The Sunny Side of Boredom

How to make the most out of boredom


What, exactly, is boredom? Boredom is a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal: we are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. We want to do something engaging, but find ourselves unable to do so, and, more than that, are frustrated by the rising awareness of this inability.

Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they do get bored, generally have higher thresholds for boredom. In the words of Colin Wilson: most animals dislike boredom, but man is tormented by it. In both man and animal, boredom is induced or exacerbated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is so common in children and adolescents, who, in addition to being chaperoned, lack the mind furnishings—the resources, experience, and discipline—to mitigate their boredom.

Let’s look more closely at the anatomy of boredom. Why is it so damned boring to be stuck in a departures lounge while our flight is increasingly delayed? We are in a high state of arousal, anticipating our imminent arrival in a novel and stimulating environment. True, there are plenty of shops and magazines around, but we’re not really interested in either, and, by dividing our attention, they serve only to exacerbate our boredom. To make matters worse, the situation is out of our control, unpredictable (the flight could be further delayed, or even cancelled), and inescapable. As we check and re-check the monitor, we become painfully aware of all these factors and more. And so here we are, caught in transit, in a high state of arousal which we can neither engage nor escape.

If we really need to catch our flight, maybe because our livelihood or the love of our life depends on it, we will feel less bored (although more anxious and annoyed) than if it had been a toss-up between travelling and staying at home. In that much, boredom is an inverse function of perceived need or necessity. We might get bored at the funeral of an obscure relative but not at that of a parent or sibling.

So far so good, but why exactly is boredom so unpleasant? Arthur Schopenhauer argued that, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom. Boredom, then, is evidence of the meaninglessness of life, opening the shutters on some very uncomfortable feelings which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite feelings. This is the essence of the manic defence, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control—or, failing that, any feelings at all.

In Camus’s The Fall, Clamence reflects to a stranger:

I knew a man who gave 20 years of his life to a scatterbrained woman, sacrificing everything to her, his friendships, his work, the very respectability of his life, and who one evening recognised that he had never loved her. He had been bored, that’s all, bored like most people. Hence he had made himself out of whole cloth a life full of complications and drama. Something must happen—and that explains most human commitments. Something must happen, even loveless slavery, even war or death.

People who suffer from chronic boredom are at higher risk of developing psychological problems such as depression, overeating, and alcohol and drug misuse. A study found that, when confronted with boredom in an experimental setting, many people chose to give themselves unpleasant electric shocks simply to distract from their own thoughts, or lack thereof. Out in the real world, we expend considerable resources on combatting boredom. The value of the global entertainment and media market is set to reach $2.6 trillion by 2023, and entertainers and athletes are afforded ludicrously high levels of pay and status. The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but this has only made matter worse, in part, by removing us further from our here and now. Instead of feeling sated and satisfied, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation—ever more war, ever more gore, and ever more hardcore.

But the good news is that boredom can also have upsides. As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, boredom can be our way of telling ourselves that we are not spending our time as well as we could, that we should be doing something more enjoyable, more useful, or more fulfilling. In that much, boredom is an agent of change and progress, a driver of ambition, shepherding us out into larger, greener pastures.

But even if we are one of those rare people who feels fulfilled, it is worth cultivating some degree of boredom, insofar as boredom provides us with the pre-conditions to delve more deeply into ourselves, reconnect with the rhythms of nature, and begin and complete highly focused, long, and difficult work.

For Bertrand Russell,

A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

In 1918, Russell spent four-and-a-half months in Brixton prison for “pacifist propaganda”, but found the bare conditions congenial and conducive to creativity:

I found prison in many ways quite agreeable… I had no engagements, no difficult decisions to make, no fear of callers, no interruptions to my work. I read enormously; I wrote a book, Introduction to Mathematical Philosophy… and began the work for Analysis of Mind … One time, when I was reading Strachey’s Eminent Victorians, I laughed so loud that the warder came round to stop me, saying I must remember that prison was a place of punishment.

But of course, not everyone is a Russell. How might we, mere mortals, best cope with boredom? If boredom is, as we have established, an awareness of unmet arousal, we can minimize boredom by: avoiding situations over which we have little control, eliminating distractions, motivating ourselves, expecting less, putting things into their proper perspective (realizing how lucky we really are), and so on.

