My writings tend to lean towards the philosophical or theoretical— but this week I’ve decided to go in a bit of a different direction, to dedicate some words to a nuts and bolts topic, and to dispense with the theories in favor of something concrete, something tangible.
After my post last week about apathy vs. passion, a lot of guys commented that they were going through bad breakups, that their shattered relationships were causing them to feel seemingly insurmountable apathy, to lose their sense of purpose, drive, and passion, along with the ability to control their emotions. Others had no breakups, but still felt despair in their day to day lives. Still others sounded like they might have had straight up clinical depression.
All in all, I’ve noticed a lot of young men just struggling with emptiness.
I’ve been there myself. So let’s talk about it a bit. There is no shame in it.
Here are ten steps I’ve taken with great success to beat low spirits and feelings of emptiness in my own life. Please note I am not a licensed therapist and the following advice is anecdotal and based on common sense observations and my recovery from personal struggles. It is not scientific. If you are feeling suicidal or otherwise severely clinically depressed, skip straight to step number 10.
Step one) Get a Fucking Hobby.
That really is all there is to it.
Almost all anxiety and depression can be solved by, to put it really simply, picking up a hobby. I’m not trying to minimize a complex struggle, but part of becoming self-sufficient is learning that a lot time, energy, and mental space you give to pleasing other people and the validation this brings, should instead be brought back to focus on yourself. Selfish? Maybe, but selfishness is a survival mechanism.
You do this through pursuing your own interests. Letting your concern, passion, and mental space just sort of float around, waiting on other people to give you a sense of fulfillment, is a sure-fire recipe for feelings of dissatisfaction. So what you have to do is find something new. Join a rock-climbing club. Learn to cook Thai food. enter a marathon and train your balls off for it. Set a goal to read 50 books this year. Then, whatever it is, just fucking start it. Day to day you will find yourself more and more consumed by it, and you’ll wake up one day and the pain will be supplanted by your hobby.
Never make another person your hobby.
Step two) Volunteer
Volunteering has saved my life a number of times.
Times when I found myself alone in a new city, with a job I didn’t like, with few friends and an overwhelming sense of alienation, a lack of purpose. Crawling into a bottle, into video games – all of it making the hole in myself deeper and deeper.
Then, on a whim I went and just signed up for something random. Once I volunteered to write articles for a non-profit magazine. Boom, within a month I’ve formed bonds and relationships with the other people who work on the publication. They all respect me because I’m volunteering my time and energy to do something useful rather than being some random bar fly. I’m getting out there every Saturday for the magazine meetings. I’m sharpening my writing and getting to use my hobby for something interesting. I’m getting to interview dozens of people for the magazine, along with a translator provided by the magazine (this was in a foreign country btw). Now I’m involved. Now I have purpose. Now I have friends who respect me. People recognize me in the street and ask me questions. People are complimenting me on my articles. I’m an important person in the magazine. Three months pass. Now I’m the editor. Now I’m getting to give talks in the community about the magazine. People are listening to what I have to say. Now people are coming up and wanting MY TIME instead of vice versa.
All because I responded to a little card on a bulletin board somewhere.
If you can find a hobby or interest that coincides with the opportunity to volunteer, to join a club, to participate in your passion with other people around you, you are being proactive about improving your life, and on your way to some greater sense of fulfillment.
Step three) Lift and Run
I would be amiss to leave it out. Lift heavy things. Run races. Control your diet, your alcohol intake, your drug intake.
You will be happier, healthier, sexier, stronger, have more energy, etc. etc. etc.
Often the very first step to lifting a depression is getting into the gym. There is a whole subreddit about it: /R EOOD
Step Four) Travel to a Strange Place Alone
I’ve written an entire article just about this one step: It is long, so if you want to delve deeper you can read it here.
Go alone through strange country, rifle through strange records and hear the lapping of alien tongues. Let it do its odd things to you. Let it brings out what is already there in you — anger, alienation, fear – and magnify your problems, your unsuitability, the things that make you dubious to and of the rest of mankind. Let your shortcomings be marked and put on display, exhibit your faults to yourself for the first time. Enjoy the most brutal of therapies. Do it deserted and friendless. Be a stranger. Stagnate on that tropical island watching the men unload fruit, it will teach you that you are stir crazy, a restless man whose problems aren’t real, that your issues all arise like phantoms from a mind that makes it impossible to sit quietly in a hammock all day. Walk through an East Asian village, let it teach you that you have always felt like an awkward outsider who everyone really is staring at, like a person on the edge of some great warm campfire of humanity that you have never been invited into somehow. In Eastern Europe you will learn that the rest of the world doesn’t give a fuck about American, feel good, PC culture and that not everyone is equal by default. There is no one waiting at the end of it all to give you a pat on the back and a participation trophy. But dive in anyway. Baptize yourself in the reality of it all: your whole life has been a product, a fantasy, a construct, and you are a result flavored by all those things. The language you speak and the clothes you wear, even the way you walk gives you away as someone not of this place, a stranger. And yet, buried beneath the many layers of sediment there is something at your core that is inexcusably human, connected, a person that really is sitting inside that ring of light, that warm campfire with its smiles and drinks and songs, that is absolutely steeped in the universal beauty and value of mankind.
Go out and learn about the communal loneliness of the world, if you haven’t yet. It will do you good.
Step Five) Online Date with Zero Expectations
This one might be a bit controversial, but I swear by it.
We live in a time where there is pretty much no excuse for a single guy not to be meeting new women all the time, if that is what he wants (and let’s face it, that is what we are biologically programmed to want). A cold approach when you are depressed can be daunting. Thankfully, we live in a golden age for connecting with others.
