In Tim Ferriss’s book, The Four Hour Workweek, he states that sadness is not the opposite of happiness. Instead, the opposite of happiness is something that plagues too many people: boredom.
Tim’s argument is truly compelling and indeed true. Sadness is a necessary and helpful human emotion and thus benefits one’s life. Humans need sadness as a form of catharsis, a means of connection, a powerful method of reflection, a way to ground oneself, and as a vessel by which to express other emotions such as love. Happiness cannot occur without sadness. It makes sense, then, when Tim states how happiness and sadness are not opposites.
Boredom, in contrast, is utterly unhelpful. There are no benefits one can reasonably obtain as a result of boredom. Sam Harris defines boredom as a lack of attention. This definition may seem rather simplistic, but it is incredibly profound. Boredom, the ultimate source of discontent, results from one’s inability to pay attention. The human mind craves constant stimulation. Humans need this stimulation to escape the dreaded fear of becoming “unhappy”. In reality, however, we are subconsciously escaping boredom.
This is why society praises being “busy” all of the time. When one is busy, one does not have a reason to be bored. How toxic a trend! The fact that humans are afraid to be still due to the fear of a potential bout of boredom is saddening. I have been there, and still experience such feelings today. I have recently developed the belief, however, that boredom is an unacceptable emotion. When it hits, I know that I am not being present enough nor am I taking advantage of all the opportunities available.
This epiphany, of boredom being unacceptable, occurred after listening to Joe Rogan on his amazing podcast. On one particular episode, he had Sam Harris and Dan Harris on. They talked about several different topics, but one statement that really grabbed my attention was the fact that a recent survey asked various people if they would rather be alone with their thoughts or receive an electric shock. An alarming percentage of the participants chose the latter! I believe that this relates back to the fear of boredom. Sam went on to describe that when one feels bored, if one were to simply observe this emotion and grow curious about it, the boredom is instantly eliminated. Because this dangerous feeling results from a lack of attention, directing all of one’s attention to the feeling itself strips it of its power. Sam explained this so effortlessly, resulting in my drastic change in attitude.
I believe that the practice of meditation has been shown to be so effective because of the above reasoning. Meditation is simply the act of noticing. One can focus their attention on the breath, on the sounds of nature, on the body, or even on discomfort or pain. What the mind focuses on does not matter. What is truly important is the fact that the mind is focusing its attention at all. Thus it is impossible to be bored when practicing mediation because focused attention is imperative to the exercise. Perhaps this is why mediation helps alleviate depression, as it disables the quickest pathway to discontent: inattention (ie: boredom).
In realizing just how powerful boredom is, I have grown more aware of when it begins to creep up. This is certainly still a work in progress, as I sometimes find myself at the mercy of its firm grasp. It helps to look at this phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective. When humans existed as hunters and gatherers, their primary motive for the majority of their actions was the need to survive. Their minds were thus always occupied with thoughts intended to optimize survival. Food availability and reproduction were the most important things one could think about. However, as humans have evolved over time, survival has become incredibly easier. We no longer have to worry about the availability of food, and reproduction has now gone in the opposite direction as there are too many people on Earth. The human mind no longer needs to constantly think about what our ancestors thought about. This created more space, but instead of taking advantage of such space, boredom evolved with us.
The good news is that by simply noticing the fact that we are bored, we take away its power and eliminate it altogether. It is time that humans occupy this relatively new abundance of mental space with things that bring us joy. This will be different for everyone and can include things such as art, music, movies, books, science, math, nature, physical activity, meditation, language, travel, community service, and more. There is so much in this world with which we can occupy the space in our minds. How blessed we are to have such an abundance of options! In simply realizing this fact, we have taken the first step towards defeating boredom, and as a result unhappiness, once and for all.