In your room, up in your loft on a Friday afternoon.
Waiting outside the Caf for 13 1/2 minutes for your friends to show up.
In line at the Post Office, or the DMV, or anywhere.
I am so bored I could scream!
For most of us, it isn't that our lives or situations are actually 'boring,' it's that we're not experiencing them as interesting. It's a subjective experience, not objective. Writer/fitness expert Mark Sisson says, "Boredom isn’t so much an experience itself but our resistance to an innate level of being."
Giles Fraser, a British journalist and priest, says that our culture's almost-pathological fear of boredom [and our resulting addiction to entertainment] is a result of our loss of religion; without God to make meaning out of life, to tell us what is important (and therefore, what is not), we are forced to try by ourselves to make meaning out of everything.
But that's impossible for us to do, and so we distract ourselves: "As traditional structures of meaning are wiped away, boredom comes to be regarded as a very personal sort of failing. And in order to avoid it, various distractions are entertained: travel, drink, drugs, the Xbox, sex, transgressive behavior — all strategies of avoidance, all hinting at a desperate desire to hold off the acknowledgment of meaninglessness." (Fraser's excellent podcast is here)
A History of Boredom? Sounds Boring.
“Boredom” first became a word in 1852, with the publication of Charles Dickens’ convoluted (and sometimes boring) serial, Bleak House; as an emotional state, it obviously dates back a lot further. Roman philosopher Seneca talks about boredom as a kind of nausea, while Greek historian Plutarch notes that Pyrrhus (he of the “Pyrrhic victory”) became desperately bored in his retirement.
Dr. Peter Toohey, a Classics professor at the University of Calgary, traced the path of being bored in 2011 in Boredom: A Lively History. Among the stories he uncovered was one from the 2nd century AD in which one Roman official was memorialized with a public inscription for rescuing an entire town from boredom (the Latin taedia), though exactly how is lost to the ages.
And the vast amount of ancient graffiti on Roman walls is a testament to the fact that teenagers in every era deface property when they have nothing else to do.
In Christian tradition, chronic boredom was acedia, a sin that’s sort of a proto-sloth. The “noonday demon”, as one of its early chroniclers called it, refers to a state of being simultaneously listless and restless and was often ascribed to monks and other people who led cloistered lives. By the Renaissance, it had morphed from a demon-induced sin into melancholia, a depression brought on by too aggressive study of maths and sciences; later, it was the French ennui."
What is Boredom?
Professor John D. Eastwood of York University, Canada, defined boredom as an experience of “wanting to, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity.” What separates boredom from apathy, he says, is that the person is not engaged but wants to be. With apathy, he said, there is no urge to do something. The core experience of boredom, Eastwood says, is “disruption of the attention process, associated with a low mood and a sense that time is passing slowly.”
Boredom can sound an awful lot like depression. But Eastwood says that while they can be related, people who are bored tend to see the problem as the environment or the world, while people who are depressed see the problem as themselves.
Bored Out of Your Mind? Try Going the Other Way.
Boredom can be a chance to actually be quiet with your own thoughts, and spend some healthy time inside your own mind, rather than trying to find one more channel of input.
Adam Cox, clinical psychologist and author, says "few of us enjoy boredom, yet the availability of mental space that boredom represents goes hand in hand with a civil mind. We should cling to the pauses in cognition that boredom signals as we might cling to a life raft. It may be our last hope for a private moment of time and space — a chance to breathe and consider how to treat others, before the prospect of civility drowns in a wave of electronic thrills, and there’s no air left to think."
Others see boredom as a sort of spam filter for life, according to the New York Times: "Some experts say that people tune things out for good reasons, and that over time boredom becomes a tool for sorting information. In various fields including neuroscience and education, research suggests that falling into a numbed trance allows the brain to recast the outside world in ways that can be productive and creative at least as often as they are disruptive."
In 2011, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, New York Times film critics, offered up a defense of “boring” films, declaring that they offer the viewer the opportunity to mentally wander: “In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”
Earlier this year, Science Omega examined the benefits of boredom. Psychologists from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) have conducted research into the potential upsides of boredom and found that the time we spend daydreaming could improve our creative ability. Dr. Sandi Mann of UCLan emphasized boredom's role in society: "I do strongly believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of boredom and that we all – adults, children, workers, non-workers – need a little bit of boredom in our lives. Of course I’m not saying we should make people attend boring meetings for the sake of it, but allowing downtime where they can daydream and let their minds wander could possibly lead to benefits…"
And it's not like your brain is asleep while you're bored. Using brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists have found that the brain is highly active when disengaged, consuming only about 5 percent less energy in its resting “default state” than when involved in routine tasks, according to Dr. Mark Mintun, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis.
“Boredom is the brain’s way to tell you you should be doing something else,” said Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at N.Y.U. “But the brain doesn’t always know the most appropriate thing to do. If you’re bored and use that energy to play guitar and cook, it will make you happy. But if you watch TV, it may make you happy in the short term, but not in the long term.”
When Boredom Becomes Unhealthy
While occasional boredom can inspire creativity and deliberate action, it can also lead to less healthy behaviors. A common result of tedium is mindless snacking or eating, which research has found to occur both in obese and non-obese individuals.
Boredom has also been cited as a reason behind drug and alcohol use, gambling, risky behaviors (from skydiving to casual sex), crime and violence.
