Eye fatigue from fixing your gaze on a lurid screen. Back cricks from the bad chair. Shivering from too much air-conditioning. Perfect numbness to the surroundings amid which you’ve spent far too many of your hours. You could wile away all your vacation days just counting all the ways it is possible to feel unpleasant in an office space. Some of these have easy fixes (an extra sweater), but others are more insidious and evergreen. And still, most people do very little to alleviate their dissatisfaction.
If your strategy for dealing with an unpleasant present is to disengage from the environment and retract into your own turtle shell, drifting off into your internal monologue, you’ll often find yourself instead bumping into anxiety about the future or regret about the past, or just idling endlessly in unhealthy circles of thought. You might be best served by engaging with your environment head-on, rather than distracting yourself from it. This idea owes something to mindfulness, which, though articulated in plenty of ways over the millennia, I like hearing from psychologist Dr. Ellen Langer:
And so, mindfulness, for me, is the very simple process of actively noticing new things. When you actively notice new things, that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context. As you’re noticing new things, it’s engaging. And it turns out, after a lot of research, that we find that it’s literally, not just figuratively, enlivening.
This hypersensitivity might feel more intuitive when it comes to savoring a pleasant sensation, like a scoop of caramel ice cream—noticing the notes both salty and sweet, or the mildly soggy crunch of its waffle cone, ratcheting up your enjoyment with every new observation. But this practice can help you ascend out of deadened, boring conditions, and even make you feel less helpless in the face of bad ones, too. Somehow by taking the time to pick out the nuances of something rather than intaking it as one homogenous stew of badness, you can find some mild relief. Dr. Langer studies how the very practice of noticing—merely noticing, not even sorting these sensations into buckets of bad or good—can help you feel more engaged, even healthier and more competent.
Recently while walking to work and coming to a major road, I witnessed some chaos: an errant car in the middle of the intersection, some smelly steaming coned-off construction, one of those double-decker tour buses with full garish advertisements on their flanks lurching forward at a gawky angle, aggressive cabs looking to flit right through the logjam, horns blaring from every car that could feel remotely justified in doing so. And me standing on the curb, on the cusp of all this, my gut already knotting with anxiety, most of my senses overloaded. Then I just removed my headphones and soaked in the scene. By taking that chaos and just reducing it to its components, my mind was, if not completely at peace, less at the mercy of my senses. While noticing the aspects of this mess, I was calmly occupied, perversely stimulated, and, eventually, prone to laughing out loud instead of wallowing in the bad vibes. At some point, I thought to myself: This is almost comically unpleasant. But I’m alive, intact, and almost back in a quiet place.
To see this practice carried out to its logical and aesthetic extreme, you could pick up Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine. I first read the novel while maximally alienated by a particular office environment, and it felt like tailor-made therapy. The short novel takes place over the course of an office worker’s lunch break; most of it consists of absurdly thorough meditations on everyday objects and designs in his workplace. Baker lavishes attention on those things that might seem least worthy of it:
Unlike home rolls, the toilet paper here was hosed in a locked device that paid out the frames of paper with a certain amount of resistance, so that you had to pull slowly and carefully in order to keep the paper from tearing on one of the perforations, discouraging waste, and when one roll was spent, a second dropped into place. I was willing to have my wastefulness discouraged, to some degree—before that invention, I had sometimes felt a qualm when I was able to make the roll trundle momentumously around the spindle, reeling off a grate drape of unnecessary paper; although when you have a cold and you want a mass of absorbency to hold to your face when you blow your nose, the care you have to take tugging at the nearly tearing paper can be irksome.
On this same page, there’s a page-long footnote on perforation. (Dude was doing the whole super-empirical footnoted thing before DFW got to it, and squeezed every last drop out of it.) Because Baker’s writing remains vivid and always tethered to emotions, somehow this shtick doesn’t get tedious over the course of its 133 pages. Skeptics (I was one, before I read it) might take this for a novelty read, but over time it accesses emotional depths, dealing with nostalgia, boredom, dissatisfaction, celebration of the ordinary, and the extent to which thoughts comprise the person who’s having them.
If you’re receptive to its lessons, this book—and this practice of mindful noticing in general—will make you feel less bored in your surroundings, and maybe even grateful for the stimuli they provide just by being around. While I can imagine how hokey this sounds to a disbeliever, fed up with his or her cubicle and all it contains, I promise you can’t make your ennui any worse just by paying attention.