But rather than fighting a constant battle against boredom, it is easier and much more productive to actually embrace it. If boredom is a window onto the fundamental nature of reality, and, by extension, onto the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling back the curtains. Yes, the night is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.

For just these reasons, many Eastern traditions encourage boredom, seeing it as the path to a higher consciousness.

Here’s one of my favourite Zen jokes:

A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.

“Ten years”, said the Zen master.

“Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?

“Twenty years.”

So instead of fighting boredom, go along with it, entertain it, make something out of it. In short, be yourself less boring. Schopenhauer said that boredom is but the reverse side of fascination, since both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other.

Next time you find yourself in a boring situation, throw yourself fully into it—instead of doing what we normally do, which is to step further and further back. If this feels like too much of an ask, the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh advocates simply appending the word “meditation” to whatever activity it is that you find boring, for example, “waiting in an airport— meditation.”

In the words of Samuel Johnson: “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.


  • A Schopenhauer, On the Vanity of Existence (from Essays).
  • A Camus (1956), The Fall
  • Wilson TD et al (2014): Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 345(6192):75-77.
  • PwC (2019), Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2019-2023.
  • B Russell (1930), The Conquest of Happiness, Ch 4 Boredom and excitement.
  • B Russell (1951), Autobiography, Vol 2, Ch 8.
  • Thich Nhat Hanh (1991), The Miracle of Mindfulness. Rider Books.
  • J Boswell (1791), The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.

How to Get Out of Your Head

7 ideas for being more in the moment


The hardest thing to see, said Friedrich Schiller, is what is in front of your eyes.

Gardening is more and more recognized, and now even prescribed by doctors, for its health benefits, including reduced stress, anxiety, and depression.

How might gardening, and nature more generally (including animals), help with mental health? To various degrees, we live inside the stories we tell ourselves. But gardening drags us out of our tortured heads and back into the natural world, which blunts the ideological and emotional extremes to which detached, abstract thought is prone.

In the Philosophy of Existence (1938), Karl Jaspers described this disinterested process of looking outside oneself—or “phenomenology”, as it is sometimes called—as “a thinking that, in knowing, reminds me, awakens me, brings me to myself, transforms me.”

Just picture the gardener’s pure and simple delight at the first crocuses or tulips, a bird’s nest, a swarm of bees… When we stop noticing small things, we are no longer truly alive.

The word “phenomena” derives from the Ancient Greek meaning “things that appear”, and phenomenology can be defined as the direct examination and description of phenomena as they are consciously experienced.

Pioneered by Edmund Husserl (1859-1939) as a philosophical tool, phenomenology involves paying close attention to objects and their relations so that they begin to reveal themselves, not as we take them to be, but as they truly appear to naked human consciousness, shorn of superimposed theories and preconceptions. Pick out an object, plant, or animal, look at it, and then keep on looking for much longer than you normally would. Vision, said the painter James Ensor, changes as it observes.

As a method, phenomenology enables us to study not only the phenomena themselves, but also, by extension, the very structures of human experience and consciousness. This is not quite the same as mindfulness, and, unlike mindfulness, phenomenology has not yet seeped into popular consciousness.

Mindfulness, which derives from Buddhist spiritual practice, aims at increasing our awareness and acceptance of incoming thoughts and feelings, and so the flexibility or fluidity of our responses, which become less like unconscious reactions and more like conscious reflections. Phenomenology, in contrast, is more explicitly outward-looking—and, I think, much easier to practice.

Phenomenological activities such as wine tasting, gardening, and bird watching remove us from our stifled selves and return us to the world that we came from, reconnecting us with something much greater and higher than our personal problems and preoccupations.

In that much, phenomenology can, quite literally, bring us back to life.

Without further ado, and as promised, here are 7 ideas for being more in the moment:

1. Start small and make it regular. For example, aim to go for a half-hour nature walk each day. Go no matter what, even if you’re busy or it’s raining. Having to go for a daily walk is one of the best things about owning a dog. People enjoy the disconnect of having to walk the dog—because, actually, it’s the dog that’s walking them.

