Life, much like that questionable tuna salad at the office potluck, is a strange mix of flavors. We have many different feelings, many different emotions. Some are nicer than others — and some we complain about a lot. Like boredom, frustration, and impatience.
Well, I’ve got news for you: none of those three are bad things. You’re shooting the messenger. It’s an emotional friendly fire incident.
In fact, boredom, frustration, and impatience are downright good for you. Yeah, I said it.
They aren’t obstacles to a good life; they’re your guides to a good life. They help us find our path, they motivate us, and they give us hope. Instead of avoiding them, fighting them, or suppressing them, we just need to listen to them — and maybe steer them a bit.
Confused? Well, that means you’re about to learn something…
This time we’ll be drawing insight from Andreas Elpidorou’s excellent book “Propelled.” And we’re going to learn why boredom, frustration, and impatience – three things you have never ever felt while reading my blog – are wonderful.
Okay, let’s get to it…
Many people dream of visiting outer space, of being an astronaut. Could anything be more exciting than that?
Actually, yes. Because you know what some astronauts have to say about space travel? It can be kinda boring. Gene Cernan, an Apollo 17 astronaut said, “Funny thing happened on the way to the moon: not much.” And he’s not the only one. Astronaut Norman Thagard said, “Even though it’s space flight and all of that, you still get bored.” NASA even published a report that mentioned boredom as one of the primary problems faced during space travel.
Seems there’s no escaping it. Boredom: the all-consuming, soul-sucking vacuum of the human condition. It’s like the flu — but for your entire existence. So what’s the deal with boredom?
We misunderstand it. Research shows boredom is actually a regulatory emotion, similar to pain. It’s the blinking warning light on the dashboard of our lives, signaling that it might be time to try something new. It’s insufferable, but just like pain, the point is to inspire you to come up with new ways to avoid it.
Boredom is a drive, a motivator to make sure you’re doing things in line with your goals. It’s there to make sure you’re spending your time well, that what you’re doing is interesting and meaningful. Boredom says, “Are you sure this is what you should be doing with your life?”
Now sometimes it’s a false alarm and we need to keep at whatever we’re working on. (That’s certainly true for astronauts.) And during those moments we have to put in some effort to find the meaning in what we’re doing.
Many people have hobbies you couldn’t pay me to do. For some, gardening is relaxing; for others it’s a chore. Some people find fixing a computer to be drudgery; for others it’s the grandest of puzzles. It’s subjective. We all do “boring” stuff but when we find meaning in it, it’s a delight.
Having a faux tea party with the family dog might be boring on the surface but making your child happy is meaningful. Filling out spreadsheets can be excruciating but providing for your family can give you a sense of fulfillment. We need to step back, get some distance and see the bigger picture. May sound like a gimmick but it’s not. Hospital janitors who saw themselves as people who cleaned up messes were unhappy. Those who saw themselves as “part of the team that helped sick people get better” found fulfillment.
Boredom makes us ask if we’re doing the right thing. If we realize what we’re doing is meaningful, the discomfort disappears faster than your dignity at a karaoke night. And if what we’re doing isn’t fulfilling, boredom tells us it’s time for a change. Either way, boredom is there to help.
But what about when we’re not bored? We’re engaged, but we’re meeting resistance. This feels awful too. But there’s another way to look at it…
Ah, frustration, the emotional equivalent of stepping in a puddle of water while wearing socks. You’re consumed by a cloud of soul-churning vexation. It takes all the self-control you have to keep from going full Kermit-flailing-arm-panic-mode.
Sometimes frustration makes us quit what we’re doing — but that’s not the most common response. Often, it makes us double down. We try harder. Research shows that frustration doesn’t reduce the value of a goal; it increases it. Odd response, right?
Consider the maddening allure of video games or puzzles: the more we’re thwarted, the more we desire victory. Now I didn’t say it was pleasurable. And when neuroscientists studied frustrated brains in an fMRI, they noticed the areas associated with pain lit up. But it wasn’t merely pain. The researchers wrote: “the feeling of frustration, more than cool reasoning, might be a trigger for changing behavior.”
Frustration is a motivator. It propels you to win. You think a picture of a sunset and a sentence about “believing in yourself” is going to magically transform you into a highly motivated, goal-smashing machine? Please. But frustration sure does the trick.
