It’s a scene every parent has had to live through many times. Mom, I’m bored! And it’s a sentiment we’ve all experienced, perhaps especially as teenagers: a nagging emptiness in our field of attention. Sheesh, there’s nothing to do here… Finally, it’s one the most damning things that can be said of another human being. God, he’s soooo boring.
On the whole, boredom gets a bad rap.
To revisit the examples above: wo don’t like having to deal with people who are bored, because they feel somehow vacuous and needy; we don’t like being bored, as the exposed unused mindspace makes us feel somehow inadequate and impatient; and we don’t like being seen as boring, because that painfully suggests that we are somehow diminished and not worthwhile.
But there is another way to approach tedium. It reveals boredom to be an essential part of our mental repertoire—and moreover, one that is currently under serious attack.
What Boredom Isn’t
A quick-and-easy way to scan the common perception of boredom is through language. Consult a thesaurus and look the antonyms to “boredom” and “boring”, and your find a treasure trove of words that have universally positive connotations. Here’s a sampling:
Excitement. Interesting. Energy. Smart. Liveliness. Intelligent. Bright. Fascinating. Pleasure. Eventful. Sympathy. Vigor. Feeling.
If all of this undiluted wonderfulness is the opposite of boredom, who in their right mind would ever want to be bored, or do something boring? No wonder that we try to banish these unpleasant sensations from our lives!
But the truth is that boredom isn’t bad. It isn’t unnecessary. And it isn’t a waste of time.
Survival of the Most Bored
All we need to do is take a step back and realize that the human brain has evolved to be a finely calibrated cognitive machine in which every non-pathological mental expression of our humanity has earned its keep, quite simply because we’d be lesser people without them.
Fear, anger, disgust, sadness, envy, annoyance—they are but a few of the instruments in our mind’s toolbox that serve to keep us alive and sane and balanced. They may be unpleasant to experience, to be sure. But they are the indispensable left-hand part of the psychological steering wheel, a counterbalance to their right-hand cousins like confidence, equanimity, desire, joy, good will, and delight.
So where does boredom fit into this picture? What evolutionary benefit does it bestow?
The Space In Between
Boredom, I suspect, has much in common with wonder. In the acting classes I’ve taught, I always stressed that the sense of wonder acts as a gateway between the other emotions. Upon hearing some troubling news, a character doesn’t go straight from, say, joy to sadness. In between, there’s a moment of wonder, of surprise, of openness—into which the next emotion then flows.
In a very similar way, being bored may also act as a gateway. What we experience as tedium is a mental state in which our minds are not actively engaged in any specific task. We are not concentrated, thinking, focused, or absorbing anything. But we are also, crucially, not in a willful state of non-activity like meditation or mindfulness.
Boredom is the mind searching for something to do.
In a previous essay (Welcome to a World of Nontertainment), I wrote about the ubiquitous avalanche of entertainment options presented to us in today’s digitally connected world, and how the effortless availability of such distractions is turning them into a background noise, the baseline of stimulus for our eager, input-hungry brains. What is lost in this avalanche is the opportunity—and the capability—to be bored.
Boredom as a Skill
We experience being bored as unpleasant. It makes us feel restless and fidgety and, in a very real sense, alone.
One of the essential contradictions in our human nature is that we are both social and individual creatures. Even as we thrive and feel safe in the presence of others, we crave me-time and seclusion. And even as we develop and assert our uniqueness and distinct personality, we feel a profound need to fit in, to belong. Boredom may well be a resident of the no man’s land that connects those two continents in our psyche: we can feel bored in the presence of friends, wishing for something to engage with as an individual; and we can experience boredom in solitude, longing for another soul to connect to.
Perhaps that’s why it is so important to acquire boredom as a skill. Learning to accept and deal with being bored may well be crucial to balancing our co-dependent social and solitary natures.
In Defense of Tedium
There are many ways in which experiencing tedium can help us grow into better, more well-rounded people. A few examples come to mind.
For one, experiencing boredom helps us to develop and sustain a capacity for patience. This is especially true in children and adolescents, but no less so for adults. Learning that you can’t always get what you want when you want it is an important prerequisite to building healthy relationships and maintaining peace of mind. And repeated exposure to the benefits of patience allows us to experience how thoughts can mature and expectations evolve.
Another skill we learn from being bored is creativity. Like wonder, boredom is a state of openness, where we are receptive to new ideas—from within. In young children, tedium is an invitation to probe their aptitude for problem-solving and experimentation. When my own sons used to complain of being bored, I would say, “Congratulations! Now find something to do.”
Yet another mental capacity honed during times of boredom is introspection. It is one thing to learn to be at ease in the company of others—and that’s hard enough at times—but we also need to learn to be at ease with ourselves. As conscious, self-reflective entities, we humans cannot but know our own minds, even if it is imperfectly and even if we don’t always like what they contain. The temporary mental blank slate created by tedium lets us experience our own brains in solitary action, unencumbered by outside inputs.
Boredom as Luxury
It bears repeating: we live in a world that offers us so many options for distraction and entertainment that we need never be bored anymore. Companies like Facebook and Google are perfecting the craft of offering up just the right baits at the right time to keep us engaged and keep our dopamine levels up, always and everywhere. Streaming services deliver a literally endless supply of music, movies, podcasts and TV shows. Thanks to instant messaging and video-chat services, we can get in touch with anyone, anywhere, at any time.
If we wish it so, boredom could become a thing of the past. And as we have seen, there is a real danger in this.
On the other hand, I think boredom may be more resilient that we think. Maybe our brains are primed to eventually filter out any whatever barrage of information we throw at them, like the ticking of a clock that escapes our notice after a while. Maybe, no matter how hard we try to avoid it, we will be bored, ultimately.
But it is worth considering that in many ways, boredom is a luxury. Imagine a life in which you had to scramble to survive, every hour of every day. Picking nuts, hunting prey, tilling soil, washing clothes, moving rocks, cleaning house… never a moment’s rest. For most people in most places throughout human history, this was not far from the truth. Having “time to spare” has historically been an indulgence few could afford, let alone enough time to binge watch three seasons of Supergirl on Netflix.
If you have that kind of leisure time on your hands—and in the affluent West many of us do—why not reserve some of that time to, well… be bored? Do nothing. Forgo the IV drip of nontertainment. Disengage. Don’t click the bait.
You may find that when the insistent Morse code of dopamine hits subsides, something else takes its place. Let’s see it as another (albeit imaginary) “hormone” called tediumine. You’ll find that the initial effects of tediumine (weariness, restlessness) quickly wear off and are followed by a most pleasant sensation of mental acuity and discovery. You may see the world and yourself in a new light as you slip into the lower gear of “slow thinking” thanks to this wonderful new pastime: being bored stiff.
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