2. Make a change to your routine. Born in Königsberg in 1724, the philosopher Immanuel Kant was renowned for his strict routines. His neighbors could tell the time by his daily walks and even nicknamed him “the Clock of Königsberg”. He died in 1804, having in all his 79 years seldom left the city’s precincts. When we are too set in our routine, we tend to take our surroundings for granted. This actually helped Kant, enabling him to live inside his head and become the abstract philosopher that he became. But for most of us, it can grow into a problem. By making small changes to our routine or surroundings, for example, going for an early morning walk, putting a pitcher of tulips on the kitchen table, we naturally notice things more. It’s a bit like traveling, but on a smaller scale.

3. Simplify your life. When we are anxious or stressed, we tend to focus on our worries at the expense of the world around us. But the more we focus on our worries, the more stressed and anxious we become, setting up a vicious cycle. We can bring down stress and anxiety and break that vicious cycle by cutting out certain things, even if that means doing less or doing only one thing at a time. At the very least, we need to make sure that we are getting adequate sleep and exercise, and that we are making the time, every so often, to do the things that we enjoy.

4. Practice deep breathing. In the shorter term, we can alleviate stress and anxiety (and even physical pain, as anyone who’s been through childbirth knows) by regulating our breathing: Breathe in through your nose and hold the air in for several seconds. Then purse your lips and gradually let the air out, making sure that you let out as much air as you can. Continue doing this until you are feeling much more relaxed. Try it now, it’ll only take a couple of minutes—and, I promise, you’ll notice the difference.

5. Cultivate idleness. There’s a very fine divide between idleness and boredom. Most animals dislike boredom, but man, says writer Colin Wilson, “is tormented by it”. Boredom can open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts and feelings. We are, in the words of Virginia Woolf, “always giving parties to cover the silence”. But idleness, and even boredom, also have important upsides.

Here’s one of my favourite Zen jokes:

A Zen student went to a temple and asked how long it would take him to gain enlightenment if he joined the temple.

“Ten years,” said the Zen master.

“Well, how about if I work really hard and double my effort?”

“Twenty years.”

The more we rush, the less we contemplate; and the less we contemplate, the less we understand. Time is a very strange thing, and not at all linear: sometimes, the best way of using it is to “waste” it.

6. Savour. Make an effort to enjoy whatever it is that you’re doing. For example, when it comes to your main meal of the day, don’t just lean at the counter and scoff it down lukewarm. Give it a bit of love and care, even if you’re eating alone. Turn off the TV, set the table, dim the lights, and make a moment to feel grateful. Wine lovers don’t just swallow their wine, they admire its hue, swirl it around in the glass, close their eyes and breathe it in deeply…

7. Focus on the process more than on the purpose, especially when it comes to repetitive, mundane tasks like cooking and gardening. When you paint a picture or write a book, it is there for ever (and isn’t that just amazing?). But when you mow the lawn you have to do it all over again in just a few days’ time. The gardener is like Sisyphus, the mythological king made to repeat for all eternity the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down again. In his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus, the philosopher Albert Camus concludes: “The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Even in a state of utter hopelessness, Sisyphus can still be happy. Indeed, he is happy precisely because he is in a state of utter hopelessness, because in recognizing and accepting the hopelessness of his condition, he at the same time transcends it.

The ability to get out of your head and be in the world is only one aspect of a wisdom that has been known to mystics and scholars for centuries and millennia, and that is increasingly being confirmed by both philosophy and science. Socrates certainly knew it, as did the Buddha, and more recently, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Emily Dickinson. In my new book, The Secret to EverythingI reveal this wisdom and discuss nine more of its aspects and practical applications.


The Secret To Everything: How to Live More and Suffer Less

The Secret to Everything Cover

Self-help, with a twist

The Secret to Everything has been known to mystics and scholars for centuries and millennia, and, today, is increasingly being confirmed by both philosophy and science. Socrates certainly knew it, as did the Buddha, and more recently, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Emily Dickinson. It is a secret not because it is hidden as such, but because it is so difficult to see, running counter to so many of our most basic assumptions.

Each of the book’s ten chapters exposes a particular aspect and practical application of the secret, while also keeping it carefully under wraps. On the surface, the chapters may seem to have little in common, but they are all built around the same wisdom. Your challenge, as you read, is to find the common thread that runs through all the chapters. The secret is discussed at the end, but don’t peek or you’ll spoil the fun.



