Does Getting Bored in Nature Make You Happier? (Michael Easter)

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When the boredom first set in as he sat in the middle of nowhere for more than 30 days during a caribou hunt on the arctic tundra, Michael Easter looked for a way to entertain himself. He read the labels on his food. He made his Christmas lists. He wrote portions of his book by hand in a small notebook. And when that was done he did, well, nothing.

Looking back on the experience as part of his new book, The Comfort Crises: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self, Michael has since discovered that boredom doesn’t just make you feel crazy or give you a perfect excuse for understanding the contents and labeling on every food package in your bag, it also does something actually useful: it makes you happier.

In this episode Michael discusses the experiences that brought about his book, boredom and what he discovered about happiness and nature along the way.

Warning to those listening with tender ears: there’s some salty language towards the end of this episode.

Some of the good stuff:

[2:31] Michael Easter’s favorite outdoor space

[4:47] How Michael became someone who likes to go outside

[7:18] What, exactly, the middle of nowhere in Alaska is like

[10:41] Why being open to stuff matters

[15:47] What it’s like to be out there for 33 days

[18:41] Why do we get bored?

[23:43] What does boredom do to your brain?

[27:47] What’s the intersection of discomfort, boredom and going outside?

[30:37] Why does it make us happier?

[33:05] Why do we shy away from risk and boredom?

[36:19] How do we insert boredom into our lives?

[38:52] How to get bored and stay bored

[44:07] Michael’s favorite and most essential outdoor gear

[50:37] Michael’s favorite outdoor moment

Connect with this episode:

Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation on The Humans Outside Podcast.

Listen to the episode on iTunes, Google Podcasts, or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.

Amy Bushatz 0:06

There’s no escaping it. Heading into nature brings with it discomfort. One of those discomforts is boredom. Or at the very least, boredom in the way we often think about it during our inside lives. You’re away from the constant parade of tasks, or if you’re lucky, unplugged completely from the distraction of internet and entertainment. But have you ever considered that boredom might also be one of the reasons being outside makes you feel happier? Michael Easter is a journalist, professor, and author. And in 2019, he found himself on a 33 day caribou hunting trip in the wilds of Alaska’s Arctic, looking for insights on what happens when we ditch everyday comfort for spending time doing hard stuff outside. His new book, The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort to Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self takes a deep dive into the why, how, and outcomes of ditching the things that make us super comfortable. And instead, chasing a life that purposefully seeks out discomfort every day. Today, Michael is going to talk to us about his adventures for the book, and why being uncomfortable and bored in nature makes you happier.

Michael, welcome to Humans Outside. I enjoyed your book very much. And I can’t wait to talk about it today.

So we always start the podcast imagining ourselves in our guest’s favorite outdoor space, like we were hanging out, doing whatever it is you do outside having this discussion there with you. So like, you know, being all imaginative and stuff, where are we hanging out with you today?

Michael Easter 2:31

I like outdoors that is accessible, but also feels a bit wild. So I live in Las Vegas, at the edge of Red Rock Canyon, which is this National Conservation Area. There’s this whole trail network that’s right by my house. And if you take enough trails, you end up on a trail called Blazing Saddles. And it goes kind of winds around this mountain, it goes up over this big saddle and it’s super rocky and interesting. And you see Desert bighorns out there. And it’s amazing. So that’s where we are.

AB 3:06

So I had a friend who recently went there, so I have seen pictures recently. When we say red, they’re red. This is not an exaggeration or a like, you know, leap of logic. They’re actually orange red rocks. Like this is a very brightly colored place.

ME 3:24

It’s kind of like what you see when people see photos of Southern Utah. Like in Moab—Arches National Park. I mean, it’s that sort of red, that same sandstone and what’s also interesting, because there’s a lot of different layers in the rocks. I mean, not everything is that red, and then you get a lot of rocks that are, you know, from the seabed and are like black, you know, and they’re beautiful, but they’re also sharp. You don’t want to trip because it’s like a cheese grater, essentially. It’s a super cool area. And I think, you know, people think that Las Vegas is just the strip. Totally not the case. I think it’s one of the best outdoor towns in the country. To be honest, there’s a ton out here and it tends to be pretty quiet. Not many people out in the desert.

AB 4:16

Yeah. So we’re in a place with you that is visually something that we’re probably not used to. And yeah, very good. Very cool. Okay, so you’ve had a long career writing about the outdoors. You’ve worked for Men’s Health, Outside Magazine, of course, you’ve got this book, The Comfort Crisis, which goes deep into spending a lot of time outside. But how did somebody become this person? How did you become someone who likes to go outside?

