippled with shyness, the process can be formidable. In light of the importance of friendship and meaningful connection, those of us naturally blessed with confidence should always make the effort with introverts, despite them often coming across as coldly closed-off. Underneath the restrained exterior is a lion wanting to roar.
Then there’s awkward silence to consider, a vacuum so dreaded that we’ll say anything to fill it, sometimes with amusing consequences:
We abhor silence around others because it seems to communicate the following: I’m not interested in what you have to say. When we’re thrust into a cramped situation with another human being, with nothing else to entertain us, not saying anything seems rude. We’re making a conscious choice to stay silent, and that decision can be interpreted as antipathy, or even animosity, towards the other person. Deep down we all want to be liked, and to be surrounded by caring friends. Small talk provides the initial steps towards this goal. Our hopeless, 21st-century addiction to mobile phones acts as a deadly poison to friendship-forming—it’s so much easier to assume the role of an unsociable screen-zombie, staring blankly at our devices instead of having the courage to ask about somebody’s day.
For some people, small talk seems the summit of their capability; a result of a lack of education, exploration, and daring in their lives. Progressing to meaningful topics is impossible if you aren’t aware of them. We need to read books from insightful authors; consume penetrating, thoughtful YouTube videos, and board sky-bound Airbuses towards remote and exotic destinations, if we want our conversation and personality to progress past mundanity. Rarely does Facebook, Instagram, or any other insipid social media platform offer us the content we need to become more intriguing.
“He was permanently impressed by the most irrelevant banalities and impossible to impress with real novelty, meaning, or conflict. And he was too moronic to be properly self-loathing–so it was my duty to loathe him instead.”
Most of us become guarded when encountering unfamiliar people, in order to protect ourselves from hurt. Their personality is obscure from the outset, and though there may be potential for a deep, meaningful relationship, until we know them better, we keep them at a safe distance. Small talk offers us the means to be necessarily vulnerable, at a slower, more agreeable pace. It’s the precursor to treasured human connection. So the next time you find yourself in close proximity with an unfamiliar person, commenting on the weather might be one of the most valuable things that you can do.
Our universe has an insatiable tendency to change. Since the moment of its spectacular inception, in which a singularity of unfathomable density and temperature exploded with the strength of a million gods, the cosmos has undergone endless, beautiful revision.
The formation of subatomic particles – the tiniest specks known to us – went on to form larger atoms, raging stars, colossal planets, and expansive, glittering galaxies, all vacillating from one state to another, without purpose or need for reason. The horizon-spanning landmasses that support our species are constantly shifting back and forth, forging snow-laden mountains that soar into the luminous sky, or deep subterranean trenches that lay forever hidden in the impenetrable darkness. 99 percent of the species to have existed on planet Earth – over 5 billion unique groups – have found themselves extinct, subject to the relentlessly changing nature of our universe, in which each organism plays their short role before relinquishing their atoms to another venture.
The entire universe is, and always has been, in a state of flux. If the cosmos were a sentient being, one might assume that it behaves this way in order to keep things interesting. After all, nothing induces boredom quicker than a stale, changeless situation, lacking freshness and surprise. Variety is what makes our planet so intoxicating, and yet, as a species we have a foolish, unremitting desire to cling onto positive experiences, in an attempt to prevent their escape. We wail and squirm when a period of delight transforms into mediocrity, as if the cosmos will heed our complaints and alter its immutable proclivity for change. We frantically try to grasp onto every morsel of happiness that befalls us, praying that our kitten-like grip will somehow hold on, but failing every single time. We revolt against the inevitably of change, and it makes us depressed.
Two religions of the mysterious East – Buddhism and Taoism – can help us with this problem. Alan Watts – an influential figure who helped popularise Eastern philosophy in the West – called Buddhism the religion of no religion, due to its non-dogmatic, practical, and philosophical nature. Taoism has similar qualities. You won’t find a single prayer-receiving god in Buddhism or Taoism.
