If your days feel like they're on repeat
stop buying the meal, and finally become the chef.
You’ve been able to sketch a pretty good life for yourself so far. All the major shapes are right there on the page. But things seem to be looking flat. Maybe even—colorless?
This is a bland, yet comfortable, mode of living. Like eating unseasoned chicken breast and potatoes for every meal. Sure it satiates you—and I guess it will keep you alive—but you’re definitely not asking for seconds. You’re not eagerly awaiting the new day, excited by the colorful flavors you get to experience.
Today, we’re given a chance to paint. To add some color to a monochrome life. Yet many of us skirt this opportunity. Instead, we kick up our feet after a hard days work. That extra time, after clocking out each evening, has the potential to contribute a final lip smacking quality to our lives.
Leisure adds immeasurable purpose to our days. But the sad reality is, for years, I was approaching leisure in completely the wrong way. If you’ve ever felt like your life was on a dull, tight, repetitive loop—I might have found out why.
What kind of drugs are you on?
“I think that life for humans has always been hard, but now it's harder in unprecedented ways.” say Dr. Anna Lembke. “The way that life is really hard now is that—it’s actually really boring.”
In her research at Stanford, Dr. Lembke noticed that we’re all facing a new tension. As we’ve become more productive—and more affluent as a whole—we’ve unlocked unprecedented amounts of free time. And yet, with this free time, we’re paradoxically not very bored. “Boredom is a rare experience for modern humans.” she says, “because we're constantly distracting ourselves and have an infinite number of ways to do that.”
In a recent podcast, she explains how engineered leisure activities—like video games—satisfy our boredom through the same mechanisms that hardcore opioids do. Now, I was skeptical of the comparison at first, but it seems appropriate considering that both manipulate our brain chemistry in exactly the same way. These types of euphoric leisure activities have no naturally occurring equal. Nothing can compare, and that’s a big problem.
Life is all about contrasts and comparisons. So when comparing daily life to these highly dopaminergic leisure activities (like video games, porn, social media, and gambling) our perception of reality is radically altered. Even after we’ve logged off, nothing else glitters quite as brightly.
Why life sometimes feels underwhelming
At Michelin starred restaurants—which sometimes serve dozens of courses in succession—they use a trick that most of us home cooks don’t know. As they bring out dish after dish, the chef adds progressively more salt to the plate. They do this because our sense of taste is adaptive.
Your very first bite of a meal is a blank canvas. With a fresh palate, you’ll be able to pick up on even the slightest amount of seasoning. But that next course needs progressively more salt for your brain to register it. This adaptive ratcheting up is exactly how our need for excitement, passion, and thrill work.
Which reveals why spending time consuming exquisitely engineered entertainment can screw up our perceptions of the world around us.
How are you supposed to feel excited cooking dinner with your spouse, after spending all day mentally skydiving? How are you supposed to be captivated by your son’s first steps, after spending hours at a cognitive monster truck rally? You can’t. These forms of leisure shine so brightly, that they tarnish the luster of all our other daily experiences.
So when we ultimately break free from their embrace, life feels a bit more trivial. If you’ve ever felt like your days are just a repetitive succession of the same boring shit, this is probably why.
Getting back to baseline happiness
So before adding any new color to our lives, we must first reset our baseline. Getting back to that first unsalted bite, however, is no trivial feat.
Right now I’m working on breaking my unconscious pull towards social media. I’ve blocked it on my phone completely, making use of a program called Freedom.to. I’ve also blocked it on my computer from 5am-2pm. This shields my most productive hours from my more animalistic impulses. But I’m not gonna lie, on most days at 2:01 pm I’m right back at it, getting a hit of the good stuff.
With each new day, the allure of social media wanes ever so slightly. Every other week I bump back my block time, to later in the day. But it’s an ongoing struggle to get back to baseline.
Leisure beyond consumption
“Our society assigns us a tiny number of roles: We're producers of one thing at work, consumers of a great many things all the rest of the time” says Michael Pollan, author of Cooked.
He argues that, as we become more specialized at work, we eliminate the need for creative leisure activities—like cooking. With each extra dollar made, we offload more of our lives to economies of scale. If someone can make bibimbap better than me, and at a lower cost, it would be stupid to attempt making it myself. Instead I should just order it from them on DoorDash—right? This type of thinking, while highly rational, has lead us to the conclusion that “the only legitimate form of leisure is consumption”.
So let’s say that we actually disassociate from the super-addictive versions of leisure. Now what? What do we do with the two extra hours we’ve reclaimed?
I say, we take back the portion of our lives we outsourced to efficiency. That instead of using our leisure time to passively consume, we start creating again. And in the process, expand our conception of who we are and what we’re capable of.
The purpose of make-believe
When was the last time you made a fort out of cardboard boxes? Or crafted one of those geometric snowflake cutouts? When was the last time you played pretend?
You might think playing pretend is juvenile, or a waste of time; but wasn’t Tolkien just playing pretend when he told us the story of Frodo and the Ring? Wasn’t Beethoven just daydreaming when he crafted his 5th symphony? Wasn’t Stan Lee just fantasizing about Spiderman before he sketched him on the page? Of course they were, and in doing so, they not only added a richness to their own lives, but the lives of millions of others.
Pretend, after all, is breathing life into oblivion. Creating something from nothing.
Be the thing, don’t buy the thing
The ease in which even the poorest among us, can save up $300 to dine at the best restaurant in the world, pales in comparison to the difficulty of becoming a great chef. So it’s ludicrous to suggest even attempting the latter. But that’s exactly what I’m going to do.
I’ve eaten at the best restaurant in the world. It was magic. But I’ve also learned how to slow roast a Korean short-rib stew called Galbi-jjim. The first gave me a great story, a fond memory, and some cool pictures. The second is a skill I can now share with anyone, at any time, in any setting. This act of creation allows me to bring joy to others in much the same way Tolkien, Beethoven, and Stan Lee did.
On a day to day, this type of leisure looks modest. It’s not thrilling in an action-packed kind of way. Instead, it’s more akin to watching the slow rise of a sourdough in the oven. An unhurried process, where the smell of tangy anticipation fills the air. Not the smell of instant gratification, but rather, of delayed purpose.
By using our leisure time to create, rather than consume, we can colorize even our dullest days.
Wrestling this time back for ourselves won’t be easy, and we’ll regularly be seduced by the allure of alternatives. But the fruits of our labor are far more profound than that of any consumptive experience. After an eighteen hour binge of Bridgerton, we’ll likely remain unchanged. But after eighteen hours of baking, we might consider calling ourselves a baker. After eighteen hours of surfing, a surfer. After eighteen hours of creating, a creator.
PS. If you’ve made it all the way down here and don’t feel that you’ve just wasted five minutes, consider hitting the like button on this essay.
It helps others find it. And it makes me happy.