Ennui is the feeling of boredom, listlessness, dissatisfaction, and fatigue that results from a lack of occupation or excitement in one’s life. Ennui has been felt by many of us over the past two years. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent restrictions, many of us were forced to lead quite repetitive days: work, go to the same shop, do the same walk, binge on online entertainment, day in and day out. We’ve been living out the same old day – our own Groundhog Day – for far too long. The Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) encapsulates what the lockdown lifestyle felt like in his poem Monotony:
One monotonous day follows another
identically monotonous. The same things
will happen to us again and again —
the same moments come and go.
A month passes by, brings another month.
Easy to guess what lies ahead;
all of yesterday’s boredom.
And tomorrow ends up no longer like tomorrow.
This kind of pattern, of course, existed before the pandemic too, and will continue after it. Ennui can arise when the human desire for novelty – the will to novelty, as I call it – is not met. What is new, fresh, unexpected, and serendipitous gives many of us a sense of vitality and excitement, whereas what is unvaried and predictable can drain one of energy, enthusiasm, and motivation, especially when tedium is uninterrupted for long stretches of time. People have varying levels of desire for novelty; some are content with their routine, while others would find such a lifestyle dull and dreary. Novelty seeking (NS) is an inherited, unlearned, temperamental bias towards novel signals from the environment. This personality trait is associated with exploratory activity, where someone seeks out new and exciting stimuli and responds strongly to the surge of dopamine released following a novel experience. NS is measured along a spectrum. It should be mentioned, too, that novelty-seeking is not just genetically based; it also depends on one’s upbringing, local culture, and stage of life (the urge for novelty tends to decline with age).
Ennui, symptomatic of an unmet need, will often disappear when the desire for the new – an adequate break in the routine – is fulfilled. Ennui may sound like the lack of motivation and energy that characterises depression. And perhaps it is sometimes a sign of emotional distress that need care and attention, especially if these feelings persist. Nonetheless, I would distinguish ennui from depression by underlining that the former specifically relate to feeling unmotivated with respect to what is monotonous and bland, not feeling unmotivated in general, which is what shows up in states of depression.
Thus, ennui may resolve itself if you change where you go, who you meet, what you eat, what music you listen to, what kind of activities you engage in, and the things you talk about (going beyond just small talk). The apathy of depression, in contrast, does not necessarily pass if you simply decide to do something different.
However, ennui can result not just from monotony but also from a life that lacks depth and personal fulfilment. You could follow a novelty-seeking life, full of diverse experiences and new objects to possess, yet still feel unsatisfied on some level. Novelty does not translate into meaning, after all. Long-term travellers are aware of this feeling, known as travel fatigue. Travelling around quickly and constantly dealing with the various stresses of travel can give you this fatigue, but it can also show up when, despite having (objectively) new experiences all the time, the excitement that was there before goes away, or becomes muted. Here we have the paradox of travel fatigue: novelty has become too familiar. Novelty-seeking becomes a routine. And so the traveller feels a weariness that makes them – to their surprise – desire their life back home again. Of course, few people would have sympathy for travellers in far-flung destinations complaining of being jaded, and even travellers themselves may find such complaints to amount to being spoiled, entitled, or ungrateful. Still, it is a problem we can all be susceptible to.
This kind of travel fatigue is, I argue, but one aspect of a larger problem that I will dub the novelty trap. Part of the trap is in chasing novelty for the ‘high’ of it, but realising that this only takes you so far. Even if a repetitive lifestyle feels like the crux of your woes, and more diversity in one’s life brings some relief, this does not necessarily mean that ennui – or any other state of discomfort – will be fully resolved. There are human needs that go beyond novelty. Besides, novelty itself is not always a need; sometimes it is just a want. And even when it is a healthy need that has gone unmet, this does not mean that novelty is as important for our well-being as other needs, like meaning, connection, and self-worth.
As I described in a previous post on the will to novelty, both animal and human studies have shown that novelty increases the levels of dopamine, the ‘reward chemical’ that motivates us to seek rewards or repeat whatever behaviour led to benefits (e.g. eating and having sex). The reward system of the brain, which involves dopamine, is what makes us prone to addiction – and this is relevant in the context of the novelty trap, as I will soon explain.
A 2013 paper titled ‘Novelty or Surprise?’ published in Frontiers in Psychology highlights that dopamine activations in the context of novelty “are generated when an animal perceives novel states and that serve the function of increasing the animal’s tendency to explore the environment, thus augmenting the probability that the animal finds rewards.” Since leaving the African savanna, humans have spent tens of thousands of years venturing into new landscapes, all over the world; so it makes evolutionary sense that we would be primed to react positively to novelty. As the neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky observes in Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, “A high incidence of [the gene] 7R, associated with impulsivity and novelty seeking, is the legacy of humans who made the greatest migrations in human history.”
