It might seem like an oxymoron, but something I want you to try in order to become happy is: to do absolutely nothing.
In a recent appointment with my psychiatrist, he gave me this very advice. We had been talking about my inability to feel happy with myself. From an early age I had been conditioned to please others. Somehow, I became learned to believe that I simply wasn’t good enough as I was. My self-esteem became completely dependent on others’ opinions of me (what some would call “other-esteem) namely my parents. As such, I have had a very difficult time feeling comfortable, content, or happy, unless I am actively doing something productive to demonstrate my worth to others, and to myself.
As an adult some of those things I throw myself into have included exercise, studying languages, reading books, travelling (in non Covid years), watching tv, my career, and not so much anymore but for a number of years: heavily drinking and doing drugs. With the exception of the heavy drinking and drug use, there is no inherent problem with any of the aforementioned activities, but the issue was my reason. I was doing these things because I felt like I had to, in order to build a sense of esteem, and to keep my mind occupied enough so as to prevent the intrusion of dark thoughts.
I wrote earlier about the danger of an idle mind. I will reiterate here what I said then: it is necessary to be able to sit in idle stillness, because if you cannot handle this state of being, then what will you do if or when you suddenly find yourself unable to remain busy? In 2020 and still very much to this day as I write this post, life as we know it was greatly affected by the Corona Virus pandemic. Aside from the obvious damage of the virus itself to millions of lives, there were tremendous psychological effects on a great number of people. Many of us were forced into periods of inactivity, finding ourselves unable to pursue our hobbies, our social lives, and for many of us to even interact with our coworkers for a few minutes at the coffee machine. For a great many of us, myself included, the sudden idleness was terrifying and pushed us into a depression.
The problem for many of us was that we were incapable of being idle, and in the presence of idleness, we found how deeply unhappy we were. We had never stopped for a minute to address the root cause of our fear, and instead gave ourselves the false impression of happiness through constant stimulation and activity.
I am not advocating for a monastic lifestyle wherein one retreats to the top of a mountain, vows silence, and engages in absolutely nothing for the duration of their life. I value my social interactions with my friends, family, and loved ones above almost anything, many of my fondest and happiest memories are with these people. My hobbies give meaning and interest to my life, it is a joy to be able to observe myself learning new skills or developing new abilities and there is so much joy to be found in the world.
What I do want though is to ask you to take the time to confront your demons, to take the time to be idle and check in with yourself. Meditate, focus on deep breathing, stare into a fireplace, just close your eyes and exist.
I think if you can conquer what for many of us is a tremendous fear of being still and doing nothing, that you can clear the way for true happiness. You may find yourself no longer craving that next exciting vacation, not counting down the days until the music festival, unconcerned with whether or not you get that $5,000 raise at work, or whether your fledgling blog on the subject of happiness takes off (looking at myself here). Those things still matter but you will realize they are superfluous and that you are happy just being yourself and that you are totally fine just the way you are.
Over the past few days following the visit with my psychiatrist, I have struggled at times with doing nothing. I think I had no less than 2 nervous breakdowns over the weekend. Ironically it is those weekend days, where I finally have the time to relax from work and do whatever I want that I find myself having the greatest sense of panic. While work can be a drag oftentimes, I find myself sometimes struggling to keep busy and inevitably, without the 9-5 moments of idleness settle in and I am confronted with the terrors of my uninhibited subconscious.
I have made progress of late however, taking the time to stare into the fire-place, breathe deeply, imagine the beauty that is the gift of life and simply rejoice in the fact that I exist at all. I am slowly making progress and I believe you can to. If you read this and you feel the same way, but struggle with putting the rubber to the pavement, please feel free to reach out and I am happy to offer encouragement.
It can be difficult to be comfortable doing nothing in a culture that encourages us to work, work, work, buy, buy, buy. The steady stream of advertisements telling us that once we have that new car then we can be happy, or once we have that toned abdomen, then we can feel good about ourselves. In a society that teaches us that our entire worth as a human is what we look like, what we can afford, and how much we earn, it can be very difficult to sit by and do nothing. That isn’t without cause, the global capitalist economy doesn’t want you to be happy sitting by and doing nothing. There are profits by others to be made on your insecurities, on your false belief that you have to work harder, earn more, spend more of your hard-earned money searching in vain for whatever next purchase will finally make you feel happy.
Happiness is not found this way. I hope you all have meaningful, enjoyable ways to spend your time, great people to spend it with, and things that excite you and add meaning to your life. But more than anything I want you to feel happy in yourself even when you are doing absolutely nothing.
In the immortal words of A.A. Milne’s beloved character Winnie the Pooh “doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”
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