However, I don’t recommend you go into it expecting anything. When you online date exclusively to try to hook up or even find a relationship, it will often frustrate the shit out of you, particularly if your game isn’t sharp. When you online date with the attitude of, “this sounds fun”, you tend to have a much better time with it. As an aside, this same advice holds true with pretty much all interaction with women it turns out.
If Tinder isn’t your thing, Meetup.com is a great way to just meet a bunch of different people who share a common interest. They even have groups that just go out to new bars every week and drink together. Whatever it is, use the internet to make new connections, meet new people, and do it with a sense of exploration.
I’m nothing special to look at and live in a medium sized city, but I remember one week having coffee with like 10 different chicks off of OK cupid. Wasn’t even trying to hook up. Was just fresh back from being abroad, newly single, and wanted to see how the landscape had changed since I’d been away. Probably spent twenty bucks. One of them invited me to a concert where she knew the band and I got to go backstage. Another one introduced me to a pretty awesome art museum in my home town I’d never even visited and educated me all about the local artists who’d painted them. Yeah, they didn’t make long term dating partners or even long term friends really, but it was just nice to know that people are out there looking for each other, if that makes sense. It beat the shit out of sitting at home alone on the computer Saturday night, that’s for damn sure. Particularly if you are suffering from oneitis, this is a great method to show yourself the pretty much endless possibilities of life as a single guy.
Step Six) Set and Crush Goals, Even if They Are Small
Dopamine controls your mood, levels of interest, motivation, and a whole lot more.
In order to cultivate dopamine, some scientific evidence supports the use of short, easily achievable goals. Of course, you can’t just set the goals, you have to actually do them.
Start every day with a physical, handwritten list of ten things you want to accomplish. Or even five, or three, or (if you are really struggling) just one. When you finish it, cross it out with a highlighter. That way it is crossed off but you can still read it and you can still see all that you’ve accomplished at the end of the day. Even this simple physical act is thought to release pleasing chemicals in your reward center, to train your brain to go after goals. Not only does this process tickle the “fulfillment” part of your mind, but it also helps you to actually get shit done. Sounds sappy as shit, but it’s true: achieving your goals today is the best way to have a better life tomorrow.
Step Seven) Remember You’re Going to Die
It’s kind of a cliché at this point, but you aren’t going to live forever. We often forget this in the whirlwind of day to day living. Our trials and tribulations often feel more ponderous than they perhaps should be, given the infinite scope of the universe and the very small scope of the time we are allotted.
It may strike you as morbid or odd, but sometimes when I’ve felt depressed, or without purpose, or even just apathetic and blue, I’ll go to a graveyard.
No, I don’t sit around and write goth poems and cut myself. (I’m anticipating the jokes, so bring them on)
I walk through the cemetery, look at the words etched into the stones, and think about the people lying underfoot. Beloved wife. Cherished son. 1890-1966. James Winter. WWII Private first class. Etc. Etc. Etc. All of them stretching off into the distance. All of them with lives as important and meaningful to themselves as mine is to me. That’s all in this one 3-acre churchyard, in one small city, in one state, in one county, on one continent, on one planet. The dead are legion.
The mind reels, and I remember: where I am they once were, and where they are I will certainly someday be.
This helps puts things into perspective. Time to quit moping and go fucking enjoy existing before I blink out forever.
Step Eight) Camp/Get Nature
If step number seven was a little darker than you’re up for, step number eight might feel a little more sunshiny. It appears on this list for so many reasons. The simplest of which is that vitamin D, provided by the sun’s rays, is an essential element for your health and happiness, and one which we 1st worlders, with our Reddit and our Starbucks lines, get painful little of.
But beyond that, nature, and camping in particular, is helpful in other ways. It teaches you self-reliance. It teaches you appreciation for small things – a thin fish fillet over a camp fire, a warm bed after an all-day hike, the view of the mountains at sunset, a sip of whisky from a canteen – whatever. All those things you usually take for granted are suddenly vivid and meaningful when you put down the fucking smart phone for fifteen minutes and lace up your boots.
Your brain gets so overstimulated in city life, and you are just generally coddled by all the comforts of modernity. You should know how to build a fire, catch a fish, chop wood, run a trot line, field dress a rabbit. It is part of embracing the inner animal, that simple creature that is inside you hiding behind the penny loafers and the polite small talk.
Buried under that thin veneer of civilization that swaddles you there is a beast waiting. Let him out on occasion and you’ll feel happier.
Bonus points because it will help you survive the coming zombie apocalypse/nuclear winter.
Step Nine) Change Your Direction in Life
Sometimes those feelings you are experiencing – that emptiness, boredom, anger and apathy – should actually be listened to. You can’t always fix things with exercise and vitamin D, in other words.
Sometimes these feelings are trying to tell you something, and that is that you are living your life the wrong way.
Maybe you really shouldn’t be an office worker. Maybe you really shouldn’t be dating this girl. Maybe you really shouldn’t live in this place, have these friends, and spend your time in this way.
Maybe it is time for a huge fucking change, going out on a limb, making a dramatic alteration to the way you are living. Move to another country. Become a fisherman. Quit your job. Leave your wife. Whatever it is, those feelings might never go away if they are based in some concrete aspect of your life that is leaving you feeling unfulfilled.
Perhaps the reason you feel empty is because…well…you are empty. Perhaps it is time for a reversal in the order of things.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you what that reversal might be, or what great sea change is needed, but I would be amiss if I spent this whole post telling you ways to overcome your negative feelings when those negative feelings were actually signaling to you to pull a U-turn.
Step Ten) Don’t Feel Better?
Get off the computer and go see a fucking doctor. There is no shame in it. The problem could be deep and chemical in nature. Good luck.
I hope that helped guys. Feel free to comment if there is anything you’d like me to write about next.