1. How to see

2. How to dream

3. How to be religious

4. How to be wise

5. How to be fearless

6. How to live

7. How to love

8. How to win

9. How to party

10. How to think

The Secret to Everything

Pre-order The Secret to Everything today for just 99p/c and get it on Valentine’s Day!

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How to Party like an Animal

What we can learn from the orgies of old.


Parties today are really nothing like they used to be.

To commemorate the destruction of the bloodthirsty lioness Sekhmet, the Ancient Egyptians held communal Festivals of Drunkenness at the beginning of their calendar year in mid-August, when the Nile is swelling.

Revelers drank to the point of passing out, only to be awoken by the beating of drums. The celebrations, which had an important religious dimension and typically took place in temples and shrines, also included dancing and public sex, in part to imitate and propitiate the flood and fertility to come.

The word “orgy,” ultimately from the Greek orgion, entered the English language in the 1560s to mean “a licentious revelry.” Today, people think of an orgy as a party involving open and unrestrained sex between strangers. But originally, orgia referred to the secret rites of Ancient Greek mystery cults such as the Dionysian Mysteries and the Cult of Cybele, which aimed, above all, at ecstatic union with the divine.

Dionysus, who, like Jesus, died and was reborn, was the god of wine, regeneration, fertility, theatre, and religious ecstasy, and was most fervently celebrated around the time of the vernal equinox. Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy.

The procession begins at sunset, led by torchbearers and followed by wine and fruit bearers, musicians, and a throng of revelers wearing masks and, well, not much else. At the back is a giant phallus representing the resurrection of the twice-born god. Everyone is pushing and shoving, singing and dancing, and shouting the name of the god mixed in with ribaldry and obscenity.

Arriving at a clearing in the woods, the crowd goes wild with drinking, dancing, and every imaginable manner of sex. The god is in the wine, and to imbibe it is to be possessed by his spirit—although in the bull’s horn the booze is interlaced with many other mind-bending substances. Animals, which stand in for the god, are hunted down, ripped apart with bare hands, and consumed raw with the blood still warm and dripping.

The “Dionysian” impulse for irrationality and chaos can be understood as a natural inversion of, and release from, the habitual “Apollonian” order and restraint imposed by the state and state religion. In the Birth of Tragedy (1872), the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche recognizes it as a primal and universal force:

Either through the influence of narcotic drink, of which all primitive men and peoples speak, or through the powerful coming on of spring, which drives joyfully through all of nature, that Dionysian excitement arises. As its power increases, the subjective fades into complete forgetfulness of self. In the German Middle Ages under the same power of Dionysus constantly growing hordes waltzed from place to place, singing and dancing. In that St. John’s and St. Vitus’s dance we recognize the Bacchic chorus of the Greeks once again, and its precursors in Asia Minor, right back to Babylon and the orgiastic Sacaea.

By diverting the Dionysian impulse into special rites on special days, the orgy was intended to keep it under control, preventing it from surfacing in more insidious and perfidious ways. More than that, it transformed it into an invigorating and liberating—and, in that much, profoundly religious—celebration of life and the life force.

It permitted people to escape from their artificial and restricted social roles, and regress into a more authentic state of nature, which modern psychologists have associated with the Freudian id or unconscious. It appealed most to marginal groups, since it set aside the usual hierarchies of man over woman, master over slave, patrician over commoner, rich over poor, and citizen over foreigner.

In short, it gave people a much-needed break—like modern holidays, but cheaper and more effective.

The Dionysian cult spread through the Greek colonies to Rome. In 186 BCE, the Roman Senate severely restricted it, but illicit Bacchanalia persisted, especially in Southern Italy, gradually folding into the much tamer Liberalia in honour of Liber Pater (“Free Father”), the Roman god of wine and fertility who so resembled Bacchus/Dionysus as, eventually, to fold into him.

As with the Dionysian cult, the Liberalia featured a giant phallus, carted through the countryside to fertilize the land and safeguard crops—after which a virtuous Roman matron would crown the phallus with a wreath. “Depravity” also featured in other Roman religious festivals, such as the Floralia, with prostitutes dancing naked, and the Lupercalia, with naked noblemen running through the streets and whipping willing ladies with strips of goatskin.

