Bored to death? It’s a sign that you thirst for Growth

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The mind is the root from which all things grow; if you can understand the mind, everything else is included.

~Bodhidharma

Everybody feels bored from time to time. It is very normal because it’s just an indication of our brain’s need for stimulation. It’s just like when a person exhibits symptoms of an illness and the doctor prescribes medicine to cure it. In this case, boredom is the symptom and one must find a way to stimulate the brain.

There are a lot of ways to cure boredom. But, any activity that does so can be rated on two parameters – Growth & Distraction. An activity has to rate highly on both for it to be a good stimulation. If an activity is purely growth oriented, something like attending lectures in college, well, we all know what happens. In the long term, it might be good, but it isn’t able to hold our interest and we tend to go to sleep. Similarly, if the activity is pure distraction, like checking Facebook every spare moment, it doesn’t reach the amount of stimulation needed for the brain. But, it does provide variety. Something that holds our interest and is different from the mundane. It only serves to stimulate the brain in short bursts and lacks real growth potential.

I talk about this because I thought I used to get bored during college, but there one can always find something to do. Even if it is just doing laundry. I got introduced to real boredom at my job. There are days when I have nothing to do. I just have to show up, stay there for 8+ hours, and leave. I also found out that I wasn’t the only one who’s suffering these forced bouts of boredom. I keep hearing from my friends how they spend their time chatting on Facebook, playing Candy Crush Saga, gossiping in the cafeteria etc. Over time I realized that I just can’t go on living like this. Distracting myself every time boredom struck. Distraction isn’t growth, and without growth there is no life.

Extended periods of boredom can lead to frustration. A feeling that I had been feeling at my regular job for the past year and half. Experiencing frustration can make distractions really addictive. They provide the surety of always being available and the variety of being different from what is causing frustration. Also, I observed that every slight thing that didn’t go my way felt like a personal affront, especially if it happened at the workplace. In hindsight, I can tell you that the experience of surrounding myself with negativity was not a pleasant experience. So, even though I knew that it wasn’t helping, I felt justified in taking a break from reality by distracting myself. Drinking with friends always ended up with all of us criticizing our bosses; cafeteria gatherings became gossip sessions; movies, TV, video games, and social networking became the preferred way to escape after returning from work as well as during weekends.

Towards the end of that period, denied any growth, frustration decayed into something worse – desperation. Desperation can make people take decisions they normally wouldn’t. And, when the source of desperation is one’s work the decisions can be life altering. Decisions like choosing to do an master’s degree, which by itself is not bad. However, if the reason behind the decision is only to escape from an unsatisfying job, it will eventually lead to more pain and unhappiness. Or, giving in to the parental pressure to marry because you feel that there is something wrong in your life and that things will settle down to normal after marriage. Fortunately, I escaped making any such decision. However, I have been to the edge of desperation and have come back with a lesson learnt the hard way. Do not let your boredom dwindle into frustration, or worse desperation. When you feel that you regularly start feeling lost and experience bouts of restlessness or lethargy, it is a signal that your need for growth is making its presence felt. It is up to you to find ways to satisfy this need. Here is what helped me get out the dumps.

Know yourself

Neither your parents nor close friends can tell you what truly makes you happy. Even you might miss it in your busy life. Pay attention to what activities you enjoy, what you are good at, when time seems to fly while you are doing something. Keep a note of all such activities. An easy way to do this is to see what you on most weekends.

Learn Constantly

One of the easiest ways to keep the brain occupied is to learn. It doesn’t always have to be productive, but it must be enjoyable yet involve some challenge. Maybe you like learning a language, maybe you like watching documentaries, maybe you would like to learn kung-fu. Whatever catches your fancy is fine, as long as you consciously make time for it.

Be Creative

Learning is fine, and the next natural step is creation. Put your learning to use. It will give you a sense of great accomplishment. For e.g., if you enjoy watching food & cooking related shows, you could go out and film a local street food vendor. Or, if you like reading and researching gadgets, you can start reviewing them on your blog. Your creation might not turn out to be good in the beginning, but you should have fun doing it.

Contribute

No matter who you are and what activity you pick, you will find a few other people doing it as well. It is not all difficult to find online communities where people have discussions over common interests. The best sense of fulfillment comes from contributing to these communities. People acknowledging your contribution is the best form of motivation for you to keep on giving.

Don’t Give Up

People usually fall into the trap of “I don’t feel like it”. Once you have chosen to do something you must schedule it for a period of time. It’s like making a habit of regular exercise or meditation. Some days it feels good and some days are dull. To form the habit you must do it regularly for at least a month. If it doesn’t feel good to be doing it after that period, you can drop it. For help on habit formation check out this website.

I can only say that each one of us has the freedom to choose a way to satisfy the need for growth. Boredom, frustration, and even desperation can be overcome by choosing what feels right. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else except you. I do get bored occasionally but I know ways to get over it now – mostly reading blogs or writing for my own. What about you? Are you ready to acknowledge your need for growth? Or will you let distractions drag you down to the depths of despair?

 PS – This is the video that inspired this post. Hope you enjoy it.

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Don’t try to control your anger; only try to let it wash over you

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Generally speaking, if a human being never shows anger, then I think something is wrong. He’s not right in the brain.

