Don’t let a chronic case of the Mondays bring down your entire life.
Have you ever felt that each week is more of the same? You make it through Monday to Thursday. Finally, it’s Friday! But suddenly it’s Monday again. How did that happen? The weeks run like torturous deja vu.
Or perhaps it feels like every day is worse than the last. The same breakfast, the same commute, the same crabby coworker. And even the weekends are starting to seem as bland as plain, congealed oatmeal.
It’s not that things are bad. The response to “How are you?” is “Oh, I really can’t complain.” How do we cope with this perpetual, mild dissatisfaction? Nothing’s really wrong. Or is it?
This listlessness has a name: ennui (pronounced: On-We). It’s an emotional state of overcast, the kind that threatens of rain for days on end, but fails to provide the relief of a downpour. It just goes on being overcast. After the overcast becomes “normal”, you occasionally find yourself nagged by memories of last summer, as in Didn’t we once have bright blue skies and sun?
I say “nagged” by memories, because upon remembering those times when life was bright and exciting, we start feeling like there’s something to be done about the feeling. We say, “I need a vacation.” Or, mistaking the heavy weight of ennui for stress, we dutifully practice self-care and cancel plans, take a sick-day, and check out of activities. Maybe we look to shopping, drinking, and relationships for a short-lived hit of dopamine.
The word “ennui” comes from the French word for annoyance, but this is a bit of a misnomer. Ennui isn’t just annoyance; it can be quite emotionally painful, partly because it’s a perspective that robs us of the anticipation of pleasure. Personally, the worst aspect of ennui is that it makes feeling gratitude incredibly difficult. In fact, we can’t help dreaming that things – anything, for Pete’s sake! – is different. Without gratitude, interactions with the world and other people become mechanical and devoid of meaning. The danger of ennui lies in the compounding effects of emotional pain, spirit-crushing banality, and inability to be grateful. If we aren’t careful, ennui can transform rapidly into despair.
What’s the solution for ennui?
We can find both good and bad news in the fact that the human psyche hasn’t changed much in 2500 years. Although we’re collectively no closer to eliminating ennui as part of the human condition – pills don’t help – philosophers have recognized ennui and devised practices to relieve it. Full disclosure: no fix is quick. Relieving ennui takes as long as its development. However, if you commit to the following Cheerfulness Practice, you’ll have an effective tool in your mental toolbox for life!
The simple description of ennui as boredom or listlessness gives no indication of how to remedy it. (This is clear, since we’ve already recognized that vacations, booze, and shopping don’t provide any lasting relief!) A functional definition, I think, can help:
Ennui is a mental state that permits happiness to pass us by; ennui is not caused by circumstances, but instead by blindness to the opportunities that surround us for happiness and pleasure.
Given the new definition, the medicine becomes clear: take notice of the good things around you. The Cheerfulness Practice described below has only two components and they’re easy to do.
Every evening, write down at least five things that you could appreciate. They can be as inconsequential as you like, as long as you feel even the tiniest bit of appreciation for them. Begin to relieve ennui by becoming open to opportunities for positivity. Examples include:
- conversations, people, or other social interactions that were at all enjoyable
- food that tasted good or nourished your body
- warm socks, a comfortable bed, a warm drink
- brief moments of sun peeking between the clouds
- anticipated happiness – vacations you could take one day or places in the world you could visit
2. Speak happy
During the day, start to talk to yourself in order to affirm your cheerfulness. Speak out loud, if possible. Say:
- I like this!
- This feels good!
Notice and, at any and every opportunity, affirm positivity.
- If you taste something good, say “This tastes good.”
- If you smell something yummy, say “This smells delicious.”
- If you hear a song you like, say “This song makes me feel great!”
- If you have a nice time with someone, say “I enjoyed talking with you.”
- If you see a cute dog, say “What a cute dog!”
Don’t let pleasantness pass you by. Become open to all possibilities for enjoyment, excitement, anticipation, and happiness in everyday life. At first, it might feel cheesy or sickeningly fake – but keep at it for a while. The payoff from this practice is too great, and a life of ennui is no life at all. Your mindset can create authentic happiness – it’s actually the only source of your happiness.
With the practice of cheerfulness, you strengthen the muscle that allows you to feel as if the sun is shining on you every day. Banish the overcast of ennui. Ennui? – No way!
- Have you ever felt ennui?
- Did you recognize it, or mistake it for something else?
- What are your own symptoms of ennui?
- How have you tried to relieve ennui? Were you successful?
- Do you think animals ever feel ennui?
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