Ask Polly: Why Doesn’t Anything Feel Fun?

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Photo: Doug Cheeseman/Getty Images

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Dear Polly,

I am 30 years old, live in an exciting city, and have a full-time job, a great education, a long-term boyfriend whom I live with, and a supportive family. My problem is that I have no hobbies, and if I'm being totally honest, there are very few things that I enjoy doing during my waking hours. My boyfriend is increasingly bothered by this, and it is straining our relationship. He has lots of things he enjoys, like running marathons and making art, but none of them really appeal to me.

For a while (the past 5-6 years) I thought it was because I worked all the time (or worried about work all the time) and that left little energy or space for doing things for pleasure. But now, I feel self-conscious and concerned by my lack of interests, and a new job has left me with enough free time that I can't use work as an excuse anymore. The few things I DO enjoy: watching certain TV shows, reading novels and the news, and talking to my sister on the phone. And I sleep a LOT, probably nine hours a night or more. I went to a doctor and he told me I didn't seem clinically depressed, and encouraged me to try meditation and exercise to lift my energy. I now exercise and meditate halfheartedly. I would say I am shy but I have a lot of friends, though few of them live in the same city as me. I find myself feeling very unmotivated to go out and try to make new ones. (I read your reply to the woman asking how she made friends in her late 20s and it all made great sense, but I guess I lack the motivation to implement those steps.) I don't feel sad or tearful — just not moved to do much. In my early 20s, I remember myself as a very social person. I was constantly out and about, and although I didn't have any particular burning interests then either, I was much more energetic about seeing friends and going to parties and such.

I don't particularly love my job, and it is one of those that's supposed to be intrinsically rewarding, but for me, it feels like just a job most days. (I don't think I hate my job. It offers a lot of autonomy and I am probably unfit for more structured work.) My days generally look like this: Drag myself up around 11, work on things, interspersed with reading the news or daydreaming, maybe exercise, eat dinner, make small talk with my boyfriend who works a demanding job and is exhausted when he comes home, stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning watching TV or reading, and fall asleep fitfully. On the weekends, I walk around town, maybe do a little shopping or watch a movie, and about twice a month, see people for dinner. I guess I spend a lot of time outside of work lying around or taking care of trifling tasks or doing things that should be fun (like visiting street fairs) but don't feel particularly fun to me. I don't hate myself, but I do feel terribly dissatisfied and exhausted (despite having no real burdens to speak of). It is hard to articulate, but I really don't enjoy anything and I feel like I'm 80 years old. I have no idea what I should do to fix my fundamental attitude problem. I can't even seem to form a proper question. I guess my questions are: Am I depressed? Or am I just a boring professional woman who has no passions or hobbies because I'm unimaginative and stuck in a rut? How do I stop drowning in ennui? How do you find a passion in life? Maybe not everyone has it in them.

Lost in a Fog

Dear Lost in a Fog,

I know that some people believe that not everyone has a passion, or should even look for one. Whenever I write about finding your passion, a big swath of humans take time out of their busy days to PASSIONATELY inform me that not everyone can or should have a passion, that simply working at a reasonably okay job and enjoying the simple things in life IS ENOUGH, and implying otherwise sets people up for disappointment and self-hatred, so WHY DO THAT TO PEOPLE, PEOPLE WHO ARE PERFECTLY FINE WITHOUT SOME BURNING PASSION IN THEIR LIVES? NOT EVERYONE CAN BE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR PASSIONS THE WAY YOU PASSION-FIXATED PASSION FETISHISTS EXPECT THEM TO BE!

I love these passionate rants against passion. They remind me of a relative of mine who, after a long vacation with our family, angrily hissed at another relative, "WHY ARE YOU SO ANGRY AND GRUMPY? WHY CAN'T YOU JUST BE HAPPY?!" Even though I know that this hissing relative is pretty happy, she doesn't seem to notice that she's also very angry. And she doesn't realize that people can cry and be angry and be happy at the same time. She believes that strong emotions are the enemy. Like the very passionate people who have come to the conclusion that being satisfied with what you have is much more important than passion, my relative feels that you should never "give in" to your strongest feelings, you should simply DECIDE to have a GOOD ATTITUDE and to feel GRATEFUL, and the threats of anger and despair will be dodged for good.

Optimism and gratitude are powerful things. But I think, at some point, Lost in a Fog, you started to see all of your strong emotions as a threat to your happiness when really they may be your only escape from feeling numb. You've powered down your feelings. You were working too much, now you're working less and that was supposed to make you happier, but it's not working. You're even less happy now. Your boyfriend says, "WORKING LESS WAS SUPPOSED TO HELP, REMEMBER?!" That doesn't help, either.

You're telling yourself you have an "attitude problem," which is what a shitty teacher says to a kid who finds his shitty teacher's shitty class really boring. You're scolding yourself for the few feelings you DO feel.

