On Being Bored
There is something more terrible than a hell of suffering. A hell of boredom
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862.
This is an observation that remains true for many today. There is a cult of productivity. Training harder, working longer hours, and striving for external rewards to prove that it is worthwhile. People are working longer hours during the pandemic, daily commutes have been replaced with emails and video-meetings. When we have twenty-four hours in a day, and we’re meant to sleep for a third of that, work another third or more, the rest is spent on ourselves. We need time to prepare food, time for personal hygiene, grooming, exercise, and quality time spent with our family.
How long do we spend doing nothing? How often do we find ourselves with a moment to spare and instead of settling into it and taking a breath, we reach for our phone or busy ourselves with something else?
In our modern society, boredom is something to be escaped. Our phones within reach, a watch tells us to get up and move, a ring can track how well we slept. Analysis of our productivity and goals is a huge commercial industry. This is consumerism, marketed as a branch from the wellbeing tree. It offers a structure where you might need it. Yet we must remember that a period of recovery is as important. A time to rest both the body and mind separate from the hours we spend sleeping.
The convenience of gadgets gives the illusion of more. And convenience seems to be a goal of today’s inventions. Convenience increases our free time. With more free time, there is a space to fill. More space to fill leads to more choices on how to fill it.
Boom Time for Boredom
This year, 2020, has been described as a “boom time for boredom”. And boredom is good, according to psychologists James Danckert and John D Eastwood, the authors of Out of my Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.
They reveal that boredom helps us, it is a signal we are unengaged and in need of an activity to satisfy us.
They argue that boredom can steer us towards our potential and living full, meaningful lives. It communicates an important message that when I try to outrun it, I am refusing to be with myself. See what ideas float up. Listen to what my Inner Voice is telling me?
Definition of Boredom
In their book, boredom is defined as the uncomfortable feeling of “wanting to do something, but not wanting to do anything”. Not to be mixed up with the emotion ennui which is a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement. Nor is boredom simple daydreaming or flicking through the channels on your sofa.
For me, I see boredom as a system rather than an emotion. Every day, through my senses, I take in information. When I sit with no agenda or distraction, it’s a time out for information to process its way into me. For the writer Anne Enright, “Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless.”
Get comfortable looking into your thoughts.
Do you look for distractions when you find yourself in a state of boredom? You’re not alone if you do. A study in 2014, found that people would rather be electrically shocked than left alone with their thoughts.
People prefer to escape the uncomfortable feeling that boredom hands us instead of interrogating its message. If a glimmer of a new idea pops up again and again, rather than push it away with distractions, you owe it to yourself to investigate it.
When Victor Hugo compared suffering to boredom, he missed the point. For it is through the suffering of bringing a new idea to life that keeps the world evolving. Everything changes and evolves, including you.
Is boredom bad?
The narrative in society that boredom is bad must change. The more we search outside of ourselves for stimuli to give us meaning, the more personal autonomy we lose. Solutions come from within. You can read all the books in the world but unless you give it the time to seep in, what are you reading for?
Professor Andreas Elpidorou writes that “boredom is both a warning sign that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects”
Inventions of convenience will continue. Distractions will continue to grow. Cultivating curiosity and self-knowledge lets us understand our own preferences and purposes. A state of boredom can replenish us and restore a sense of depth and meaning to our own lived experiences.
Remember that boredom isn’t the enemy, it may be the unsung hero.