ME 4:47

I grew up in northern Utah. And I think there’s a relatively strong outdoor culture in in Utah, but I mean with all the ski resorts so much access to the mountains. I was sort of mildly into the outdoors as a kid, you know, my mom would take me hiking and stuff like that. And I could have taken it or left it, based on, you know, there’s also video games available, which are pretty stimulating. But probably when I was about 12, or 13, I read the book Into Thin Air. And I think that got me really interested in just spending more time outside, which is kind of strange considering that, you know, the book is about this disaster on Mount Everest. But it kick-started me to go do more stuff outside. And I did mountain biking pretty heavily in high school and college. And, you know, rock climbed and just started spending a lot more time outside. And I don’t know, I think that’s sort of carried on into my later years as well.

AB 5:52

It’s funny, a book about disasters on Mount Everest opens your mind to that. But I mean, that’s so true. We read these books, or we read about these big adventures, and you can kind of remove yourself from the disaster part of it and imagine yourself having the adventure. I don’t know what’s going on with that and the human psyche, but that’s totally a thing.

ME 6:16

Yeah, I think I think it definitely is, I mean, you, you know, we picture ourselves on these big epic things. And we don’t really consider the realities of doing that in the moment. Yeah. And then, I think in the moment, any sort of big, epic outdoor thing, it has moments where it just totally sucks and it’s miserable. But then when you get back, you’re like — man, I learned a lot out there. And I grew from it. And I kind of want to go back out there.

AB 6:43

Yeah, that’s fun. Forget the pain. And remember, only the good stuff. So but you’ve described like a pretty normal outdoor life. So like, a normal trajectory to that. So how do you go from like, just normal life of doing outside stuff to hanging out on the Arctic tundra for 33 days? And I mean, let’s just say like, I have not spent 33 days hanging out on Arctic tundra. But I have been there. So I can confirm there’s not a lot going on there.

ME 7:18

No, there’s not a lot going on there. I worked for Men’s Health magazine for maybe six, seven years. I’m a professor at UNLV, but I still write for Men’s Health and Outside, and a bunch of other magazines. Through my work, I ended up meeting this dude whose name is Donnie Vincent, and he’s this backcountry bowhunter and filmmaker who does these hunting documentaries that are—I kind of describe them as more like Planet Earth, but with hunting, than sort of normal hunting stuff you see on TV. They’re amazing and beautifully shot. He’s really thoughtful and articulate about the whole process. I ended up writing a profile of him. And to write that profile, we did this backcountry hunt in Nevada for maybe five, six days. And it was cool. And we became good friends. And I sort of, you know, noticed that after that hunt, I felt a lot better. And that sort of threw me into, like, all these different forms of discomfort that we just don’t face anymore in modern life. You know, the fact that it’s freezing cold the entire time, hungry the entire time, everything we do takes effort from like, going to get water. And so when he invited me up to the Arctic, and I sort of jumped on, because I thought maybe there’s some greater idea there, and maybe I could benefit from it. I mean, it was definitely out of my comfort zone. You know, I grew up in a single parent household, and my mom worked a lot. So you know, I got a lot out of the outdoors, but at the same time, like, I didn’t have a person who was taking me out. I just didn’t have like–let’s go hunting buddy, or let’s go camping, buddy. It’s like, my mom is literally working all the time, because that’s what you had to do, you know? So I just didn’t have that much experience with anything that crazy. And I was like–Yeah, yeah, let’s try this thing. So I signed on. It was amazing. It was challenging. I think it was all the things that I wanted out there. Everything was difficult, challenging, uncomfortable. But there’s also you know, moments of just pure amazingness and like, being totally removed from modern life, as it were, for that long. That totally changes you.

AB 9:57

So I want to go back to something you said, which is not what we’re focusing on today. But I think it is a really important point for those who are listening to this, which is that you don’t have to come from a background where you have somebody taking you outside or going where adventure or these big things are your norm to make that be your life. Now, people think they have to have, like this big background in this stuff to have it be accessible now. And really, it’s like, you know, being open to the possibility is—not to be too woo woo—being open to having that be something that you do is such a huge step and really the most important step.

ME 10:41

Yeah, I think so. When I talk about this book, people absolutely lose their minds when they hear that I was out there for more than a month, but it’s like, humans evolved in nature for like two and a half million years. We don’t spend as much time in nature in those environments anymore, simply because you were born in the last 10,000 years. Everyone is capable of spending extended time outdoors and can figure it out. It’s just like a learning curve. People think they can’t do something. You can do it, you just haven’t done it yet.