The 4th-century reign of Constantius II marked the beginning of the formal persecution of paganism by the Christian Roman Empire. But the springtime fertility orgy survived through the centuries, albeit in attenuated forms. At last, unable to suppress it, the Church integrated it into its calendar as Carnival—which, still today, involves the reversal of social norms and roles, licentiousness, and feasting ahead of the deprivations of Lent.

May Day celebrations across Europe and North America trace their origins to the Roman Floralia and corresponding Celtic traditions. In medieval times, people danced around the gigantic phallic symbol of the Maypole before descending into the fields or woods for indiscriminate sex, supposedly to fertilize the land. In 1644, the Puritans outlawed Maypoles in England, with the Long Parliament’s ordinance damning them as “a Heathenish vanity, generally abused to superstition and wickedness.”

“Ecstasy” literally means “to be or stand outside oneself” (“ex-stasis”). It is a trance-like state in which consciousness of an object is so heightened that the subject dissolves or merges into the object. Albert Einstein himself called it the “mystic emotion” and spoke of it as “the finest emotion of which we are capable,” “the germ of all art and all true science,” and “the core of the true religious sentiment.”

More than ever before, modern society emphasizes the sovereign supremacy of the ego and the ultimate separateness and responsibility of each and every one of us. From a young age, we are taught to remain in tight control of our ego or persona with the aim of projecting it as far out as possible. As a result, we have lost the art of letting go—and indeed, may no longer even recognize the possibility—leading to a poverty or monotony of conscious experience.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, letting go can threaten the life that we have built or even the person that we have become, but it can also free us from our modern narrowness and neediness, and deliver, or re-deliver, us into a bigger and brighter world.

Little children have a quiescent or merged ego, which is why they brim with joy and wonder. Youth and ecstasy are the echoes of a primordial wisdom.

Heaven & Hell 2e cover

How to Be Fearless

A philosophical cure for fear and anxiety


“Anxiety” said the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “is the dizziness of freedom.” What could he have meant by that?

Anxiety can be defined as “a state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms brought about by a sense of apprehension at a perceived threat.”

Fear is similar to anxiety, except that with fear, the threat is, or is perceived to be, more concrete, present, or imminent.

Fear and anxiety can, of course, be a normal response to life experiences, protective mechanisms that have evolved to prevent us from entering into potentially dangerous situations and to help us escape from them should they befall us regardless.

For example, anxiety can prevent us from coming into close contact with disease-carrying or poisonous animals, such as rats, snakes, and spiders, from engaging with a much stronger or angrier enemy, and even from declaring our undying love to someone who is unlikely to spare our feelings.

If we do find ourselves caught in a potentially dangerous situation, the fight-or-flight response triggered by fear can help us to mount an appropriate response by priming our body for action and increasing our performance and stamina.

In short, the purpose of fear and anxiety is to protect us from harm and, above all, to preserve us from death—whether literal or figurative, biological or psychosocial.

On the other hand, severe or inappropriate anxiety can be maladaptive, preventing us from doing the sorts of things that most people take for granted, such as leaving the house or even our bedroom. I once treated a patient with an anxiety disorder who, to avoid ever having to leave his bedroom, urinated into a bottle and defaecated into a plastic bag.

Such pathological anxiety is very common and often presents in one or more distinct patterns or syndromes, such as phobia, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

As with the adaptive forms, these pathological forms of anxiety can be interpreted in terms of life and death. Common phobias such as arachnophobia (spiders), ophidiophobia (snakes), acrophobia (heights), achluophobia (darkness), and brontophobia (storms) are all for the sorts of dangers that commonly threatened our ancestors. Today, man-made hazards such as motor cars and electric cables are much more likely to strike us, but most phobias remain for natural dangers, presumably because man-made hazards are too recent to have imprinted themselves onto our genome.

Panic disorder involves recurrent panic attacks during which symptoms of anxiety are so severe that the person fears that he or she is suffocating, having a heart attack, or losing control. Very soon, the person develops a fear of the panic attacks themselves, which in turn sets off further panic attacks. A vicious cycle takes hold, with the panic attacks becoming ever more frequent and severe and even occurring “out of the blue.”

