Sisyphus, Effort Aversion, And The Crazy Wisdom of Doing Nothing

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Remember the Myth of Sisyphus? Dude condemned to push a boulder up a hill every day and watch it roll down in the evening, only to push it back up again the next day? Sounds maddeningly boring right? You’d think that, given the choice, people would choose something better to do with their time? Turns out …. well… just check this out.


When psychologists at Duke University researched how people choose jobs, they discovered a crazy phenomenon they dubbed effort aversion. When given a choice, people often pick the most boring job (maybe because they imagine that the boring job will be “easier” — and hence better — than the challenging one).

Researchers sat business students in a classroom and told them that for the next five minutes they would do absolutely nothing. No iPhones, no computers, just sitting. They’d get paid $2.50 for this. Then they gave them an option: they said, instead of sitting and doing nothing, you can solve these really difficult word puzzles. How much would you want us to pay you? Shankar Vedantam quoting Peter Ubel (from Duke University) on NPR about this study: “We found that a large majority of the students said we’d have to pay them more than $2.50 to solve the word puzzles, and yet when we actually finished the five minutes and asked them how much they enjoyed those five minutes, the people solving the word puzzles enjoyed the five minutes significantly more, and yet very few of them said yeah, pay me $2 and I’d be happy to do word puzzles ’cause at least I’ll be having fun.”
I had to laugh. So researchers basically chose classic meditation (sitting, doing nothing) as the most boring option possible for their study. It seems we humans will fill our brains and occupy our time with anything to escape the plight of boredom. When it comes right down to it, isn’t that what Facebook, Twitter, our addiction to technology are partly (mostly?) about? I read recently that there is more information in one copy of the New York Times Sunday edition than a person living in the 17th century would come across in a lifetime. One copy. One lifetime. Do we really need this much information? How much of modern media is leading us away from steady, present-moment attention, toward a state of constant distraction? We continually pick the “new” and over the possibility of diving more deeply into “now.”Present moment awareness, sitting in stillness, alone with the breath is actually a gateway into a world of incredible depth and richness. Learning to simply be present with what is arising is perhaps the single most life-changing work we could do for ourselves. But it is also the toughest, and at the beginning seemingly  the most boring option. And it is getting more and more difficult to choose it. Technology addiction is the norm rather than the exception, so we lose sight of other possibilities, other ways of embodying this vibrant consciousness.

Shankar Vedantam again: “I think there’s a connection here with the world of Camus…. I think both Ubel and Camus are basically saying when you make choices, make them consciously. Make them deliberately. Don’t let unconscious biases guide you. Camus would even go a step further and say, even when choices are forced on you, live your life with your eyes open because meaning doesn’t lie in the work, it lies in what you bring to the work.”


NPR: Why Do People Agree To Work Boring Jobs?

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