~Dalai Lama

The emotion of anger has earned a bad reputation, when the real problem are the actions that come from a place of anger, and their consequences. What makes it even more undesirable as an emotion is the fact that it is one emotion that we find extremely difficult to get rid of. It just sticks with you. It lies latent and buried but suddenly a very subtle trigger can cause you to burst out, even after you thought you had it under control. Then comes all the guilt, regret, and the whole package deal that anger brings with it. I experienced it first hand this week and the incident got me thinking.

An issue came up at work that had been a point of ongoing conflict between me and my seniors. At one point the ‘other guy‘ got angry. He is from a  different culture where anger as an emotion is hardly ever displayed. Just the fact that it came to the surface means a regular person would have been seething with rage in the situation. Just before he delivered an outburst in his angry tone and stormed off, I observed his behavior. I saw that he turned away from me partially, closed his eyes for a moment, and his lips quivered before he turned around to show his anger. All the while his body was pointing away from me. Basically, I saw the anger coming. What I did though was stood there and took it. No retaliation, no display of emotion, and a decision of going to him later in the day to discuss things when he had calmed down. I am damn proud of my behavior. But, a surprising thing happened. My physiological state was the complete opposite of my mental state. For several minutes after the incident, I noticed a slight shaking in my hands and legs, and an increased pulse rate. Even though I was mentally calm and had let the anger wash over me, my body was displaying all the symptoms of being angry. It was really intriguing.

This lead me to the thought that perhaps the emotion of anger is more deeply embedded in us. Even deeper than just the conscious level. It is as if our bodies are programmed to respond to certain situations in certain ways, and the default reaction to a display of anger seems to be anger itself. I was reading Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell, at that time in which the author talks about unconscious associations and snap judgments. Consequently, it occurs to me that perhaps my body’s reaction to the situation had already been activated before I consciously became aware of the fact that the other person was angry. Now that I think about it, it is perfectly plausible that my pulse rate had already escalated before I became aware of it. It was as if my body had defaulted to the state of anger, triggered by the other person’s display of anger, which had been picked up by my subconscious brain . The fact that the after effects lasted much longer inspite of my awareness points to the fact that anger stems from a very primitive part of the brain. One that is beyond the control of the conscious one.

This line of thought lead me to recall what I had read in the book Emotional Intelligence, by Daniel Goleman. There is one automatic response to external stimuli that is programmed into all animals, including humans, which ensures their survival. It is termed as the fight-or-flight response. The theory is that whenever a creature faces an unknown or adverse situation a very primal part of the brain takes over control from the regular brain functions. In return the responses to any change in the situation or environment become much faster than they normally would be. So, the fight-or-flight response basically hands over body functions control to a primitive but faster part of the brain and puts the body in readiness to either fighting for survival or running away from the danger. Common symptoms of this response are increased heart and pulse rate, release of adrenalin in the body which causes the limbs to shake, and a narrowing of mental focus manifested in tunnel vision etc. Put in this context, anger seems to stem from the fight-or-flight response, and I suspect it is the fight response that takes over when we are faced by a display of anger. In other words, anger is a very powerful emotion because it stems from a very primal part of our brain that has been programmed to ensure our survival. Its power and infamy also come from the fact that it short circuits our normal thinking capabilities and is a precursor to defensive action. At an extreme it could end up as violence as I am sure you see on the news everyday. More common (thankfully) are the raised voices, quarrels, hurt feelings, and injured egos that all of us experience from time to time.

Obviously, trying to reprogram a code that was written over millenia of evolution is an extremely difficult task. So, it would be futile for us to try and subdue the emotion of anger so that we never feel angry again. However, we have got highly evolved brains that are capable of interrupting our actions in the time gap between stimulus and response. In controlling our physical actions we severely limit the ill effect that displays of anger can have. It is not an easy task in any way, but there are a few basic things that I have found to be of help.

  • Awareness
    However corny it might sound, try keeping a track of your anger. After you have vented your anger mark down the date in your calender with a black star or some other symbol. As you progress, you can start writing what triggered it or what you felt. Trust me, building up awareness will help your conscious brain to catch up with your unconscious brain in recognizing anger and acting automatically. Then you can let your conscious brain take the decisions in those moments of duress.
  • Gratitude
    I can tell you from personal experience that if you cultivate the habit of being grateful even for the small things in life, you will be a much happier and calmer person, not to mention you won’t get angry as easily. It is like when boiling water is poured into a glass of cold water it doesn’t remain so hot anymore. By cultivating gratitude you will be able to increase your trigger level for anger.

  • Breathing
    No brainer, right? I am not even talking about mediation (although that can help to bring about a state of mental calm), just simple deep breaths. Practice deep breathing regularly so that whenever you feel negative emotions rise, your first automatic reaction should be deep breathing. The least it will do is to give you a pause between stimulus and response, which you can now choose consciously.

There may be various other ways and tricks to counteract anger but they will work only if you practice doing them. Just being aware and knowing the steps is like having a blue print of a building. Actual construction is whole different ball game. I am glad that I got the opportunity to explore my own emotions due this incident and was able to share it with you. I hope I can train myself to not let my anger control my actions. Do let me know in the comments if you have been successful in controlling your anger and how you did it.