As with phobias, the ulterior fear in panic disorder is of death and dying, as it is also with PTSD, which is a reaction to a traumatic life event, such as a car crash or physical or sexual assault. Common symptoms of PTSD include anxiety, of course, but also numbing, detachment, flashbacks, nightmares, and loss of memory for the traumatic event.

The symptoms of PTSD vary significantly from one culture to another, so much so that PTSD is sometimes thought of as a “culture-bound syndrome.” Culture-bound syndromes are essentially culture-specific anxiety disorders, which, again, like all anxiety disorders, can easily be understood in terms of life and death.

Dhat, for example, seen in South Asian men, involves a sudden fear about the loss of semen in the urine, whitish discoloration of the urine, and sexual dysfunction, accompanied by feelings of weakness and exhaustion. Dhat may be rooted in the old Hindu belief that it takes 40 drops of blood to create a drop of bone marrow, and 40 drops of bone marrow to create a drop of semen, and thus that semen is a concentrated essence of life.

In addition to fear and anxiety and their pathological forms (such as phobias, panic disorder, etc.), there is a more abstract or philosophical form of anxiety that has been called “existential anxiety.” While fear and anxiety and their pathological forms are grounded in threats to life, existential anxiety is rooted in the brevity and apparent meaninglessness or absurdity of life, that is, in a kind of metaphorical death.

As I argue in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, existential anxiety is so disturbing that most people avoid it at all costs, constructing a false reality out of goals, aspirations, habits, customs, values, culture, and religion in a bid to deceive themselves that their lives are special and meaningful and that death is distant or delusory.

Unfortunately, such self-deception comes at a heavy price. According to the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, people who refuse to face up to “non-being” are acting in “bad faith” and living out a life that is inauthentic and unfulfilling.

Facing up to non-being can bring insecurity, loneliness, responsibility, and, consequently, anxiety, but it can also bring a sense of calm, freedom, and even nobility. Far from being pathological, existential anxiety is a necessary transitional phase, a sign of health, strength, and courage, and a harbinger of bigger and better things to come.

For the philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich, refusing to face up to non-being leads not only to inauthenticity, as Sartre had said, but also to pathological (or neurotic) anxiety.

In The Courage to Be, Tillich writes:

He who does not succeed in taking his anxiety courageously upon himself can succeed in avoiding the extreme situation of despair by escaping into neurosis. He still affirms himself but on a limited scale. Neurosis is the way of avoiding nonbeing by avoiding being.

According to this striking outlook, pathological anxiety, although seemingly grounded in threats to life, in fact, arises from repressed existential anxiety, which itself arises from our uniquely human capacity for self-consciousness.

Facing up to non-being enables us to put our life into perspective, see it in its entirety, and thereby lend it a sense of direction and unity. If the ultimate source of anxiety is fear of the future, the future ends in death; and if the ultimate source of anxiety is uncertainty, death is the only certainty.

It is only by facing up to death, accepting its inevitability, and integrating it into a life that we can escape from the pettiness and paralysis of anxiety, and, in so doing, free ourselves to make, and get, the most out of our lives.

This esoteric understanding is what I have come to call “the philosophical cure for fear and anxiety.”

Feelings About the Self: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt


The psychology of the reflexive emotions, and the difference between them.

Embarrassment, shame, and guilt are all three reflexive emotions, that is, emotions about the self.

Although there is some overlap, embarrassment, shame, and guilt are distinct constructs.

Let’s look at them each in turn.


Embarrassment is the feeling of discomfort when (1) some aspect of ourselves is, or threatens to be, revealed to others, and (2) we think that this revelation is likely to undermine the image that we seek to project to those others.

Potential sources of embarrassment vary according to circumstances and, in particular, to the company in which we find ourselves. They include particular thoughts, feelings, or dispositions; actions or behaviors, such as farting or swearing; conditions or states, such as a spot on the nose or smelly feet; possessions, such as our car or home; and relations, such as our oafish partner, criminal uncle, or lecherous aunt.

Sources of embarrassment need not be beneath our projected image, but merely out of keeping with it—which explains why it is possible, at times, to be embarrassed by our posh parents or rarefied education.


