[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Have you ever entered the doldrums? Not the literal doldrums—the tedious places at sea where winds are few and sailors struggled to escape. I mean those times in life when nothing at all feels interesting.
During these times, I listlessly ignore that stack of books waiting to be read. I scroll aimlessly through Netflix, YouTube, and social media. The projects that I’ve been working on seem lifeless and deadening.
These seasons of despondency surface from time to time. In the past, I would take them as a sign to PANIC: what’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with the world? Am I doomed to eternal apathy?
But these days I’m more stoical. This time, for example, I developed a jigsaw puzzle habit.
The Deeper Meaning of Jigsaw Puzzles
As habits go, there are, of course, worse ones than puzzles.
But it still came as a surprise when I finished a recent puzzle and found myself jonesing for more pieces to slot together. After all, I hadn’t thought about jigsaw puzzles for decades.
Being obsessed with a new interest is standard for most multipods, but I found myself wondering where exactly all this came from.
Was it the satisfaction of watching a difficult task gradually reduce in scope until the final piece slots into place? Or the pleasure of spending quiet time with my partner, chatting and joking idly as we endlessly grapple with identical-looking bits of sky? Do I just like creating pretty pictures?!
Well, it’s all of these. But let’s go deeper.
Sometimes We Know What We Need
It’s ironic that something as self-evidently dull as jigsaw puzzles could be part of a solution to the doldrums.
But this weird new interest also shed an interesting light on everything else I had been spending my time on. Most of it is spent with a computer—writing, coding, creating, or wasting my life away pointlessly on some website or other.
I realised that, for me, the joy of a puzzle isn’t simply that it’s fun on its own, or that it’s a bonding activity, or any of the other reasons above. It’s that I was doing something physical.
In fact, most of my new interests in recent months have been explicitly non-digital: swing dancing, jigsaw puzzles and exercising. Clearly I am subconsciously yearning for a little more variety in my already-varied life.
This reminds me of what my body does when it craves a particular nutrient that it’s not currently getting: it sends complex signals to my brain which manifest as a craving for a food that fulfills that need, and an aversion to whatever I’ve been eating a lot of lately.
Just as my body occasionally says: “Neil, for crying out loud, PLEASE EAT A VEGETABLE”, my brain sometimes says “Neil, you’d better go dance or do a jigsaw puzzle, because IF I LOOK AT ONE MORE SCREEN”…
Sometimes, then, these doldrums can reveal these deeper cravings. Part of me was desperate to move more, or build something physical, and it manifested as a weird desire to do a jigsaw puzzle.
The lesson I’ve taken from this is: When I’m feeling stuck, try something completely different! It might seem redundant to tell multipotentialites to try something new—but sometimes there are whole types of activity we forget about.
My idea of something new is often small—coding a different website, watching a new series—when my body is really trying to tell me “DO SOMETHING UTTERLY DIFFERENT”.
Small Variety Might Be Enough
Sometimes, these cravings don’t require massive changes. Perhaps a subtle shade of variety will do. For me, this might mean writing fiction instead of non-fiction, coding games instead of websites, or telling funny jokes instead of the usual ones.
After all, there may be good reasons we ignore entire domains of activity. A classic example is that many people are put off physical activity after years of hating PE at school—but years later, we might be surprised to learn we have a great time at a dance class. Or that we can play a musical instrument. Or code an app. Or even learn to be better at maths!
But don’t forget, it’s okay to be bad at things. If your body is craving a whole new thing—don’t be afraid to try it!
Of course, the causes of low feelings and doldrums are many and varied, and lack of variety is only one possible cause.
But next time I’m stuck in the listless doldrums, I’m going to look at how I’ve been spending my time, and ask myself if there’s a whole metaphorical nutrient I’ve been neglecting.
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.