Monday, November 8, 2010

Defensive boredom

Following up, in a way, on this post about behavioral conditioning.

My several regular readers are all, I'm sure, painfully aware that most people, probably many of them and certainly myself included, have a tendency to keep their personal lives pretty boring--by which I mean unfulfilling, without nearly enough self-development for anything like satisfaction--unless they exert significant, concerted effort in the other direction.

I still think that the conditioning I was talking about in the prior post plays a huge role, and that consciously working to undo that conditioning is vitally important. In addition to it, though, there's another factor that may be pretty obvious but which only just occurred to me. I have no idea if it's new to anyone else, probably not, but it's a new thought to me.

What if we keep our lives bland in part because actually having a rich fulfilling life makes work even more intolerable? What if having an interesting life makes the boredom at work impossible to take, and that's why we go home from our boring jobs to our boring families and watch boring TV and eat boring prefab food and go to sleep to have boring dreams before waking up and going back to the boredom? All the while we could be changing any or all of these facets of our lives to make them less boring, but for the most part we don't.

Not to brag, but my life recently has been becoming more and more fulfilling, more and more of a joy to live, which is pretty new for me. You should try it! But I warn you, it can be really hard--harder even than it is already--to be at work while thinking about what your life consists of elsewhere, once your life starts consisting of something.

I don't think it's something anybody does consciously. It's not so much that anybody makes their life boring so as to be better able to handle work, it's that our societal focus on the importance of work makes us eager to accept anything we're given that will make work less unpleasant, and then here's all these things offering us boring lives... and this makes them easier to accept.

18 comments:

Charles F. Oxtrot said...

My post this AM has a few parallels.

One thing your esay made me think about was the aspect of social "boredom" arising from over-use and over-prescription of anti-depressant, anti-anxiety types of Rx pharma.

Anyone who's taken such meds long-term can tell others about how the Rx achieve their supposedly prophylactic ends: they make people into emotional flatlines, they curry apathetic favor in one's existential outlook.

People are bored because their jobs suck ass. People spend most of their "working" time surfing the internet, posting dreck on Facebook, reading internet discussions and participating in them. My experience in the corporate world suggests actual productivity (time spent actually serving the employer's ends rather than the employee's non-work ends) ranges between 50 and 75 percent most every day in most every position.

My last job working for another person was a corporate legal job. My boss, the general counsel, spent a lot of her free time shopping on eBay for impulse buys that were easy for her to manage on her two-lawyer couple salary (her husband was GC for another big company in town). Another chunk of her time was spent looking for work outside this town because she & husband moved here for the jobs, not for the town or its weather, environs, offerings. They hated winter and wanted to move to Arizona.

Most every bureaucratic employment I've held showed similar non-work time wasting.

Basically, America's broken, a lot of people get it intuitively, but not many know how to handle that or what to do about it.

AlanSmithee said...

Seems to be a lot of societal ennui going around these days. I think Pink Floyd had this thing nailed way back when:

There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying
When I was a child
I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown
The dream is gone
I have become...comfortably numb

Ol' Rog wasn't singing just about taking drugs before the show. His point was much larger than that.

But that was then. Now we've got entire generations increasingly brought up in a strictly structured play-date / soccer practice style specifically designed to adapt their poor wee brains for a strictly structured future of corporate wage slavery.

I mean, fuck, if I'd been brought up moving between our social snakepit school system and a severly limited set of regimented outside activities - I might very well have begun sexting, developing "ADHD," shooting up classrooms and forgetting where Lincoln, Nebraska is on the fucking map. Who wouldn't? No wonder they have to dope up so many kids with Ritalin.

Peter Ward said...

I think (along the lines of others here) the ability to truly have fun--like imagination and curiosity and many other things--gets destroyed in most people by the time they are an adult. A good education--where everything is rote and academic and authoritative--weeds out any impulse to have fun one might haves started out with.

Soj said...

Ethan... you're 100% right about keeping your life bland so it is more tolerable. I had to quit my job and spend literally an entire year NOT working before I could de-stress enough to truly get excited about my own life. Never, ever, ever would've happened with a mortgage, FT job and all that other stuff.

Hang in there!!

Jack Crow said...

Almost five years without a job, Ethan. But, not wealthy, so: just as boring, and often tedious. Although far, far less stressful.

The habits are far harder to break than the attachment to employment.

(And I'm still trying to figure out how in the hell my wife kept the home shop without pulling out all of her hair...)

Randal Graves said...

Commenting is so boring.

I've got things I dig doing, I just don't do them enough, writing bad verse, snapping poorly composed photographs. Music's always been for me a fantastic, if not the best, catalyst, but most of the time I find myself not going beyond audience member status.

Not to disparage the internets, but vaguely riffing (and simplifying) off of Alan's comment, I'm so glad my kids have all but zero interest in this new-fangled technology and prefer doing their own thing, art, language. Straight-A students? Nope, but I bet they'll be happier in the long run than most of us shlubs. Unless we blow ourselves up, than the joke's on us all, muah.

Bruce said...

I'm not trying to nitpick, but what exactly, for you, constitutes a "rich, fulfilling life"?

I hear people talk of such things, but I've never actually seen them, with or without capitalism.

Anonymous said...

randal, you rule. complaining about boring lifestyles on the internet is like complaining about your digestive system while on line at mcdonald's.

miguel said...

While I can relate to hating work more the more interesting my free time was (usually high-love, high-sex, high-drinking/dancing periods) I don't relate to deliberately keeping life dull to minimize the agony. I think dull jobs correspond to dull lives because the dull job just saps the lifejuice out of you especially as you get older and there's less lifejuice to start.

miguel said...

I hear people talk of such things, but I've never actually seen them, with or without capitalism.