Whereas embarrassment is a response to something that threatens our projected image but is otherwise morally neutral, shame is a response to something that is morally reprehensible.

Shame is often accentuated if its object is exposed, but, unlike embarrassment, also attaches to a thought or action that remains undisclosed and undiscoverable to others. Embarrassment can sometimes be intense, but shame is a more substantial feeling in that it pertains to our moral character and not merely to our social character or image.

Shame arises from measuring our actions against moral standards and discovering that they fall short. If our actions fall short and we fail to notice, we can “be shamed” or made to notice—an extreme example being Cersei Lannister’s Walk of Shame in Game of Thrones. If having been made to notice, we do not much mind, we can be said to be shameless, or to “have no shame.”

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle, ever the fine psychologist, remarks that shame also arises from lacking in honorable things shared by others like us, especially if the lack is our own fault and therefore owes to our moral badness.

Finally, it is possible to feel shame vicariously, that is, to share in the shame of another person or feel shame on his or her behalf, especially if this person is closely allied or associated with us: for example, our partner, sibling, or child. Thus, even blameless people can experience shame, and so much is also true of embarrassment and other emotions. “Hell,” said Jean-Paul Sartre, “is other people.”

Try, right now, to act out the feeling of shame. The word “shame” derives from the Proto-Indo-European for “to cover,” and the feeling of shame is often expressed by a covering gesture over the brow and eyes, a downcast gaze, and a slack posture. Other manifestations of shame include a sense of warmth or heat and mental confusion or paralysis. These signs and symptoms can communicate remorse and contrition and, in so doing, inspire pity and pardon.

Even so, we may prefer to make a secret of our shame, for shame can itself be shameful—or, to be more precise, embarrassing.

People with low self-esteem, being harsher upon themselves, are more given to shame. In some cases, they may defend against shame with blame or contempt, often for the person or people who incited their shame. This is only likely to lead to deeper shame, and therefore to lower self-esteem, opening up a vicious cycle—which might be broken if, like certain politicians, they stop feeling shame at all.

While overwhelming shame can be destructive, mild to moderate shame is mostly a force for good, goading us to live more ethical lives.

In Dying for Ideas, the philosopher Costica Bradatan writes:

…the chief reason for studying philosophy is not a desire to know more about the world, but a profound sense of dissatisfaction with the state in which one finds oneself. One day you suddenly, painfully, realize that something important is missing in your life and that there is too large a gap between what you are and the sense of what you should be. And before you know it, this emptiness starts eating at you. You may not know yet what exactly it is that you want, but you know quite well what you do not want: remaining the person you currently are. You may be so ashamed that you don’t even dare to call that “existence”: you don’t exist yet properly. It must have been in this sense that Socrates used the term “midwifery” for what he was doing. By subjecting those around him to the rigors of philosophy, he was bringing them into proper existence. So closely related to self-detestation, it may be that philosophy begins not in wonder, but in shame.


Whereas shame pertains to a person, guilt pertains to an action or actions and to blame and remorse. Shame says, “I am bad.” Guilt says, “I did something bad.”

More subtly, shame involves falling short of cultural or societal moral standards, whereas guilt involves falling short of one’s own moral standards. Thus, it is entirely possible to feel guilty about actions of which many or most of our peers approve, such as wearing designer clothes, driving a gas-guzzling car, or eating red meat.

As I discuss in my new book, Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions, shame and guilt often go hand in hand, which is why they are so often confused. For instance, when we injure someone, we often feel bad about having done so (guilt) and, at the same time, feel bad about ourselves (shame).

Yet guilt and shame are distinct emotions. Shame is “egodystonic,” that is, in conflict with our desired self-image, and high levels of shame are correlated with poor psychological functioning. In particular, eating disorders and many sexual disorders can be understood as disorders of shame, as can narcissism, which can be construed as a defense against shame.

Guilt, on the other hand, is “egosyntonic,” that is, consistent with our self-image, and—except in extreme cases, such as that of the regicidal Lady Macbeth—is either unrelated or inversely correlated with poor psychological functioning.

Faced with the same set of circumstances, people with high self-esteem are more prone to guilt than to shame, and more likely to take corrective or redemptive action.

There is a fourth “negative” reflexive emotion, humiliation, which I will save for my next article.