If you were in crisis, if you were alone, if you didn't have a boyfriend who expected you to put a brave face on things instead of just admitting that everything seems blah and worthless to you, you might be drinking too much or picking fights with your not-quite friends or quitting your just-okay career. You might be very depressed, and then you might crawl out of that hole and discover a whole new world, a world where you could say things like "Street fairs are horse shit!" without feeling self-conscious about your bad attitude.

I say stuff like that a lot. And my hissing relative, who is also a really loving person, would not want to hear those words coming out of my mouth. She's not unlike the random, brand-new Ask Polly readers who write to me each week to say "Why the foul language? Are you trying to be hip? Are you trying to shock us? What's the point? What's your problem?" 

To which I say: THIS IS JUST THE SOUND I MAKE. I'm not doing anything. But while I'm making the sounds I make, let me just add that street fairs really are horse shit. We've supped upon your falafels and your watery agua frescas, and it's all just okay, comme ci, comme ça, street-fair-loving motherfuckers. We've seen your carved wooden signs that say LIFE'S A BEACH and we're glad that wood-carving is your passion, but the world doesn't need more whimsical wooden signs in our opinion. Beekeepers are admirable humans, but their artificially flavored honey is not inspirational in any way. Jumpy castles can fuck right off. Ponies that walk up and down sidewalks all day are faintly depressing, even with happy toddlers on their backs. 

Personally, I give zero fucks if you dig my language or believe that it's all an elaborate act. All I know is this: I need to express myself a little recklessly if I want to create stuff that's worthwhile. You can narrow your eyes at my words like I've painstakingly carved them in a whimsical font on a nice piece of wood. You can glare at me like I've wandered horrendously astray from the path you might choose for me. More power to you! SWEARING is horse shit, as far as you're concerned! Those that doubt you suck cock by choice!

All I can do is guard my own little patch of land and make sure that I feel free within its confines. If I can do that, then I can feel my feelings. And if I can feel my feelings, I am EXTREMELY FUCKING PASSIONATE, and I can share that passion with other people. But if I start to give half a fuck about someone who thinks the word "fuck" is some powerful, crazy, dangerous, false, self-conscious, messed up, impure, deluded, un-classy, depraved symbol of all that is wrong with the world, where will I be? I know myself, and I know that THE INSTANT I answer to the very specific and somewhat arbitrary cultural preferences of others in order serve the greater, smoothed-out, acceptable, commodified, agreed-upon, lowest-common-denominator good, that's when I'm just connecting the dots and writing down words to get a paycheck in the mail. I know myself, and I know that I won't create anything worthwhile under those conditions. I want to bring the full force of what I have to the table here, and the full force of what I have includes words like FUCKING JACK JUICE and SORRY LITTLE SHIT-TWISTER and GO FUCK YOURSELF, YOU SHIT-TWISTING SON OF A BITCH.

Lost in a Fog, your life sounds compromised and constrained to me. Someone told you to improve your attitude and color within the lines and you listened, and now all of the powerful emotions swirling around inside you have been stilled and muted and you can't access them anymore. I may be climbing out on a limb here, but I don't think you're the kind of person who just wants to do a job and get paid and go to street fairs and run errands and please your hard-working boyfriend. Some people can enjoy an okay job and a simple life and they're happy. These people are not stupid people. They are not even simple people, necessarily. More power to them! I have friends like this. They're great!

But I think you crave a more passionate life than that. Not everyone needs a passion. But people who passionately defend NOT HAVING A PASSION tend to be people who secretly wish they had a passion. Likewise, people who walk around saying, "Why don't I enjoy anything? Why do I feel like I'm 80 years old?" are depressed people, plain and simple. You don't love your circumstances right now, but you can't feel your emotions so you have no compass to navigate your way out of a drab situation. You need to figure out what's making you unhappy AND you need to figure out what might make you feel more passionate about your life. 

I think you need to express how angry you are. My guess is that you're not very good at managing an unstructured life yet and you're dissatisfied with your relationship, but you're terrified of being alone, because THEN what will you have? You're also afraid of following your boyfriend's suggestions and improving your so-called bad attitude and "getting over" this and sallying forth and accepting an existence that feels like sleepwalking to you. "I'm not depressed!" you keep telling yourself. "I just don't like anything." BUT THAT'S EXACTLY HOW BEING DEPRESSED FEELS.

