Apathy by Libby.
Photo courtesy of Libby

What do you think of this phrase: “The Joy of Apathy”? It sounds like such a clashing contradiction: how can joy, which is associated with happiness and passion, be found in the opposite stoicism of apathy? While joy and apathy certainly aren’t the same, they often work together and are complementary, as we’ll see.

Every one of us has a capacity to care and be happy. That’s good, and is a fundamental part of what enables us, as humans, to build sustaining communities and civilizations. At the same time, caring too much is hurtful, or even harmful — unhealthy obsession, caring’s dark side, can creep out and make one focused on trying to win at all costs, even if the end result is failure. Take a gambler, who’s undeniably passionate about pulling the one-armed bandit or takes a chance on innumerable other games, but whose high-rollin’ elation soon descends into depressing depths when they can’t beat the house. Or witness the hype-laden rush of the dot-com-bomb era, from which Pets.com ex-CEO Julie Wainwright candidly wrote about what she learned.

Passion and joy focused in the wrong directions don’t do you good; as part of your emotional faculties, tempering them with apathy — even if that may sound completely counterintuitive and wrong at first — is key to living a better life.

Care, but not that much

Herb Cohen is one of the world’s finest negotiators. From bargains at electronics stores to convincing terrorists to let their hostages go, his wealth of experience has a central theme which comes up often: care, but not that much.

Showing you’re interested in, say, a store item will pique a clerk to sell it to you. But go overboard and, in effect, communicate (via body language and obvious desperation) that you must have it at any price, and you will give the upper hand to the other party.

My Dad was a pretty darn good negotiator too, and whenever someone enthusiastically offered him what they considered to be a massive deal, my Pa would scoff,

“Huh! Is that so?”

and stare at them. So intensely that their retinas might’ve been seared out before dunking dollars off the price tag. It was one of his best tricks, which helped me get my first Macintosh computer at a fine price, among many other goodies in my youth.

Be cool. Let apathy be the frosting on your “caring cake”. In the blackjack-centric movie 21, Kevin Spacey plays a professor with a secret life of teaching card counters. He repeatedly reminds his students to not let their feelings get in the way to win — so in the absence of those feelings, even though it’s unsaid (as it often is), there’s apathy.

The same principles apply in relationships: coming on too strongly to someone you have affection for is smothering. Pretending you’re not interested (it’s hard, I know!) may have the opposite effect. I’m not just talking about romantic partnerships, but contacting someone you admire and want the attention of (Tim Ferriss describes this as a Mentor-type process) — we’re all people.

What’s really worth caring about?

You have a finite amount of time and energy, just like you do with other resources, such as money. Even if you’re super-generous, you don’t donate to every charity, just a select few you especially care about and can relate with. It gives you a good feeling to give. And the rest? Frankly, you don’t care. They effectively don’t exist unless you give not just $$$, but your attention.

While that may be viewed as bad for those other charities, don’t worry, because human diversity is infinite, and chances are someone else cares about them. (Or if not, perhaps the charities should do a better job marketing themselves.)

You aren’t interested in everything. You don’t visit every website — you bookmark favorites (and I hope one of them is Lifehack ;) ).

Think of your ability to care and be joyful about the stuff in your life as measured as slices of a total pie. You may find this uncomfortably mechanical, but with a big picture — or pie-cture — you can look at criteria such as:

  • How much time you spend on something
  • How much you talk to friends & family about it
  • Your commitment to active, communal participation (Joss Whedon fans and cosplay zealots are fantastic examples)
  • And perhaps most importantly: what are you getting out of it?

Throw away your “old clothes”

Out of everything you care about, what definitely isn’t worth caring about, as passionate (in a bad way) as it makes you feel? If you find that tough, take a hard look at what long-term benefits you’re getting from it — the followup, the results, the takeaways.

You may like to indulge in food and consider yourself a confectionary guru. But gorging yourself on le chocolat, despite momentary feelings of pleasure, will bloat you in the long run. Care less about sweets, care more about a healthy lifestyle.

Some people get a rise off of social drama on Internet forums and like to “munch the popcorn” while watching the trolling ensue or even making trouble themselves — instead of doing something that contributes more effectively and visibly to their well-being. For instance, using a forum to conduct research about job opportunities.

Others passively watch TV news waiting for stories of interest, when they’d be better and quicker served by a sleek aggregator like popurls.

You’ve probably observed that you don’t have enough time, but for the time you’ve been spending on various activities, should you really care about all of them? Or can you look closer and go “meh” to some, empowering yourself through the joy of apathy?

I understand it’s a mental challenge to drop the slop, like trying to get rid of old clothes and hesitating, “I might need them someday!”. But apathy is about not wasting energy, saving resources, and having more of a “reserve” to spend in the future. Just like emptying your closet of unworn antiques gives you space to store new ones, caring less about some things — or not giving a damn at all! — makes you able to care more about others.

Be bored of badness

When I was younger, I used to get angry. A lot. Sounds like the Incredible Hulk, but there was nothing smashing about it. You know what intriguingly ended up happening? I experienced a lot of incarnations of anger, depression, and other baggage, like variations on a theme by Beethoven, and eventually found myself bored… numb… not caring. It created a void wherein I thought to myself, during some of my more sullen moments,

“OK… if this is my life… what do I care about, and why?”

Words like “purpose”, “meaning”, and “reason” often get trotted out here. The simple truth that connects those three words is a sense of focus, of direction, of finding your way.

And focus certainly doesn’t mean “everything”; like using apathy skillfully, even artfully, it means picking something specific to target. Remember, apathy is easier than it seems, because not caring doesn’t require energy. (Pardon the double negative.)

Don’t count on theory. Often in life, you just won’t know without the experience. Having lived through something. You cared about it, know what that’s like, and now you can lose interest and move on. The concept of losing interest in unhealthy emotions may sound bizarre, but it makes perfect sense. Emotions are often connected to external experiences, and just like the 100th rerun of a comedy sitcom episode isn’t going to be as funny or surprising as the first time around, going through phases of emotions and exploring them, even if they’re unpleasant ones, will teach you a lot about who you are, what’s worth caring about, and why.

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