As the most nomadic species on the planet, we are motivated to seek out new terrain as being potentially a new source of rewards. Individuals who are adventurous and curious will enjoy many advantages. But it is normal to see variations in this trait. As the journalist Winifred Gallagher puts it, “Although we’re a neophilic [novelty-loving] species, as individuals we differ in our reactions to novelty, because a population’s survival is enhanced by some adventurers who explore for new resources and worriers who are attuned to the risks involved.” Indeed, there are some people who are neophobic, who have an aversion towards novelty and change.
The inherent novelty-seeking that many of us feel has also been tied to impulsivity and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), although in this context, a short attention span may just be a sign of natural variability in the gene pool, not necessarily something that should be thought of as a ‘disorder’. A study published in BMC Evolutionary Biology discovered that an ADHD-associated version of the gene DRD4 is associated with better health in nomadic tribesmen in Kenya, and yet may cause malnourishment in their settled cousins. Dan Eisenberg, the lead author of the study, explains:
The DRD4/7R allele has been linked to greater food and drug cravings, novelty-seeking, and ADHD symptoms. It is possible that in the nomadic setting, a boy with this allele might be able to more effectively defend livestock against raiders or locate food and water sources, but that the same tendencies might not be as beneficial in settled pursuits such as focusing in school, farming or selling goods.
Indeed, it is no coincidence that the most novelty-seeking among us (and, to reiterate, the fondness for novelty – or neophilia – does vary) can also be prone to risk-taking and various addictions. Novelty itself may become a kind of addiction. If novelty increases dopamine, as other drugs do, this can motivate us to seek out more novelty. A study published in Behavioral Neuroscience did find that, in experiments with monkeys, “dopamine enhances novelty-driven value”, implying that “excessive novelty seeking—characteristic of impulsivity and behavioral addictions—might be caused by increases in dopamine, stemming from less reuptake.” So not only does novelty excite our dopamine neurons, but dopamine also spurs us on to seek out novelty.
Novelty addiction may follow the path of other behavioural addictions: a hit of novelty is intrinsically felt as rewarding, encouraging us to seek out more novelty, to reanimate that feeling again. But as with any addiction, we become sensitised to the initial pleasurable feelings of the first exposure, and we want to have an even more intense experience, leading us to seek out more novelty. Our tolerance for novelty increases. We fall into a novelty trap when we are not only dissatisfied with familiarity but with novel situations that don’t feel novel enough.
The hedonic treadmill is a metaphor for the human tendency to pursue one pleasure after another; it is the tendency to return to a baseline level of happiness after each positive event, a baseline that encourages us again to seek out a new pleasure – a spike in positive mood. I would say that novelty can very much fit into the pattern of the hedonic treadmill. If so, it is no wonder, then, that so many of us (myself included) can be constantly exposed to novelty and yet always return to a baseline state, an uncomfortable craving for novelty that ostensibly will only pass once something different and unusual is experienced.
To the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, our inclination to become bored is part of the human condition. In The Trouble With Being Born (1973), he writes that other non-human animals crave monotony and only want it to continue, whereas we flee from it. Other animals, such as gorillas in their native habitat, seem to be content doing nothing for hours on end, having a uniform and idle life. Cioran called inaction “divine”, but notes that humans have rebelled against inaction. He writes: “Man alone, in nature, is incapable of enduring monotony, man alone wants something to happen at all costs — something, anything…. Thereby he shows himself unworthy of his ancestor: the need for novelty is the characteristic of an alienated gorilla.”
Our striving for novelty could be at the heart of much of our discontent. I think of this analysis as a combination of Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics and Schopenhauer’s pessimism, the former viewing novelty as essential to the universe, the latter seeing constant striving as making dissatisfaction inevitable. By being unable to sit with monotony and reiteration, we are destined to be the restless ape.
Whitehead essentially presents a philosophy of creativity or process philosophy, one that emphasises becoming and changing over static being. The “creative advance into novelty” is “the ultimate metaphysical ground”, says Whitehead; it is the fundamental nature of reality. As the philosopher of mind Peter Sjöstedt-Hughes states in his book Noumenautics: “For Whitehead, the universe is constantly creating novelty rather than running a determined path. The universe creates a path in its stead; it does not drive along an already created track. It is in this sense more plane than train, more thrust than rail.” Under Whiteheadian metaphysics, “the universe is potentially infinite in its creative capacity,” writes Sjöstedt-Hughes.
