Have you ever had a really busy schedule — lots of responsibilities, lots of deadlines, lots of stress — and you felt desperate for a break? But then, for whatever reason — tasks came to a natural end; you got laid off — you found yourself with exactly what you had so keenly desired: an ocean of free time. You had nothing really to do.
At first, it probably felt fantastic. You luxuriated in inactivity.
But after awhile, maybe a couple weeks, or a month, the freshness of unadulterated leisure likely started to turn stale. You felt restless, unmoored, depressed. You began to yearn to reengage with work; responsibilities looked not onerous, but desirable.
This experience is part of a cycle innate to human nature: the dueling set of impulses that ever oscillate between the desire to escape from all burdens and work, and the desire to engage with labor and struggle.
We hate to suffer; we love to suffer.
We simultaneously cry out: “Release me!” and “More challenge!”
The latter is the subtler, but truer instinct. While we often think we are unhappy because we have too many things to do, the problem in fact is that we typically don’t have enough.
At least of the right kind.
The Tension of Tensionlessness
When famous psychiatrist Viktor Frankl was taken to Auschwitz, a manuscript for a book he had been working on was confiscated. He spent his days in the concentration camp trying to rewrite it in his head, and jotting down thoughts on scraps of paper whenever available, so that, should he live to be liberated, he could create the manuscript anew. Rather than facing each day with nothing to think about but the horrors of the camp and the vacancy of mere suffering, Frankl engaged in a task that gave him a sense of purpose and ultimately, he believed, helped him survive both the physical and mental horrors of confinement.
After he was liberated, the experience informed Frankl’s psychological philosophy, as he laid out in Man’s Search for Meaning:
“Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become. Such a tension is inherent in the human being and therefore is indispensable to mental well-being. We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium…a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him…
If architects want to strengthen a decrepit arch, they increase the load which is laid upon it, for thereby the parts are joined more firmly together.”
Frankl’s philosophy may sound a little counterintuitive, or seem to contradict your lived experience.
Even if we’ve had the experience described in the introduction — where unmitigated leisure actually led not to happiness, but an anxious malaise — still we usually go on desiring such a tensionless state anyway. We yearn to slip the noose of responsibilities and return to Eden. Then, we feel, we’d finally be happy.
Certainly, such a paradisiacal state often seems far preferable to our current reality. The burden of everyday responsibilities seems not to add strength and happiness to our lives, but to merely crush out our joy.
Why then would we seek to put even more weight on the arch of our psyches?
How can Frankl contend that mental health is premised on increasing the load? Doesn’t it seem as if stress is the cause, rather than the antidote, to angst and depression?
It depends on the source of the stress.
The operative phrases in Frankl’s argument are “worthwhile goals” and “freely chosen.”
Most of the burdens and tensions of our lives meet neither of those criteria. They consist of responsibilities inherent to surviving adulthood, tasks foisted upon on by bosses, and chores that were formerly done by paid employees but which corporations have outsourced to the consumer. That is, “shadow work.”
Despite of all this seeming weight, a certain part of ourselves remains unmoored. We don’t lack for tasks, but we do lack meaningful ones. We haven’t made any goals since college. We don’t experience the tension that emerges in “the gap between what one is and what one should become,” because the gap simply doesn’t exist – at a certain point we stopped aiming for anything above paying the bills and checking off to-dos.
We think we want rest and relaxation – the absence of all labor and responsibility – but what we really crave is the presence of meaningful work and interests. We don’t want a complete lack of tension, but a different variety of it.
We don’t need less stress, but more of the right kind.
Shouldering the Load
There are two ways to develop a greater degree of healthy tension in your life.
The first is set goals and seek richer activities – especially ones that contrast with the sources of your non-strengthening stress. If you work a meaningless job, you seek a meaningful hobby (or side hustle). If you’re afloat from constantly working in the realm of the digital, you try to learn a skill in the tactile. If you feel isolated by technology, you challenge yourself to make deeper relationships in the flesh.
A man should never stop setting new goals, and wanting to become a better version of himself, regardless of his age.
Second, you can seek to find a greater “why” in the tasks you’ve already taken on. Many men already have the kind of responsibilities that could be providing healthy weight to the arch of their mental health, but they’ve never imbued the role with a sense of purpose, or have forgotten its purpose over time. Thus, though it could be a source of meaning for them, they instead constantly desire to be released from it.
For example, I sometimes wonder if Jon Stewart is any happier now that he’s no longer the host of The Daily Show. His reason for leaving basically came down to the fact he could no longer muster sufficient enthusiasm to perform the job as well as he would have liked. But has renouncing the job altogether led to greater satisfaction? Or, after enjoying a few weeks of sweet relief, did he start wishing he was back in the host’s chair, and back in position as a cultural influencer? If the latter, might it have been better, instead of seeking release from what had begun to feel like a burden, to find a way to recapture the job’s sense of meaning and purpose?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, but the theoretical dynamic certainly applies to all the rest of us. We often yearn to throw off a weight that could in fact be a source of strength to us if we could manage to discover, or recover, a deeper “why” behind it.
The problem typically isn’t the load itself, but how we’re carrying it.
Weight Builds on Itself
“The more we do, the more we can do; the more busy we are the more leisure we have.” –William Hazlitt
The paradoxical thing about adding a greater load to the arch of your life, is that in striving to do more meaningful work, you find that you’re even more productive than when you had less to do. Even though you objectively have less time, you get more done.
We often think what we need to accomplish our goals is a lighter schedule. But when we give ourselves more time and space, we find we do even less than before! We have a wide open day, but can’t seem to get going on anything.
In the absence of a sufficient load on the arch, we fall apart.
Given enough weight, things start to come together.
More Load on the Arch
Increasing the load on the arch of your life doesn’t necessarily always make you feel “good” – in terms of pleasure, in terms of the relaxed feeling of drinking a piña colada on the beach.
It doesn’t feel “good” when you’re squatting 400 pounds and trying to reach a new PR; it doesn’t feel good when you’re running mile 25 of a marathon; it doesn’t feel good when you’re halfway up a 20,000-foot mountain.
It doesn’t feel good when you profess your feelings for someone and get rejected; it doesn’t feel good when you’re first starting to learn to play a musical instrument; it doesn’t feel good when your startup fails.
The load from a well-stressed arch doesn’t always feel good in the moment – in the middle of a process.
But real happiness isn’t based on fluctuating feelings. Real happiness is the satisfaction you feel at the end of the day, at the end of a year, at the end of your life, as you reflect back on the fact you did something. You tried things. You put yourself out there. You lived with purpose. You kept pursuing goals. You contributed something of value to the world.
Real happiness comes when you look back over your life, and see that despite storms and setbacks, the arch still stands, and is supporting a mighty edifice above it.