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In Praise of Boredom

“Only Boring People Get Bored”.

Has someone quoted this at you? Have you trotted this one out to your kids yet? Google tells me this quote is from an American author, Ruth Burke. And I think Ruth Burke has a lot to answer for (spoiler alert: Ruth is wrong).

COVID-19 has presented us with a unique challenge. It has rather suddenly robbed us of our usual distractions, routines and habits. Many have turned to online sources of entertainment to sustain attention, and keep the boredom monster at bay. But… is boredom really a monster?

What is boredom, actually?

Boredom is the subjective perception of one’s current circumstance being dull, tiresome; marked by lack of interest and difficulty concentrating. There is an element of restless agitation, which makes it different to relaxation. Time cruelly slows down, and relief is craved. We are more likely to feel bored when feeling trapped and lacking autonomy.

Humans don’t like it…our brains release higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol when we’re bored. In boredom research, some participants (more likely to be men) chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit alone in a room for 15 minutes.

Boredom is also largely a modern phenomenon. The term first started appearing in English texts from the late 1700s, at roughly the same time the equivalent French term (ennui) came into use. This is no accident. It parallels the rise of the Industrial Revolution, which saw the emergence of more standardised and structured time, repetitive labour and the concept of ‘leisure’. Around this time (hello capitalism), productivity became highly valued, could be measured, and began to take on something of a moral virtue. This may explain Ruth’s disdain for boredom – as American, mid-20thcentury young adult, she would no doubt be shaped by these cultural values.

Why is boredom so awful?

Most of our so-called “negative” emotions have an evolutionary, survival value. They are designed to feel unpleasant so we can’t easily ignore them. It is much easier to dismiss feelings of gratitude than fear (gratitude is useless if you need to outrun a lion). The theory is that boredom was a potential threat to survival for our early ancestors – if they stayed in the one place too long, did the same thing for too long, or were too predictable, they stood a higher chance of becoming prey.

Do some people get bored more easily?

Yes. ‘Boredom-proneness’ peaks from 9 -14 years, and is higher in sensation-seekers, extraverts, and people with ADHD. There are mixed results for gender. Perhaps Ruth was just less boredom-prone, as apparently one of her areas of interest was the study of the desert (kill me now). The Ruths of the world are also somewhat responsible for selling boredom short.

Family/cultural conditioning: if you were raised in an environment that over-valued productivity and achievement, being bored may represent a very real threat to self-worth. Some people are habitually busy because they are not ok being alone with their thoughts (if you recognise yourself in this paragraph, psychologists can really help with this).

The downside of boredom

Boredom actually isn’t the problem. The inability to tolerate boredom is. People who struggle with boredom are more likely to binge-eat, drive more dangerously in driving-simulator tasks, as teenagers are 50% more likely to turn to substance-use, and the ability to tolerate boredom accounts for 25% of variability in student achievement.

The opportunities in boredom

Learning to work with boredom means that your well-being is never at the mercy of circumstance.

While we’re quoting people, Nietzsche viewed boredom as “impetus to achievement”. As inferred in the Passive Engagement post, boredom can be the springboard from creativity and innovative problem-solving (further reading suggestion: ‘Bored and Brilliant’ by Manoush Zomorodi.)

The key is balance: learning to tolerate it when required (standing in line, not being allowed to go ANYWHERE because of stupid Coronavirus, persisting with a dull but important task/assignment), or using it as motivation to do something new, develop a new skill, clean out the pantry.

How to “do” boredom.

You cannot transcend boredom without first being bored. It is like a static hold, where you stay with it for increasingly longer periods of time.
Delay tactics. Next time you are bored, can you wait another 30 seconds before you pick your phone up?

Reframe it. Remind yourself of how tolerating boredom can be good for you…therefore make boredom meaningful. This will not kill you, and you will not get eaten by a lion.

And… remember that it won’t kill you. You will not, in fact, be eaten by a lion.