What causes boredom? Is boredom a serious problem, or a #firstworld problem? Should we worry about being bored, and try to avoid it? Is there a simple way to turn our boredom into productive activities? Is boredom a waste of time?
Although these are certainly not novel questions, they are more interesting now than ever before, with much of humanity in quarantine, and many of our fun and leisure activities on hold for the foreseeable future. Yes, thanks to Netflix we have Tiger King, and we can still devote a considerable amount of time snooping on our high school friends or finding out what our colleague’s cat had for breakfast on Facebook, but what should we do with the rest of the day?
To those who are lucky enough to still have jobs during quarantine, especially the ones tasked with an unprecedented level of parenting duties, the thought of boredom may resemble a utopian fantasy. Others may be so skilled at self-entertainment that boredom will seem quite alien, and exploring it at least a waste of time.
Perhaps as a strategy to avoid boredom, psychologists have devoted a considerable amount of time to studying its nature, causes, and especially its consequences. Boredom is defined as a psychological state marked by a general lack of interest, excitement, or motivation, and experiencing one’s current situation as monotonous, tedious, or irrelevant. As the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer noted, boredom is the opposite of fascination.
Although there is no consensus on what is and isn’t boring, we all recognize boredom when we see it, not just in ourselves but also in others. Just look at the explosion of videos showcasing the wide range of types of quarantine creativity. Is there any other way to explain these than sheer boredom avoidance?
As with any behavior, boredom depends on both the person and the context they are in. This means the same situation that will seem rather boring to some will be interesting to others.
It also means that certain people will have a strong proclivity to boredom, whereas others will rarely experience it. Some of the earliest modern experiments in psychology showed how, for instance, extraverted people freak out when you put them in solitary confinement, whereas introverted people are quite okay with it. Introverts suffer much more when you put them in very sociable, stimulating situations.
According to mainstream personality theory, extraversion itself is the product of brains that are naturally under-stimulated. People become extraverted in order to compensate for their lower levels of mental activity, whereas others become introverted because they are mentally overstimulated. As Susan Cain noted, “Quiet people have the loudest minds.”
We will all experience boredom, some more so than others. The key difference is how well they tolerate it, whether they feel the need to suppress it, or whether they are fine with being bored. In many people, boredom will increase creativity and curiosity. Even in animals, the desire to avoid boredom has been linked to an increase in originality and inventiveness. Academic research suggests that the very function of boredom is to create a dull state of mind unpleasant enough to propel people toward productive or creative activities.
As Susan Sontag wisely noted, “The life of the creative man is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.”
If you are happy with your boredom then there’s nothing to worry about. You may even question whether your state is indeed one of true boredom. And if boredom troubles you, then all you need to do is to find something to do.
Nothing of value has ever been created by people who were too busy doing something else. In that sense, the challenge is not to decide whether to do something, but to decide what exactly to do. For example: picking a hobby, learning a language, or to play an instrument. Should you write a book or read a book? Should you just spend your day on WhatsApp, or take a break from it and meditate?
There is obviously no universal answer to these questions, but some general rules still apply. Find something that genuinely interests you. If it serves some long-term purpose or value, that’s a big added plus. If on top of it, you have some talent or potential, then you should pursue it with as much passion and grit as you can, even if at times you are bored with it.