AB 11:22

And it doesn’t have to start with 33 days either. Like, that’s a very extreme way to jump in. It’s not, I mean, you didn’t start with 33 days, either. He went on this first hunt with him, and kind of got a taste. But, you know, it really just starts with, open your door, step outside today, and see where it takes you. We were talking before we started recording about my 20 minutes a day. And that’s really how that’s how I started. What happens if I go out for this minimum amount of time, every day for just a year? What happens? Will I want to do it more? Will I be super uncomfortable and quit, because sometimes it’s extremely cold here? I find now that 20 minutes really isn’t enough. I keep it that way. Because in the winter time, it’s sometimes enough. But really, like, I want more, I want to be out longer. It’s sort of like a gateway drug in the best possible way. Just open your door, step outside, don’t feel like you have to go into the Arctic for 33 days and not take a bath. Maybe that’s where you end up in your wildest dreams. But right now, just go outside, man.

ME 12:34

Yeah, exactly. I mean, like nature is oftentimes, like right outside our door. It’s on tree lined streets. It’s in city parks, it’s on the edges of town, it’s really easy to access. One of my messages is that I don’t fault people for not wanting to go outside initially. The human brain evolved to want to be able to predict the future. And outdoor environments are unpredictable, there’s a reason that we generally have defaulted to spending 95% of our time indoors, right? Because the outdoors is unpredictable. It’s uncomfortable. I mean, there’s all this, you know, human evolution, two and a half million years of time being like, why wouldn’t you just sit inside? It really makes way more sense to sit inside. But we also know that sort of going through that uncertainty and braving some of that discomfort of the outdoors, that delivers real physical and mental health benefits.

AB 13:38

Yeah. And it’s like what you just said, like you realized you wanted more. You went out for a couple of days, you’re like–Whoa, that was pretty great. Isn’t that just how it goes? Like, of course you want more of something that makes you feel good, why wouldn’t you? That’s just human nature, too. But you have to keep yourself open to the possibility that the thing that’s going to make you feel good or happy, like we’re going to talk about today, is not the logical thing, because logic says–if there’s not a bed and a toilet, I’m not interested.

So you went up to way north of where I am, just to give people perspective. Everyone knows I’m in Alaska, and I’m in Anchorage, but Alaska is humongous. So how far away from where I am, were you when you were here?

ME 14:30

We were probably 100 some odd miles above the Arctic Circle.

AB 14:41

So you were like, hundreds of miles from where I am. I mean, it’s all but a different world. I know people always imagine I live in some sort of crazy wild place. I live in a subdivision, guys. All right. There are no igloos. In fact, it’s like 80 degrees at my house today. Okay, so you were on the Arctic tundra, which is like this whole different thing. And, when we moved to Alaska, we had never been here before. And we pull into a campsite where there is some tundra. Although not like what you were at, and my husband and I stood there like the pioneers. You’re looking at this stuff like, what is it? It’s squishy. Or like poking it with our feet. Right? So it was just such a weird experience. So describe for us, what is Arctic tundra like?

ME 15:47

I describe it as like a mattress that is covered in partially inflated basketballs. So the mattress is sort of like grass and moss, and it’s sort of frozen. So it’s really soft when you step on it. I mean, the basketballs are what are called tundra tusks, which are these sort of densely wound big balls of grass, and you can step on them, but they’re kind of awkward and wobbly. So I mean, walking across the tundra is super challenging, because it’s like, if you step on the mattress, it’s like, you have to put more energy into each step. It sucks all your energy and momentum as you’re walking. But if you step on the basketballs, they’re obviously very awkwardly shaped. And you could easily roll an ankle. So it’s just, it’s a tough landscape. Where we were, there were a lot of really, really old mountains that have sort of been, you know, just defiled by time. And so they’re generally kind of like, almost rolling mountains, if you will. Yeah, they just roll on, like, forever. And I think that, you know, the landscape is like, it’s so big, you totally get messed up in terms of the distances. You have a really hard time gauging distance out there. Like what we thought would be a mile or two miles would be like, six, just everything is so far and open. And there’s like, no way to really get a good perspective on anything.

AB 17:18

Okay, so it’s like squishiness, and then slidy rocks, and then more squishiness. And there’s literally nothing going on there. It is you and those two other dudes who you’re with, and animals who are mostly evading you. And some ravens, and that’s it. Right? Okay. So with nothing, and no self service, and nothing and more nothing. All right, you experienced a level of boredom that you paired with research about what boredom does to your brain. So what does boredom do to your brain and body? Why do we get bored in the first place?