Whitehead also includes God in his metaphysics in a way that makes his philosophy panentheistic (he believes God and the world to be interrelated but which, unlike pantheism, makes an ontological distinction between the divine and the non-divine). Pantheism posits, in contrast, that God and the universe are identical. For the panentheist, the universe is in God and God is in the universe, but God is ultimately greater than the universe. In Process and Reality (1929), Whitehead speaks of God as having, like all entities (including us), an aim of achieving “intensity of feeling” or “depth of satisfaction”. And novelty allows us to achieve this aim. Whitehead also claims that “God is the organ of novelty” and “Apart from the intervention of God, there could be nothing new in the world”. Contrary to Cioran, then, it is not monotony that is divine but novelty.
While Whitehead himself does not use the term ‘will’ with respect to novelty as I do, novelty is, nonetheless, key to his metaphysics, and so this has implications for our psychology. If everything tends towards novelty, then so do we. In Schopenhauerian metaphysics, Will is the fundamental level of reality. This Will is a blind striving that makes everything in the universe act the way it does: plants growing towards the sun, animals acting on instinct, physical objects following laws of motion and gravity. Everything is, in a sense, alive, whose behaviour is dictated by the blind and futile force of the Will. In humans, the Will manifests as the will to life – the desire to live and further life through procreation. All of our other desires (such as the pursuit of goals and the desire for romantic love), in his worldview, are subsumed under the will to life. Schopenhauer’s pessimism arises from his belief that, as in Buddhism, desire is the root of suffering. Ultimately, desire can never be fully sated, so dissatisfaction is unavoidable.
Incorporating Whiteheadian metaphysics here, we could say that the desire for novelty can never be fully satisfied. We crave something new, we get a brief experience of enjoyment when we find it, then we are stuck again with this craving. Moreover, as with other desires, there are innumerable novel things we could experience or obtain, so no matter how much novelty we have in our life, we know – as finite beings – we will only ever experience a fraction of what is possible. And since the desire for novelty, like other desires, so often goes unfulfilled (an outcome of how normal it is to lead repetitive lives), we are bound to feel frustrated a lot of the time.
This is just one way of augmenting Whitehead’s metaphysics, of course. I have wondered, too, whether his philosophy of creativity could be combined with Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy, which states that living in accordance with the Will (in this case, the will to power, not the will to life) provides us with strength, vitality, and healthfulness. By fulfilling the will to novelty and living in harmony with the natural order of the universe (which is, for Whitehead, novelty), we will experience the boon of this harmonious relationship: the “intensity of experience” and “depth of satisfaction” that Whitehead talks about. With a Nietzschean outlook included, we can say that embracing novelty is also a source of strength and a way of saying “yes” to life. This could be why novelty, rather than being comparable to an unhealthy habit or addiction, so often makes us feel more fully alive and human, with joys and memories we cherish, not choices we come to regret.
Sjöstedt-Hughes also argues that the psychedelic experience can be one way to achieve unique novel states, allowing us to “access the infinite bank of possibility that conditions the advance of creativity in the universe.” He adds: “The common ineffability of these experiences indicate their novelty: words are not created for phenomena that are never considered.” Consequently, seeking out highly novel states, like those provided by psychedelics, can be seen as part of the divine or cosmic order, leading to incredible depths of satisfaction.
The relationship between novelty and well-being is a complicated one, nevertheless. “Novelty-seeking is one of the traits that keeps you healthy and happy and fosters personality growth as you age,” says C. Robert Cloninger, the psychiatrist who developed personality tests for measuring this trait. On the other hand, as Gallagher underscores, “Neophilia spurs us to adjust and explore and create technology and art, but at the extreme it can fuel a chronic restlessness and distraction.” The target of one’s neophilia matters. If you seek out shallow and useless trivia and entertainment, this probably won’t be as fulfilling as going deep into subjects and experiences that are really important to you.
When it comes to ennui – or weariness in the face of constancy and banality – I would argue this is a perspective that one chooses to a certain extent; and one that can be replaced. Any normal, everyday experience can keep one engaged and interested, as well as be a source of gratitude and calm. Moreover, while ennui often arises from repetition, things are only the same on the surface; if you pay closer attention, you can find new details and realise, as the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus taught, “It is impossible to step in the same river twice.”
You can avoid the novelty trap, then, by appreciating what routine and boredom can offer, or by learning to see the freshness that is always there in every moment.