I'm as gloomy about contemporary society as the next guy, but I have actually met quite a few people that seemed fulfilled during disease and death-free stretches in their lives.

There are a handful of people who get paid to do things they'd do anyway, for instance, and they manage to surround themselves with people they love and whom they love in return. Art, music, charity all seem to help.

Randal Graves said...

I'd like some fries with this.

miguel, not that I presume to speak for Ethan, but what I got out of that particular comment was more of a subconscious reaction to such a dull job, a unplanned response to the external stimuli (wha?) of empty professions/occupations.

miguel said...

a subconscious reaction to such a dull job

In either case, I think the idea that we fuck our free time to hate our jobs less is counterintuitive. I suppose perhaps there is self-sabotage of this kind. I just haven't lived it, nor seen it, though I have had long stretches of non-fulfillment. To me, empty lives happen for lack of energy, lack of material resources, depression, lack of confidence, and, probably more than anything, lack of self-knowledge as to what makes you happy.

I guess a cynic would add in plain old laziness, but I think laziness is usually a symptom, not a cause of anything.

Ethan said...

Sorry for the delay in responding, everyone.

Charles, on this: My experience in the corporate world suggests actual productivity (time spent actually serving the employer's ends rather than the employee's non-work ends) ranges between 50 and 75 percent most every day in most every position. It strikes me as being about 25 to 50 percent perfect, if you know what I mean (although as anyone can see from your examples, people's own needs too often end up serving the needs of bosses somewhere elsed). Unfortunately for me my job doesn't work like that, though fortunately for me I'm only there part time. Your point about meds is a good one, though I'm a bit more ambivalent about the stuff; it always seems to me that they're the type of thing that would be unnecessary in the world we should live in, but for many people are necessary in the world we do live in...while keeping many of us from working towards the "should" world. Catch-22 and shit.

Alan, Peter--interesting you should bring up the topic of childhood conditioning, because that's what the post I was following up on here was about. I agree that it's the killer, and one of the primary things we need to destroy.

I hope that doesn't sound like I'm saying "ho hum, already covered that," because that's not what I mean. I think it's interesting that it's so powerful that we're all focusing on it so intensely. It's also very, very good that we're focusing on it.

Soj--thank you! I think I go through a mini-version of what you describe every week. I work Monday through Wednesdays, and I've grown accustomed to writing Thursdays off as a "recovery" day, before I can spend Friday through Saturday doing things I really want to do.

to be continued....

Ethan said...

Jack, this: The habits are far harder to break than the attachment to employment is so, so very true, and is a good deal of what I was trying to work through in my previous post. It also applies to this one, in a pop-Pavlovian sort of way, I think. Your point about money is an excellent one that I'm probably going to expand on later in these comments.

Randal, anonymous--the thing about the internet is probably a very good point, although the tendency of people on the internet to talk about it like it's just a monolithic, unresponsive time-waster honestly puzzles me a bit. It's a form of communication. I, for one, choose to use it because it expands the range of people I can have conversations like this with. I don't view that as a waste of time, and in fact I find that it contributes hugely to the fulfilling self-development I'm looking for. Which is of course not to say that I want to spend my whole life on it, of course.

Bruce--part of a "rich, fulfilling life" is idiosyncrasy, so it doesn't do much good to try to prescribe something for it. JR's post at ladypoverty that I linked to has some good discussion, both in the post and in the comments, of what I'm talking about. What's been good for me recently is being in love, and being loved, becoming more and more physically active and capable, spending time cooking real food, developing my own thoughts on the world and myself through conversations like this, online and off, and through reading, listening to and especially making music, writing (here and offline fiction), and so on. Never passively taking in anything, but always returning what I get with creativity of my own. This is the sort of thing that, in the capitalism we live under, requires both money and free time. And since, in the form of capitalism we live under, we are forced to exchange free time for money, it is the sort of thing that is next to impossible to achieve.

more...

Ethan said...

Miguel, Randal doesn't presume to speak for me, but he says basically what I would have said anyway. To expand, though: I think the process is a sort of unconscious learning, as with any complicated task you do repeatedly until you're good at it. You may not consciously know what it is that you're changing to get better at it, but nevertheless you learn and you change your strategies. It's that process directed in a decidedly negative direction. We understand that we need to work, the way our world is structured, and so anything that makes doing that work more difficult is something we learn to avoid.

I agree wholeheartedly with your final point about laziness; I don't think anyone is just lazy. There are reasons that people learn to be lazy, and I think one of them is that being lazy helps us to (just barely) tolerate the world we're forced to live in, which otherwise can become intolerable.

Your points in the middle are honestly a bit puzzling to me.

To me, empty lives happen for lack of energy, lack of material resources, depression, lack of confidence, and, probably more than anything, lack of self-knowledge as to what makes you happy.

I completely agree. I really, really don't want to sound like I'm being snitty here, because I'm not, I'm just genuinely curious: was my post not equivocal enough? I wasn't trying to say that this was the only--or even the primary--mechanism by which our lives are dulled down to meaninglessness. I was asking if it might be something we do subconsciously that possibly makes it easier to accept the options provided to us, through the mechanisms you list, that do this to us. Does that make more sense?

Thanks so much for all the comments, people.

AlanSmithee said...

Cheers! Good posts deserve good comments.

miguel said...

was my post not equivocal enough? I wasn't trying to say that this was the only--or even the primary--mechanism by which our lives are dulled down to meaninglessness.

Nah, I didn't see it that way, though I can see why my litany of barriers might have come across that way. I was mostly thinking out loud at that point. This topic is one I have been wrestling a lot with lately myself.

Ethan said...

Thanks Alan!

miguel, I see what you were saying now, thanks. Wrestling and thinking out loud are two things I'm very familiar with.