ME 18:41

Yeah, so boredom is uncomfortable, right? And there’s a good reason for that. So as humans evolved, boredom is this evolutionary discomfort that basically told us whatever we were doing at any given moment, the return on our time invested had worn thin. So if you’re out hunting, and you know, you need food for the night, if you’re not seeing any animals, it becomes boring. This like discomfort that kicks in that tells you to go do something else, go try and go find some other way to get food. It used to be this thing that was pretty good for us because it would compel us into doing something else that would be productive to help us survive. But nowadays, obviously, boredom has changed a lot, where we now have these really easy, effortless escapes from boredom. So now it’s like, anytime we’re bored, we feel that discomfort, we can pull out our phone or watch a screen or whatever. So boredom has kind of become something that we can very easily fix with something that I would argue is not as productive, right? I don’t think many people pull out their phone to read War and Peace. We’re like looking at you know, Twitter or whatever. So you know, up there, I didn’t have that easy escape for boredom. So what happens is just like what would happen, you know, a million years ago is that your mind starts to look for something else to do and it’s uncomfortable. You’re just like–what am I going to do? So I could only stare at nature for so long, right? Like, it’s beautiful up there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s amazing. But I can’t stare at it for 12 hours a day. No way. So I would do things like read the labels on my energy bars, and look at all the ingredients and read those like–Oh, that’s interesting. So Clif Bars, it was named after the guy’s father. Okay, interesting. You know, like, this becomes fascinating. I’ve read the labels on my jackets, where you’re like–Hey, guys, these down jackets we’re wearing, you can’t dry clean them that’ll ruin it. Remember that when we get back. Which is obviously like, just random BS. But at the same time, I also did some stuff that was pretty productive. I came up with a bunch of story ideas for the magazines I write for. When that became boring, and I didn’t have any more ideas, you know, that discomfort of boredness will kick on. And I would write some of the book, you know, I had all this time with this pen, an empty, empty notebook, essentially. So I wrote some of the book. When that became boring, I just sort of burned out on that, I wrote all my Christmas list down, you know, that kind of stuff. You know, so I argue in the book, it’s like we need to reintroduce boredom into our life, in a way where we don’t just default to the easiest escape like a screen. I mean, if you think of how humans have adopted screens, and digital media, it’s like 100 years ago, there was zero digital media in our lives, like none. Now you look at the data, and the average person today spends more than 11 hours a day engaging with digital media. Now, that’s obviously from cell phones. But that’s from TV, that’s from your computer, your iPad, your radio, whatever it might be. So this thing that was like never in our lives, has essentially become our lives because we have this discomfort of boredom. And we can very easily cure it with a screen or some other form of digital media. But we also know that boredom has benefits and tells us to do something productive, do something interesting.

AB 22:31

As we’ve discussed before, I was listening to your book on audio while I was running, and of course, was hearing you talk about the stats in the book. I’m glad you just noted that that’s engaging with your radio too, because I was like–Oh my gosh, am I ruining my statistics right now, by listening to this book while I’m running? Of course, when you’re running, it’s very boring, right? So you put your brain on whatever you can. I don’t run with music ever. So it’s either a book or a podcast or nothing. I do try to balance the two because I recognize that there will be times that the input is not an option. And I still want to be able to do what I’m doing. I don’t want to be in a place where I’m like, I don’t have this, therefore, I cannot do this other thing. But I’m like–Oh my gosh, am I ruining my boredom time by listening to this guy? It’s a real crisis of conscience for me. And I think it’s interesting. You talked about how you came up with like, story ideas and whatnot. Um, did you come up with any like crazy things that you’re like–What? Why did I think that? Because you were so bored?

ME 23:43

Oh, well, yeah, I just didn’t write them down. So the other reason that we spend so much time on devices and stuff is like, it’s uncomfortable to be with yourself. Because if you just monitor the thoughts in your head, you find that the person inside there is a raving lunatic, right? It’s like you’re constantly just thinking of weird stuff. And like, where do those thoughts come from? And then you have to start asking some hard questions. So by going into our cell phones, it also provides an escape from actually getting to know ourselves and introspecting, which can be a slightly uncomfortable process.

AB 24:29

What does being bored do to your brain? Is there like some sort of chemical thing happening here? Is there a hormonal thing happening here?