I look back at my life and I see that I was depressed for years. I didn't like much. I tended to cling to guys as a distraction from my depression, and I allowed them to define what was important to me and what wasn't. I would never have watched a lot of football or learned the words to songs by the Grateful Dead, if I were left to my own devices. It was interesting and sometimes relaxing, being a tourist in those lands. But there were boyfriends who really loved me for my rough edges and for my tendency to say, out loud, that street fairs suck and the Dead are pretty repetitive when you're not stoned and the things that we call "FUN" should actually BE FUN instead of just being lame excuses to mill around in cargo shorts ingesting greasy foods and boring the living fuck out of ourselves. And there were also boyfriends who wanted me to SHUT UP and CHEER UP and STOP IT and NOT THIS AGAIN and SERIOUSLY GET OVER IT.

I was never happy with those guys. I felt trapped. I didn't want to be cheerful all the time. I wanted to be grumpy. I needed to cry a lot. I needed to spend a lot of time alone, writing. I needed to exercise every day. I needed to wake up early after a good night's sleep. I needed to cut back on my drinking. I needed to know that being myself – not cool, not easygoing, not polite, not clean, not predictable, not sweet, not pretty, not cheerful – was not just okay, but great. Do you see how many different levers and sliders I had to adjust in order to be happy? I NEEDED A LOT.

These are things I figured out by dumping several boyfriends, and by taking and then quitting several jobs, and by moving from one town to another, and by fighting with my mother, and by apologizing to my mother for everything I put her through. These are things I learned by dumping my great therapist and finding a lame one and then finding an okay one and then quitting therapy. These are things I learned by sleeping late and getting depressed and working too hard for a while and buying a house and adopting a dog and writing songs on my guitar and being very, very lonely for a while.

These are not things I learned by going to street fairs with a boyfriend who wanted me to be more cheerful in our free time together. These are not things I learned by sticking with the same career that I wasn't crazy about forever and ever. These are not things I learned by halfheartedly hanging out with whomever and wondering what the fucking point was.

If you want passion – and I feel very sure that you want passion, LIAF – you need to take some dramatic measures. You need to try and fail at some things. You need to fuck shit up a little. You need to risk being that person who doesn't give a single fuck about what other people want you to be. You will always be doing something wrong, trust me. You are a woman. We are always out of bounds, every second of every day.

You want to weep into your hands instead of saying "MEH." You want to find the energy to turn your life upside-down. You need to feel your goddamn feelings. Something happened to you, something that changed you and made you power down all of that enthusiasm you had. You were sensitive and it hurt a lot, so you downshifted. You want to shift into a higher gear now, and you can't. You're stuck.

You need a therapist, not a doctor. Find a therapist. You need to set some tough exercise goals instead of just going through the motions. You need to get up at 8 a.m., not 11 a.m. You need to stop watching so much TV late at night. Go to bed early. Get up early. Drink caffeine. Write down your thoughts. Brainstorm your way to a new life. Weep into your hands. Open Pandora's box. Invite the demons to fly around your head until you're dizzy. They'll show you a whole new life if you let them.

And who knows, maybe your boyfriend is just trying to show you that you want more than you think you do. You're living in a half-assed way and he can see that. But you're allowing him to occupy a parental space, where he disapproves of what you're doing and you feel angry at yourself and also a little rebellious. That parental vibe will keep you in a rut indefinitely. You need to occupy an independent space, free of judgment. You need to gripe to your closest friends on the phone more often. You need more freedom, but you also need to stop indulging yourself with stuff that only makes you drift aimlessly, like long naps, midday procrastinating, and late-night TV. You might be able to achieve that within your relationship, but you need to start standing up for what you DO want and believe in, even if it's as small as "FUCK STREET FAIRS, DUDE. I'M NOT GOING." You need to stand up for your feelings and your so-called shitty attitude, but you also need to find your own path to self-discipline, without the harsh words of a marathon-running, workaholic artist boyfriend ringing in your ears.

Above all, you need to do something that's very difficult: You need to ask more of yourself while also letting yourself off the hook. You need to stop avoiding things, and sleeping late, and distracting yourself. You need to look at the big picture and ask some hard questions: "What do I love? Where is my heart?" You need to stop thinking in circles and feel your way to the answers instead.

You also need to stop believing, even for a second, that you're "just a boring, unimaginative professional woman." You are someone with buried passions. What happened to you? Where are you? DON'T GIVE UP ON YOURSELF.

You have to dig. You have to get down on your hands and knees and let go of your pride and you have to dig, with every ounce of your strength. You're young, and you haven't done this before. Do it now! If you commit to nothing else, commit to figuring out what makes you happy, and what makes you unhappy. But to do that, you have to accept that you DO have preferences. Stop trying to be good and stop trying to have a good attitude.

And when a motherfucker comes by and tells you you're doing it wrong, laugh out loud. No one knows better than you how to do this. Trust your instincts. You can cry and be grumpy and be angry and be happy and hate street fairs and have a great attitude and have a shitty attitude and work hard and be lazy, all at the same time. Follow your heart. Don't give up. Laugh out loud, and get back to digging.

Polly

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