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?

Lazy Nook by Carl Larsson (source)

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.

The Philosopher. Silence. by Nicholas Roerich (source)

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.

Prescription: Tediumine

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.

• • •

Top image credit: Children by Valentin Serov (detail, from source)

Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

Share your thoughts