By Ethan Maurice | January 18, 2017
Life is full of paradoxes. One of them is that only when we don't have something do we fully appreciate its value.
A few examples:
- When we’re sick, just being healthy is a cause for joy.
- Only when we lose someone do we fully understand how much they meant to us.
- If we sleep on the ground for a week, returning to bed is like floating on a cloud.
The absence of something reveals its value. And the opposite is also true: having something causes us to lose sight of its value. Following this train of thought, if we have everything all the time, then we can appreciate nothing. And contrarily, if we have nothing, then we can appreciate everything.
The further we look back in time, the less humans had—less stuff, less comfort, less safety, less of everything we have in abundance today. Because our ancient ancestors had little, they would have had the awareness to appreciate lots. Like the drip of a faucet in a silent room, that awareness would have been greater with less background noise.
With greater awareness and greater exposure to their environment, a graph of our ancient ancestors' lives might have looked something like this:
Today, however, in a constant state of convenience, comfort, and security, our graphs might look something like this:
What I'm suggesting is that humanity is not progressing towards greater levels of happiness or enjoyment, but rather greater numbing of the human experience. In insulating ourselves from feeling bad and immersing ourselves in feeling good we've become desensitized. We've dulled our ability to feel. What I mean to illustrate with the charts above is that we're experiencing lower highs and higher lows that ever before.
Understanding this, it's easy to see why people deprive themselves of things. Why monks renounce modern comforts. Why Christopher McCandless, whose life was made famous by the book Into The Wild, abandoned his car and burned his money. Why Henry David Thoreau's simple life at Walden Pond provided such insight.
It's because having less increases awareness. And greater exposure to the world produces a better sense of it.
I'm not saying we should burn our money or forgo all modern conveniences. However, I am saying that if food doesn't taste as good anymore, driving eighty miles per hour down the freeway is boring, and we can’t find anything good to watch on Netflix, there are ways to fix this.
With this in mind, here are five ways to be less numb:
1. Live with less. The creed of "more!" caused this numbness, so the most obvious antidote is less—to cut down on the constant saturation of our lives. Less stuff leads to a clearer mind. Less busyness leads to greater focus and a more deliberate life. Embrace minimalism—a movement for less, directly resulting from our modern overabundance.
2. Deprive yourself of something you want to appreciate more. Coffee. Phone. Driving. Bed. Toilets. You can reinvigorate your appreciation of anything by temporarily renouncing it.
3. Have the time and financial freedom to change your situation. A weekend camping trip will renew your appreciation of a hot shower and a bed. The freedom to move between two places can continually renew your appreciation of both. Travel can lend fresh eyes to an old situation.
4. Go on a long, arduous journey. With such modern comfort and convenience, one bold move is to strip away everything at once. Backpack one of the longest trails on earth. Bicycle across a continent. Paddle the Atlantic. Nothing brings awareness and clarity like going without for months at a time. Such journeys often alter your perspective and offer profound insight.
5. Meditate. Meditation is the ultimate less. To forget your surroundings. To let go of thought. To focus only on a single phrase or the rise and fall of each breath. Never meditated before? Try it for a couple minutes. You'd be amazed at how awareness floods in and numbness falls away.
Essentially, there are two major factors that contribute to numbness: saturation and exposure. Each of the five points above decreases our saturation and/or increases our exposure to the world. Our pursuit of more has done the reverse, resulting in greater numbing of our lives. We're not as happy, as sad, or as anything as we could be.
Want to feel more alive? Want a full experience of the bad and the good? Decrease the saturation of your life, and increase your exposure to the world around you.