Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

Boredom

Why the solution to boredom is value creation

Photo: Shermeee

Nothing in the world is quite so awful as boredom. Unmitigated pain—physical or emotional—is commonly viewed as giving rise to the worst kind of suffering, but the suffering engendered by true boredom, though qualitatively different, is perhaps in some ways just as terrible. I'm not talking about being bored for a few hours while waiting in line at Disneyland or in the waiting room of a doctor's office. I'm talking about finding life itself not only uninteresting but also purposeless. I'm talking about what I call existential boredom.

You're either someone who feels this (or has felt it) or not—much like you're someone who either gets headaches or doesn't. Even if you've never felt it yourself, almost certainly you know someone who has (whether you realize it or not). Existential boredom defines an inability to find not just particular things but all of life interesting. It manifests itself as a mood in which, for no reason you can articulate, nothing seems to satisfy—even things that normally do. When you find yourself flipping from Internet site to Internet site; picking up a book, reading a few pages, and then putting it back down; walking around your apartment or house in search of something to do but finding nothing to engage you.

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Though anhedonia (the term psychiatrists use for the inability to derive pleasure from pleasurable activities) remains one of the hallmarks of clinical depression, it's entirely possible to experience anhedonia from another cause: a belief that life is meaningless. If you feel strongly there's no ultimate point to being here, it's hard to feel purposeful about doing anything. And it's hard, if not impossible, to be interested in something you feel has no purpose.

There are two important things to note about boredom. First, if something bores us, it's not because that something is intrinsically uninteresting. Nothing is intrinsically uninteresting. One only need look to the example of children, who find everything interesting (and not just things that are new to them), to find proof of this. Even sitting alone in a cell with only four walls at which to stare could be interesting depending on the angle of one's mind. I'm not saying long-term social isolation isn't devastating to one's ability to be happy; only that even without significant external stimulation, internal stimulation can serve as an effective substitute. That is, there definitely exists a mindset in which all experience becomes interesting. Second, what essentially makes an activity boring is our inability to see a purpose in it. What determines our level of interest in an activity—even more so than how much pleasure it brings—is how meaningful it feels (if you talk to long-time heroin addicts, for example, many of them will say that that they spend most of their time in a state of extreme boredom). And when you feel nothing has a purpose-when you find yourself vulnerable to the notion that life is meaningless—existential boredom sets in. And it's awful.

How, then, can we change our mindset so that the boring becomes interesting? It begins with a recognition that every circumstance, every activity, contains within it the potential to yield value, either to us or to someone else. If we insist on always being passively entertained by life, we'll find ourselves bored by much of it. On the other hand, if we can transform that expectation into a determination to make an effort to create value at every moment, we can begin to make even the most mundane experience interesting.

Waiting in line, we can strike up a conversation with someone waiting in line with us. We can admire the architecture of the building in which we're waiting, wonder why certain choices were made, imagine how we might have done it differently. We can enjoy the challenge of driving a stick shift in stop-and-go traffic, honing our reaction times or aiming to improve our driving style to gain maximal gas mileage. We can, in short, embrace whatever circumstances in which we find ourselves as infinitely interesting and purposeful.

I'm not suggesting we distract ourselves from boring activities with something we find more interesting, like surfing the Internet on our smart phones or reading a book. Though there's certainly nothing wrong with doing those things, they won't necessarily teach us how to find the thing we're doing at the moment more interesting. They won't necessarily help us cultivate a state of mind in which all of life becomes interesting. Whenever I'm bored, I try to ask myself three questions:

  1. How can my current circumstances help me develop myself?
  2. How can my current circumstances help me contribute to the happiness of someone else?
  3. How would the wisest person on earth look at my current circumstances and what would he or she do in my stead?

Though I'm certainly not always successful, I firmly believe that if we practice looking for the hidden value in boring activities we will get better at finding it, and in doing so, expand our state of life, our own happiness, and the happiness of those around us.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to visit Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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