Are You Struggling with Ennui? 4 Steps to Manage the “Silent” Emotion

Merriam Webster defines ennui as a feeling of weariness, dissatisfaction, or boredom.

Contrast this feeling to the excitement of hustling through grad school or working towards a dream career. When you have goals like “graduation,” “tenure,” or “partnership” in mind, it’s easy to value powering through to achieve the desired results of your hard work.

But what happens when you’ve landed your dream career?

When you’ve published that book?

Do you find yourself feeling bored or unfulfilled?

Even if there are small goals on the horizon, you’re in a slump with no big milestones in sight.  Philosophers call this is ennui.  Kieran Setiya—a professor of Linguistics and Philosophy at MIT, calls it a “mid-career crisis.”

If you’re in a mid-career slump you’re not alone.  Many professionals found that they hit their lowest points of overall life satisfaction between the ages of 20–45.

Is a dramatic career shift the only way out?  Setiya says no, and establishes four foundational steps to overcoming and constructively managing ennui.

1.  Recognize that “Missing Out” is Inevitable

  • You cannot change the fact that there will always be at least one major “road not taken.”  To some degree, every decision you make excludes other potential options.  But the very act of choosing gives your choice value.
  • Regretting all the things you might be missing out on will drive you crazy and steal your appreciation from what you do have.  Learn to see the value of the “bird in the hand.”
  • Setiya says, “the only way to avoid regret entirely is to care about just one thing, but that would impoverish your life.”  Caring about more than one thing also means you can’t have everything.  You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

2.  Focus on Achievements Instead of Regrets

  • Take time to think through the value of the work you are doing now, the relationships you have made, the value you bring to the world now.
  • Exchange regrets for appreciation by focusing on the people, relationships, and activities you value – all things that depend on the choices you made to get where you are now

3.  Inject Some Joyful Changes into the Present 

  • Ennui sometimes has less to do with the past and regrets and more to do with the present.  Mid-career crises don’t necessarily mean you need to or should change your career, but they can productively fuel some small scale changes.
  • Add existential worth to your life, inside the workplace and out.  Pursue a fun (or far-fetched) work project, or revive/take up a hobby.
  • Make room for pleasurable activities, not just “critical” tasks.
  • Bring satisfaction to your present.  If satisfaction is always in the future or the past, your present will logically start to seem empty.
  • Practice mindfulness and “living in the present.”  When your thoughts draw you into the future or the past, pull yourself back into “today.”

4.  Value the Process  

  • Remember that some of the best parts of life do not have clear-cut goals—memorable joys can be unexpected and occur in the course of everyday life.  Other highlights occur in the pursuit of a goal and not only in the accomplishment.
  • Apply this mindset to your work.  By valuing the process, you’ll find more meaning and enjoyment in your day-to-day work.  Even when you’re not accomplishing projects or launching products, find value in the skills you’re developing.

When ennui attacks with agonizingly undramatic force, you might be tempted to make a drastic shift in your goals or career.  But that’s not necessarily the solution.  Ancient, modern, and contemporary thinkers suggest that you might just need to make a shift in your perspective.  With intentionality, the way you live can ultimately become a more surefire center for satisfaction than your circumstances.

Have you been hit with ennui or are you questioning a mid-career shift?  Try these four steps to overcoming and managing ennui and let us know what you think!