Frustration is a great driver but not always great at steering. It can make us aggressive and angry. We need to notice it but not get carried away. We need to channel that energy. Here’s the secret…
Work by psychologist Nicholas Pastore shows we fly off the handle when we feel frustration is “unjustified” — when we feel it happened for no good reason. But that’s all about the narrative in your head. If you tell yourself “THIS SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING!”, you’re going to get furious.
So don’t get furious; get curious. Hmm, why did that occur? Like the frustrating video game that keeps you playing, see the unexpected result as a challenge, not a threat. It’s not a catastrophe; it’s a plot twist in the movie of your life. A puzzle to be solved. Now you’re steering the frustration. You get the motivation boost without the anger.
And now we have the third “negative” emotion we need to contend with. Want me to tell you what it is? Want to know? Are you ready? Sure you’re ready? Can’t wait any longer to hear it…?
Another curse of modern life. We want everything yesterday. Impatience is the emotional kidney stone we just can’t seem to pass. It makes Guantanamo look like a Sandals resort.
The secret here? Reframe impatience into anticipation.
The two are very similar but impatience has an air of entitlement. You deserve it now. Meanwhile anticipation is its kinder, gentler cousin. More like a kid on Christmas Eve.
While impatience makes us irritated, the research shows there are numerous benefits to anticipation. The positive feelings from anticipation are so powerful it actually beats getting the thing you want. All told, looking forward to the vacation makes you happier than being on vacation. Not only that, but anticipation predicted better enjoyment of vacations. If you aren’t eager to get on the road – it’s probably not going to be that great a trip for you.
Still feel like it’s a stretch to reframe impatience as anticipation? Fair enough. But consider the alternative: having nothing to look forward to. You really, really do not want that. In fact, it’s strongly correlated with depression.
We need more things to look forward to. To be impatient about. To anticipate. It makes us happier. It gives us hope. Yes, hope – that brilliant, shining beacon of light that flickers at the end of a tunnel, like a firefly that’s had one too many energy drinks.
Okay, we’ve covered a lot. Let’s round it all up and learn how all these annoying little things come together into one big annoying thing — that can lead to an awesome life…
This is how to overcome boredom, frustration, and impatience:
So what’s your vision of the perfect life? Skipping through a meadow wearing a flower crown? Doing Scrooge McDuck dives into piles of gold coins?
I can’t read your mind but I’m guessing whatever you replied with is missing something: difficulty.
Don’t look at me like that. Think about it for a second. Would you watch a movie with no conflict? Play a video game with no conflict? Ugh, that’s boring. Hard pass, thanks.
Still think I’m crazy? Let’s talk neuroscience. Your nervous system thrives on contrast. Anything — good or bad — that goes on for too long, we adapt to it. After enough continuous exposure, good ceases to be good. Neurobiologist Indira Raman says, “Because the brain grades on a curve, endlessly comparing the present with what came just before, the secret to happiness may be unhappiness. Not unmitigated unhappiness, but the transient chill that lets us feel warmth, the sensation of hunger that makes satiety so welcome, the period of near-despair that catapults us into the astonishing experience of triumph.”
Yeah, kinda feels like we’re being punked by evolution but a truly good life requires difficulty. What makes life worth living is usually the most difficult things. You want to achieve, improve and grow, none of which are possible without resistance. You can’t rise to the occasion if there is no occasion.
So when considering your dream life, you need to think about what difficulties you want – what challenges you want. Maybe that’s the last thing you want to hear. For some people that’s scarier than a toddler wielding a permanent marker. Hey, I don’t instinctively want my life to be more difficult either. (Every morning I’m slapping the snooze button like it owes me money.)
But nobody’s dream life is a dull existence of bovine equanimity. We want our lives to keep improving and that doesn’t happen without challenge. A little boredom, a little frustration, a little impatience, they make the achievement that much better. Challenge is like kale; you can’t deny it’s good for you, but it’s often hard to swallow.
Appreciate those “negative” feelings like boredom, frustration, and impatience. They’re not a sucker punch from life. They have something to tell you and they’re trying to help:
Accept these feelings and steer that energy in a direction that’s meaningful, toward a better life, a better you. Suddenly you’re evolving more quickly than a Darwinian finch.
Right now might not feel great, but pick good challenges and your life can come back from the dead.
You’re not a dumpster fire. You’re a multidimensional dumpster phoenix.