The most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further, and say that in the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from the one, we approach the other.

Life presents, in fact, a more or less violent oscillation between the two.

— Arthur Schopenhauer, The Wisdom of Life (1851)

I read the first chapter of The Wisdom of Life, by Arthur Schopenhauer, in 2015.

It reminded me of when I learned that there are two reasons people laugh (surprise & superiority).

The process is familiar to me now: I read something interesting (like the opening quote). It marinates for a few years, mostly non-consciously. The idea starts to come into focus and I will be in situations where it could apply. In those situations, I will ask, is it true?

Over time, I get increasingly clear views on it and it goes from something I know to something that is useful.

I am lucky. Through a combination of nature and nurture, I generally have a positive disposition and have had few reasons for any sustained unhappiness in my life. Most of what I talk about below is temporary for me and hopefully temporary for you.

If, after reading, you said that I ignored clinical psychological disorders and/or cannot relate to them, I would immediately agree with you.

Okay, Human Unhappiness

According to Schopenhauer, there are two main reasons we become unhappy: Pain and Boredom.

There is no way to permanently avoid these.

Knowledge is power, so if you feel unhappy you can label it and say, “Well, it is probably because I’m in pain or bored. Now, I can see how it fits into one of those categories and see what I can do about it.”

It is a useful shortcut to carry around in your head.

Pain & Boredom

Obviously, pain is a broad thing. There is physical pain and emotional pain. It can last moments, it can last years.

There is the physical pain from holding a plank for five minutes or breaking your wrist.

Then, there is the emotional pain from finding out someone lied to you, doing something wrong, or getting fired.

There are also things that fall somewhere in between pain and boredom, like realizing you don’t love your wife anymore.

When we solve the pain problems, we tend to get bored.

Boredom is usually the more nuanced and subtle of the two.

We traded adventure for security. Going to Whole Foods for salmon is more boring than wrestling a bear or spearfishing hogs in the Bahamas.

Comparatively, life is too easy.

In my apartment, I can notice the difference between 70 and 71 degrees. If it is too cold, I’m not outside cutting down trees to make a fire, I’m pressing a button.

Once we have everything we need, we start needing something to want.

If the algorithm was, “Oh, just be happy all the time,” then you would not be motivated to go find food, water, or sex. You would sit there, happy as can be, then die of starvation. So, that’s one reason we are wired to “create problems.” Our brain is always in some form of survival mode.

It sounds goofy the first time someone hears that because why would you want to create problems? You can already guess. The answer is: usually a form of boredom.

In other words, we create problems because we need challenges. They give us purpose.

Arguably, anything that is not a health problem is not a real problem. Think Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Anything above the basic needs feels like a real issue, but the moment you find out you have a serious health problem, any other problem instantly shrinks in comparison.

The main problems in developed countries are social problems. It is people competing for status and higher qualities of life, but those are mostly sophisticated games.

There is no person with a level of success, or whatever, that is walking around with a permanent smile plastered to their face because we inevitably create new problems or they come to us in the form of pain or boredom.

As Schopenhauer tells us 170 years ago, the more money you have, the more likely you have boredom problems. Unless you neglect your health, in which case they become pain problems.

So, despite all the positive thinking, good vibes, and energy, being unhappy sometimes is part of the human condition.

My contrarian view: That is okay.

I will go further and say I find this tremendously relieving.

By acknowledging that permanent happiness is unattainable, it makes me happier knowing that if something sucks for a while, that is okay.

Being unhappy is not fun, so we get nervous about being unhappy. Sometimes, being afraid of pain and boredom is as bad as actual pain and boredom.

The reason this is an important acknowledgement is because happiness & unhappiness are feedback loops.

When I’m happy, people around me are happy, they may even do a favor for me, which will make me even happier.

When I’m unhappy, people around me will want to stop being around me, and they will unlikely feel like doing any favors for me.

This can be a scary thought if you are sad, and it makes sense why people get nervous about being unhappy.

Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan, gave a Harvard commencement speech in 2009.

He said, “It’s okay to get depressed, it’s okay to cry, it’s okay to go home, it’s okay to blame others…for a while. But eventually, you have to get over it and move on.”

I love this because it is disarming and permissive.

Sure! Go ahead and be miserable, listen to sad songs, take a jacuzzi in your tears.

Do whatever you need to do. BUT, eventually, need to come out of it.

What do we do about all of this?

To me, the big news is the knowledge of the spectrum which gives me a form of acceptance.

Essentially, I assume that the less pain I have in my life, the more boredom I am likely to have and vice versa.

I will do a separate post on hedging your life, but when things are great, no one really cares unless they directly benefit or are particularly supportive. Regardless, the person does not get the same pleasure from it as me, so it makes sense.

People start getting interested when things are going badly.

So, I often say to friends: The worse it is for you, the better the story.

It Would Be Rude to Ignore the Solutions.

Vice came out with an essay that sums it up nicely: Pain is an alert signal. Boredom is a call to action.

Happiness isn’t something you get by pursuing it directly. It is what is left over after doing other things.

I use a little business metaphor. A business cannot chase profits directly. It tries to maximize revenue and minimize expenses. If it does that well, what is left is a profit. Happiness is your profit, or what’s left over, from things you do.

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell came out with his own book on the subject, The Conquest of Happiness, in 1930. Here is a quick summary.

Schopenhauer and Russell have similar views. They just use different words.

To summarize Russell’s, it is: Have a “zest” for life. “Let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

Paraphrasing Schopenhauer, he believes that intellectual dullness is one of the primary contributing factors to boredom. People that are always chasing excitement because otherwise they would have nothing to think or talk about are most susceptible to boredom.

Therefore, the best way to combat boredom is to have “inward wealth, the inward wealth of the mind.” This is another way of saying: Be curious and have a zest for life.

If you are curious and you grow your interests, your mind will grow. When your mind is invigorated, there is no room for boredom.

See also:

Thanks to James Bunch and Suzanna Wood for reading drafts of this.

One comment on “The Two Causes of Human Unhappiness

  • Deep Work & Deep Distraction – extra guac

    […] is usually a desire to escape discomfort, often boredom or pain, like anxiety or being tired (see The Two Causes of Human Unhappiness). Technology (increasingly) offers a fast […]

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