A host of studies have found that people who are easily bored may also be at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders, gambling addictions, eating disorders, aggression and other psychosocial issues. Boredom can also exacerbate existing mental illness. “One possibility is that boredom causes depression; another is that depression causes boredom; another is that they’re mutually causative," explains Dr. John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University in Toronto. “So we’re at the very beginning stages of trying to figure it out.”
Boredom occurs along a continuum, a spectrum, and so the issue is moderation. If you're constantly bored, you may be suffering from depression, and should seek some help for that.
What If We Didn't Have Boredom?
Scott Adams of "Dilbert" fame talks about how the boredom of his youth and early career opened the gates of his own imagination. But his biggest concern is what will happen to the world if we "lose" boredom:
"Lately I've started worrying that I'm not getting enough boredom in my life. If I'm watching TV, I can fast-forward through commercials. If I'm standing in line at the store, I can check email or play "Angry Birds." When I run on the treadmill, I listen to my iPod while reading the closed captions on the TV. I've eliminated boredom from my life.
Now let's suppose that the people who are leaders and innovators around the world are experiencing a similar lack of boredom. I think it's fair to say they are. What change would you expect to see in a world that has declining levels of boredom and therefore declining creativity? Allow me to describe that world. See if you recognize it.
For starters, you might see people acting more dogmatic than usual. If you don't have the option of thinking creatively, the easiest path is to adopt the default position of your political party, religion or culture. Yup, we see that.
You might see more movies that seem derivative or are sequels. Check.
You might see more reality shows and fewer scripted shows. Right.
You might see the best-seller lists dominated by fiction "factories" in which ghostwriters churn out familiar-feeling work under the brands of famous authors. Got it.
You might see the economy flat-line for lack of industry-changing innovation. Uh-oh.
You might see the headlines start to repeat, like the movie "Groundhog Day," with nothing but the names changed. We're there.
You might find that bloggers are spending most of their energy writing about other bloggers. OK, maybe I do that. Shut up.
You might find that people seem almost incapable of even understanding new ideas. Yes."
Does the Bible Talk About Boredom?
Diane Vincent (Torrey Honors Institute) wrote a brief essay on Ecclesiastes, which certainly seems like a go-to text for this topic.
“I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil — this is God’s gift to man” (Eccl 3:12–13).
"In fact, “find enjoyment in your toil” is a major refrain of the Teacher. This is not a “devil may care” attitude to a meaningless life. Rather, it is an exhortation to enjoy small things “small-ly,” in proper proportion, rather than demand of them eternal satisfaction or even a lasting satisfaction as if they belonged to us. Nothing good is mine to keep or preserve; all is subject not to me, but to death, disintegration, replacement. Life under the sun offers me nothing by which I can profit.
"Embracing this does not make a man a cynic, but helps him to enjoy limited goods in the limited way that belongs to them. A smaller love is better and greater than a disappointed or disillusioned love that quickly slides into contempt.
"Here, we have a friend in boredom. Every so-called new thing never manages to deliver any true gain. To be bored is to rightly feel the meaninglessness of life under the sun. Boredom prompts us to realize what our hearts, burning with eternity, really long for, and using boredom well can renew a small love for small things. We ought not to find small goods and limited joys contemptible, only small."
Embracing Boredom—The Takeaway
The key, again, is moderation.
Mark McGuinness of 99U has six points for dealing with boredom:
1. Make sure it’s the right kind of boredom.
The wrong kind of boredom is the kind you experience when you’re doing something tedious or pointless – something that doesn’t inspire you or help you achieve your ambitions. But the right kind of boredom is the kind you experience in spite of the fact that you know this is something you really, really want to do – i.e. work on a big creative challenge. That should alert you to the fact that it’s only a smokescreen for Resistance.
2. Decide beforehand when you’re going to start work.
If you wait until tomorrow to decide whether to start work in the morning or the afternoon, you give yourself an opportunity to procrastinate. But if you decide today to start at 9am tomorrow, then when 9am comes round you have a stark choice – do your work or break your promise.
3. Cut yourself off from distractions. Don’t rely on willpower.
Is it enough to use software to switch off the internet? Do you need to avoid the computer altogether? Or do you require a high-focus environment like a library or shared studio? You know yourself better than anyone.
4. Prepare to be bored. Don’t resist it.
Sit there and experience it – notice how your body feels, what thoughts and temptations parade through your mind, and what emotions you experience. (A regular meditation practice can be enormously helpful here.) Get to know your boredom – when you really study it, can actually be quite interesting!
5. Stay where you are until the boredom subsides.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to come up with something amazing straight away. Just lay your paper/laptop/canvas/guitar/whatever in front of you, and look at it. If it’s a work in progress, look at what you did yesterday. When I do this, I usually find myself tempted to make a few light edits here and there, and before long the edits get bigger, I cross out fewer words and start adding more and more. So give yourself permission to do nothing or just tinker around – as long as you stay focused on the work in front of you.
6. Make a habit of it.
The more times you see the pattern – first boredom, then curiosity, then interest, then absorption – the more easily you will recognize the boredom as just the first part of the process, and the easier it will be to persist.
So do we celebrate boredom? Well, sorta. Again, it's moderation: Our goal should be to feel comfortable away from the constant chatter of activity and technology.
“Boredom is an agonizing, restless desire to be connected with something meaningful,” Eastwood says. What people are really searching for, he says, is a way to unplug and enjoy down time. “In an environment where we are constantly overstimulated,” he says, “it’s hard to find ways to engage when the noise shuts down.”