ME 25:15

Yeah, so I mean, to put it simply, your brain essentially has two modes. I described in the book, there’s a focused mode, and there is unfocused mode. So anytime that you are focusing on anything in the outside world, now, this could be your cell phone, this could be a conversation with someone, this could be reading, your brain is having to put in quite a bit of work to process this incoming information. So it’s kind of like this active, almost like workout type mode. Now, when you’re bored, and you are mind wandering, this is more inward focus, right? Like you’re not, you’re just kind of inward. And this fires on what’s called the default mode network. And the default mode network is essentially kind of like this period of rest and reflection. So it gives your brain sort of a break and a rest period from that active, focused mode. Now, I argue that with the introduction of all this tech in our lives, we are spending a lot of time in this focused, sort of taxing focus mode. And we’re spending less time in this sort of unfocused, inward mode that can be restorative. So I think you look at a lot of the research and it seems that like our collective, just lack of boredom, and also just focus on all this media stuff is leading to a lot of you know, burnout, mental fatigue, even things like anxiety.

AB 26:55

Then we have factor two, which is discomfort, right? I mean, this is the theme of your book, right, broadly, but boredom is a part of discomfort, so is just doing hard things. So what is the intersection of boredom and discomfort and doing something challenging? Whether that be challenging just to you, because you already went on a hunting trip for five days, and 33 is like, you know, no incredible leap of logic, although it kind of is, or challenging to me, which would be something entirely different? So what is the intersection of those?

ME 27:47

They all come into play when you go outside. Unless you’re bringing your cell phone and just, you know, I don’t know, spending all your time on Instagram while you’re outside. But basically, like for me by going outside in this challenging environment, like, I’m throwing myself into a lot of different forms of discomfort. So I think about modern life. Now, it’s like, I argue, most people, most of the time, if you live in the US, you are very rarely facing the same discomforts that our ancestors faced for millions of years. Sure, we have climate control, we have easy access to food, we do not have to, I mean, you could walk 1000 steps every single day, which is like nothing and be fine, you would live on, right, you live to 80. You have terrible health, but we can still prop you up with machines and medicine, right. So by going outside and doing something, you know, hard out there, whether that’s even just you know, like a backcountry trip, or even just like a long hike, all of a sudden, you get reintroduced to all these forms of beneficial discomfort that we used to face in the past. Like it’s inevitable, right, you are going to be doing something physical outside, because when you’re outside, everything takes a bit of effort. You’re naturally moving more, you’re naturally facing the elements. Food is often at a premium unless you’ve packed in a ton of food, which means then you’re also having to carry it. So you’re probably going to be bored unless you spend the whole time on your phone, which I mean, some people do and I argue it’s not a good idea. Part of the benefit of going outside is that discomfort of boredom. So it’s like you get reintroduced to all these discomforts that we’ve essentially engineered out of our lives, right, which has made sense. I’m not arguing that, you know, modern life isn’t great. It obviously is, but the balance has tipped too far where we are never uncomfortable, never doing these things that in the past, they had to do all the time. I don’t know if that answered your question.

AB 30:12

It does. So that kind of gets to where I’m kind of going with this, which is what all of this has to do with happiness. You’re saying — okay, we’ve abandoned this, you know, for our modern lives, that being inside isn’t terrible. Because, you know, like, obviously, it’s great, right? Because it’s really comfortable. So what’s the point? Why does this make us happier? Why even bother?

ME 30:37

Yeah, well, I mean, it does make us happier. I’ll tell you about this idea called toughening. There’s a lot of reasons, but this is one of them. So you look at the research on people who have faced challenges in their life. And the old idea in psychology was that, like any challenge that came a person’s way, it was bad. It was just bad, right? If something really challenging came your way, it was hard on you, if it’s too traumatic, and then you’re gonna be scarred for life. But we also have sayings, like, you know, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. It’s like, well, what does that mean? That kind of flies in the face of this old idea, right? So there’s this researcher, who tested this. He’s done all kinds of different surveys and studies on this idea. And what he basically finds is that, yes, people who have had a ton of challenges in their life, their mental health, and physical health is not great. On the flip side of that, people who have had too little challenges have faced equally poor rates of mental and physical health. There’s a sweet spot where humans need to hit this sweet spot of challenge, because what happens is when you challenge yourself, you learn something about yourself, right? Like, by going out into an environment where, you know, there’s a risk of failure, it’s maybe a little bit sketchy, XYZ, you learn a lot, you learn something, you learn what you’re capable of. And I argue in the book that, you know, we’re sort of building these new environments where like, we’re just removing all kinds of challenges from our lives and making things so much easier that we’re never faced to, we never put ourselves in positions where we are forced to have to sort of quickly adapt and overcome something that was hard, and therefore get this amazing learning opportunity about what our potential is. And I think the outdoors is a way to engineer this idea into your life.

AB 32:49

That’s a lot to absorb, you know, especially if you’re somebody who, sort of shies away from that, or doesn’t want to take that risk.

ME 33:05

I think that we are wired to not want to take risks, because for two and a half million years, doing something that was inherently risky was a dumb idea. Our environments were risky all the time, we didn’t have safety nets, we didn’t have a Garmin thing. We would have to hunt for food, like, everything was hard. So like, of course, we are just going to default to whatever’s easiest and safest, because that is like wired into us. But again, our environments have changed so much that we were a victim of our own success in a lot of ways. So, you know, you look at mental health rates right now. I mean, they’re off the charts with depression and anxiety. And there’s obviously not just one reason for this. There’s a lot of reasons for this. But I think the overarching thing is that we don’t face discomfort and challenge, right? We always do the easiest thing. And quite counterintuitively, this actually makes us miserable over time, right? Like if you get bored and the easiest thing to do is to go on to Instagram, like that’s probably going to have some bad effects over time. Not only are you taxing your brain, but you’re also like comparing yourself to people, right? We know that time in the outdoors is from lots of different different doses, from research all over the world that being outdoors speaks to humans and seems to improve our happiness and decrease our stress levels and increase our levels of calm. So this is kind of counterintuitive, because it’s like you don’t want to go out there. But once you’re out there, you’re like–oh, this is nice. I’m glad I did this. It’s kind of like a workout. Working out sucks. No one wants to work out. But when they finish a workout, like do you ever think–Oh man, I really wish I wouldn’t have done that? We have to go through discomfort to get benefits, ranging from physical health, mental health, emotional health.

AB 35:21

It’s like what you were saying earlier, why wouldn’t you want to do something that makes you feel good? Obviously you do. You’re inspiring yourself to take that risk, like you were just saying, to find that benefit to do in something that’s totally counterintuitive. And then the result is that well, what do you know, like you do feel better? Okay. And there, I mean, there’s all sorts of parallels to this. So getting back to the subject of boredom, though, and how this intersects with this, I think being bored, like finding a way to cut that tie is really hard. Obviously, it is not hard to find a way to be bored, right? Like, you just ditch your stuff and go into the middle of nowhere for a really long time. Right? Like, easy, okay, it’s getting to yourself to the spot where that’s okay with you. That’s what’s hard.

ME 36:19

After coming back, I was just trying to think like–how can I insert more boredom into my life? And I don’t think it’s that hard. It’s like, if you go for a walk every day, and just leave your cell phone, don’t bring anything with you, like, you’re gonna have time where you’re forced to go inward, and you’re gonna see your mind kind of wanders to a different area. Now, like I said before, you’re gonna have times where you were just thinking of absolute nonsense, strange nonsense. And that’s fine, because you’re also probably going to get some good stuff out of it, too. So boredom is really neither good nor bad. It just tells your brain to like, do something else. And increasingly, though, the problem is that something else is always there, like media, digital media, right? So by not having that option, by putting yourself in a position where you don’t have that option, you’re going to go to different places that I can guarantee are far more interesting than the seventh dumb video you’ve watched on Instagram that day.

AB 37:22

Yesterday I had a conversation with somebody who they call the Badger. Okay. And this made me think, well, if people had given me an animal name, what would that be? And I thought to myself–No, you are not thinking about this right now. You will be bored later, we will think about this then and we will discuss this. If you were an animal, what would you be? I imagine you talked a lot about food on your hike, because that’s what you talk about when you’re hiking when you’re hungry, like what you’re going to eat, right? No, no, we will save this topic for later when we want to explore the exact nature of the hamburger we’re going to have back in civilization. And the flavor of milkshake and the size of milkshake and the contents of the milkshake. And on and on and on. I mean, you could go on this diatribe for the rest of your life just talking about breakfast cereal, and you know, the cereal to milk ratio. Believe me, I’ve had these conversations, right? So other than like what you just said, which when you say it like that–Well, yeah, just leave your phone home and go for a walk. Hello? Do you have some other tips for getting and staying really bored in nature, so you get to a place where you can log that happiness that we’re talking about, that are maybe not as obvious? Maybe they are all obvious, I don’t know.

ME 38:52

I take a minimum of 20 minute walk outside every day. And sometimes, I’m having fun, I’m having some good ideas, and all of a sudden, it’s 45 minutes or an hour or whatever it is. I think that you know, in the book I write about this concept called the nature pyramid. Basically, the research suggests it’s kind of like the food pyramid. But instead of you know, saying eat this many servings of grains and this many of meat or whatever it basically suggests different doses in different kinds of nature. So at the bottom of the pyramid, it suggests that 20 minutes three times a week in the type of nature you can find, you know, on a really tree lined street or in a city park that’s associated with decreased levels of stress, increased levels of focus. The next level is five hours a month and a little bit more wild nature. So this would be stuff like you know, a bigger state park or something where there’s like, more, you know, trails and more trees. It’s a little bit wild there, it’s not as manicured as a city park. And under the very top, there is three days in a row, once a year in that country nature. Now this is, I don’t think I gave you the benefit of the five hours. So the five hour benefit is a lot lower levels of depression, increased happiness. There’s a ton of benefits at the top of the pyramid. But basically what happens is your brain starts to ride what are called alpha waves. And these are the waves that are found in experienced meditators. So they’re associated with just like really heightened life satisfaction, increased levels of happiness, just like–ah, I feel good, right? And also increased levels of creativity. So it’s like your brain is in this time of complete removal time and really wild spaces, to sort of reset every year. I sort of frame it as–so this is why it’s good. You know, once a year, go camping, go out and do something outdoors. And if you’re the type of person who really is just like–I would never camp, I would rather die than camp–you could even ask the researcher about this. And you can even just rent a sort of off the grid cabin. But the whole point of all this, the whole rule to all this is that you can’t be using digital media the whole time because that seems to cancel out a lot of these effects because it changes it changes your focus, like you’re supposed to be sort of lightly focused on the nature, spending time in your mind, but sort of observing it all and that just goes out the door if you’re if you’re using your phone in any capacity.

AB 41:48

This is my confession. I am guilty of taking my phone on my adventures and being dismayed/delighted when I actually have reception.

ME 42:08

Especially if I go far out, you know, when I go on my walks around, just like out in the desert or in my neighborhood, I don’t bring it because nothing’s gonna happen. But if I go on, like, longer runs out in the desert, I mean, it gets pretty hot. Like if I were to break something out there, it’d be a little sketchy. So I’ll take it, but I just turn it off. Because there’s even just having it on, but in like airplane mode, it’s really easy to like, pull it out and switch it. But like, even just having to turn it on and let it boot up. I mean, that’s like enough of a barrier to entry that I’m reminded like, yeah, don’t touch the thing. Unless this goes south for some reason.

AB 42:49

Yeah. So, so easy. And I wanted to mention if listeners want to hear more about that and all of the dosage stuff, you can listen to Episode 119 of Humans Outside, which is at the end of season three, and hear from Florence Williams, who wrote a book on this subject. Mike, I’m sure you know, or have talked to her before. She’s pretty great. So okay, so I thank you for giving us these insights and these tips for helping us get bored and stay bored outside. And we’ll find happiness through that. At the end of our episodes, we sort of like, take a left turn and talk about some stuff that I just really want to know. So I love to know my guests’ favorite and most essential outdoor gear because I’m, you know, I spend a lot of time outside in Alaska. And I mean, I like to buy stuff, and I’m American, what can I say? So sometimes guests say, you know, their favorite outdoor gear is snacks, and I can get on board with that, big time. So there’s no wrong answer. Tell us, what is your favorite and most essential outdoor gear?

ME 44:07

My favorite. I have trouble with this one. Because like, I have some friends that I mean, I think that going outside for them is more just an opportunity to buy shit. Mountain men used to walk around in like a piece of leather.

AB 44:35

This perspective is like living on Mountain House meals for 33 days.

ME 44:40

We’re gonna be fine. And I like, you know, you go to REI, and it’s like–oh, well, this one’s $100 more. What’s the difference? It’s like four ounces lighter, right? Well, why don’t you just like not have a cheeseburger a week before? And I mean, that’s the difference, is I just saved 200 dollars, you know? I’m thinking of some trail shoes I love. I’m trying to remember the company. I think they’re from Innovate. I can’t remember what they’re called, like Terra something. But the cool thing about them is that they have some sort of, which when I was told about this and read, I was like — yeah, that’s some BS. They have some, like fiber in the sole. And the whole idea is that it doesn’t wear out as much like the very bottom. And, you know, I thought it was BS, but they’ve actually lasted much longer because like, the desert out here is super gnarly. And I just go through shoes at a stupid rate. And these have lasted a lot longer. So those are, those are rad. I like them, and they fit well. Well, I really liked these Ugg boots that we had in Alaska, they’re rated down to minus 40. And what was amazing about them is, like they had zero break in period, and yet they are, gigantic, which I assumed like, I’m gonna have to put so many hours on these things before I’m not dying in them. So probably those two things,

AB 46:20

I find it’s like the little things in life too. But if you aren’t somebody who spends a lot of time outside, my hope is that listening to this gives you maybe an insight into the things you should be focusing on. Because like you said, like, you could just go buy stuff, right? But the thing that’s gonna make a big difference is if you are comfortable or not, and that has a lot to do with if you’re warm and if your feet are good, right? So you are not the first person to record to talk about hiking boots, because that’s a huge thing. That if your feet are uncomfortable, you’re like–I am out, you know, why would I? Like there’s discomfort, and then there’s like, just being stupid.

ME 46:59

Yes, exactly. I kind of think about it, like, a boxer doesn’t become good by just taking punches in the face. Now getting punched in the face as part of being a boxer, but that’s not how you improve about it. Right? It’s like some of the stuff has to be hard, but we’re not trying to get punched in the face out here.

AB 47:20

Yeah, exactly. It’s that balance between being prepared and being willing to take the risk. And, like the feet are a huge part of that. I mean, this is like a problem of living in Alaska. But still, I focus a lot on staying warm. A lot of other people focus a lot on not being too warm. Right. So there you go. But I, you know, think a lot about that. And for me, it all comes down to like, admitting that different jackets have different purposes. And that I should actually spend a little money on the one that’s gonna keep me the warmest.

ME 47:59

I think that’s a good takeaway. Once you’re at a certain level, in my experience, everything is pretty comparable. Especially when you’re in an extreme environment, you do have to get to a certain point in your gear, you can’t go to Walmart and just grab whatever, right? But I tend to just kind of like, not overthink it.

AB 48:26

No. And the other thing you said, I think is really important for people is if they fit you well, and that’s a huge deal for me. My favorite outerwear is by Mountain Hardware. And that has absolutely nothing to do with anything except for it fits me. The end.

ME 48:41

A lot of women especially say that, like so much outdoor gear does not fit them well.

AB 48:48

It’s a real problem. I know, especially in the hunting community. It’s a huge problem in the hunting community because things are just not made women specific. It’s less of a problem in like, you know, the generalist outdoor community. But like for example, I have extremely long arms. Nike, just as an example, anything with thumb holes in their gear, those hit me just below the wrist, like up my arm. So if I’m rolling with shirts, you know, long sleeves that are supposed to be up to my knuckles, but actually stop at the bottom of my wrist without even getting to my hand, this item is not serving its purpose and it is not for me. So like you have to know your body and know what fits and I appreciate the recommendations and talking about this stuff because it makes such a big difference to people who are just really getting their feet wet on this or looking for ways to problem solve around why going outside hasn’t been their favorite thing. Maybe that’s because your feet really hurt because you don’t have good boots. Because you’re extremely cold, because you thought like me that this one jacket that you own surely would be enough for all of the purposes in the land. And it’s not. Well, spoiler alert, Debbie Downer. Okay.

So to close this out, I love to just sort of like go back, sort of like we started, we heard about your favorite outdoor space where we’re pretending to have this conversation. But walk us out with sort of envisioning that favorite outdoor moment that you have. Like, if you close your eyes and take yourself back somewhere, where are you? What are you doing?

ME 50:37

I’m kind of a fan of quiet moments. I’m one of those people on a camping trip or whatever, who gets up at 5am and just goes out alone. It’s definitely those and I’ve had a lot of them. Like, especially up on the Arctic, one morning, I went out on the tundra, and just like stood alone as the sun was rising, and it is unbelievably silent up there. And, you know, after just a second, like, start to hear my heartbeat, and it is like, it’s so quiet out there that my heart is like a kick drum. And then I can hear like, even the blood from my carotid artery, like pushing blood into my brain, you know. It’s like, you never experienced silence like that, ever. When in the modern world, you know, so I think moments like that nature gives us things like, you know, seeing an animal at a certain, you know, point in its life. It’s like–Oh, my God, that’s amazing. So some of those more like, quiet, observant moments are totally what I think mostly what I go out for, to be honest.

AB 52:05

Michael, thank you so much for talking to us today on Humans Outside. We sure appreciate you sharing your story.

One Response

  1. This article is so inspiring and, to tell the truth, the story of Michael Easter even changed my worldview to some extent because I could open really unusual and incredible things to myself which impacted on my mind and become the verity of life. He could totally change my understanding and attitude to boredom and spending time in nature, arousing a huge desire in me to read his new book where I will be able to deepen in this theme more. I absolutely agree with Michael that people can use boredom as a compass which will direct them in the right way and contribute to benefit them, if they do something productive. But also we can drown our boredom out with the aid of gadgets, degrading. I fell in love with this interview and Michael’s way of thinking because It is truly wise.

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