Buddhists believe that personal suffering is caused by our implacable tendency to become attachedto what we desire, whether it be a pleasant emotion, removal of death, freedom from pain, or anything else that we crave. Surrendering our attachments leads to Nirvana, a state of blissful peace and liberation. When you consider the flux-like, constantly changing nature of the universe, this makes a hell of a lot of sense. It’s impossible to become attached to anything because it’ll soon change into something else, and by foolishly trying to lengthen the experience by clinging onto it – as though our grasping will prevent its transformation – we’re condemning ourselves to disappointment.
What is required is an unrelenting acceptance of our universe’s fluidity, in which we must enthusiastically immerse ourselves. We can no longer live under the foolish assumption that we can trap our positive experiences in a large jar and climb in with them whenever we’re feeling blue. Agreeable situations will emerge, be enjoyed, and then naturally transform into something else. We suffer needlessly because we revolt against the universe’s love of change.
“Transitoriness is depressing only to the mind which insists upon trying to grasp. But to the mind which lets go and moves with the flow of change, which becomes, in Zen Buddhist imagery, like a ball in a mountain stream, the sense of transience or emptiness becomes a kind of ecstasy.” — Alan Watts
“If you try to change it, you will ruin it. Try to hold it, and you will lose it.”
― Lao Tzu
Life is transition – you can’t pause the show and fix things into place, however much you’d like to. Things come and go naturally – resisting this fact pollutes our souls with misery.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu
“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” —Alan Watts
Our existence can be considered a glorious, dynamic adventure, brimming with experiences both light and dark, and constantly exciting. We make our way through a chapter and look back over our exploits, perhaps with a tinge of regret that things have to change, until we’re ready to move onto something provocatively brand new.
“What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? – it’s the too-huge world vaulting us, and it’s good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” — Jack Kerouac
The ultimate change that we resist is our own death. We desperately want to step outside the confines of our changing universe, so that we may dodge its brutal laws and become eternal gods. Our capacity for memory and prediction allow us to delve into the past and future, which are incredible tools for survival, but curse us with the desire to live everlastingly. Before we developed these skills, the only thing that existed for us was this moment. We had no concept of eternity, nor any desire to become acquainted with it. We were free to live in the forever changing now – a perfectly mindful existence. Mental time-hopping may have helped to escalate our species to the top of the food chain, but it’s instilled a debilitating fear of our eventual demise. Funnily enough, most of us have already died many times over. Our cells are constantly croaking and being replaced anew, including the parts of ourselves that we personally identify with – our consciousness-creating brain cells.
“It is a slightly arresting notion that if you were to pick yourself apart with tweezers, one atom at a time, you would produce a mound of fine atomic dust, none of which had ever been alive but all of which had once been you.” — Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
Memory cleverly pulls the wool over our eyes, creating an ongoing impression of your own identity. But on an atomic level, you are not the same person that you were when you started reading this article.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” — Heraclitus
The atoms that make up our bodies are so copious, durable and replaceable that there’s a good chance of us containing a little bit of past genius:
“Atoms, in short, are very abundant. They are also fantastically durable. Because they are so long lived, atoms really get around. Every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms– up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested– probably once belonged to Shakespeare.”
― Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything
On an atomic level, we’re all eternal – the atoms that make up our bodies will eventually depart, to become part of a chunky brown baobab tree on the plains of Africa, a humble poo-pushing dung beetle, or perhaps a future tyrannical politician. Though our consciousness expires, we survive. Humans are simply an insignificant expression of our ferociously dynamic universe; a cosmos that shakes and jives, splattering atoms across the face of gleaming galaxies, mixing and merging until something chimp-like emerges.
Change and variation is what makes our world endlessly breathtaking, and by realising that life would become monotonously stagnant without it, we can start to come to terms with our long and imperfect journey. Fear, sorrow and desperation are equally as important as courage, joy and contentment. Without death, we cannot hope to experience an exhilarating, spirited life. Change is what paints the world with luminous, spine-tingling colour; the dark hues are what make the light so gorgeously prevalent. All we need to do is take a deep breath, and plunge into it.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching