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The Surprising Benefits of Boredom

Moments of frustration may actually show us a path to success.

The modern concept of boredom goes back to the 19th century. For Erich Fromm and other thinkers, boredom was a response to industrial society, in which people are required to engage in alienated labor, and to the erosion of traditional structures of meaning.

Yet, it seems that boredom of some form is a human universal. On the walls of the ruins of Pompeii, there is Latin graffiti about boredom that dates back to the first century. And the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of an affliction of monks called acedia, a state of listlessness or torpor that could have been related to melancholy. Aquinas opposed this "sorrow of the world" to spiritual joy, and, revealingly, the "noonday demon" came to be understood as "the sin that inspires all other sins."

A definition of boredom

What, exactly, is boredom?

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It is a deeply unpleasant state of "unmet arousal": you are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, your arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. So while you want to do something stimulating, you find yourself unable to do so;  moreover, you are frustrated by the rising awareness of your inability.

Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they get bored at all, generally have much higher thresholds for boredom. So while most animals may dislike boredom, humans, as writer Colin Wilson says, are "tormented" by it.

Boredom is often brought about or aggravated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is particularly common in children and teenagers, who, in addition to being dictated to, lack the resources, experience, and discipline (the mind furnishings) to cope with boredom.

Stuck at the airport

Why is it so damned boring to be stuck in a departures lounge while your flight is increasingly delayed? You are in a high state of arousal because you are anticipating your arrival in a novel and therefore stimulating environment. You do have plenty of shops and newspapers, but shopping or the news is not what you are interested in at this particular time, and the shops and newspapers succeed only in dividing your attention and so promoting your boredom.

To make things worse, the situation is out of your control, unpredictable—the flight could be delayed further, or even cancelled—and inescapable. As you can do nothing but check and re-check the monitor, you become painfully aware of all these factors and more.

Apart from shops and newspapers, you also have alcohol, which could dull your consciousness; but at the same time you cannot afford to sleep because sleep may lead you to miss your flight. So here you are, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

If you really need to catch the flight because your livelihood or the love of your life depends on it, you will get much less bored than if you don’t really need to go to wherever it is you are headed. Thus, boredom is an inverse function of need or perceived need.

If, in addition, you don’t want to catch the flight (perhaps because you would rather be going somewhere else, or staying at home), then you will get all the more bored, and perhaps also angry.

You might even develop an aversion to flying, just like the child who is bored at school might develop an aversion to learning. 

Effects of boredom 

But why exactly is boredom so unpleasant? So unpleasant that the problem is hardly ever recognized, still less addressed; so unpleasant, in fact, that I am finding it hard to write this article, over which I have procrastinated longer than usual.

For philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, boredom was evidence of the meaninglessness of life; because, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom.

So what boredom does, effectively, is to open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings.

This is the essence of the manic defense, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. (See more here.)

Boredom is so unpleasant that we expend considerable resources on preventing or reducing it. The value of the global entertainment industry is poised to top $2 trillion in 2016, and entertainers and athletes are accorded impiously high levels of pay and social status.  

The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but, paradoxically, this has only made things worse, in part, by removing us even more from reality. Instead of being satiated, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation—ever more war, gore, and hardcore.

If we cannot escape boredom by engaging in intentional activity, we escape it through daydreaming or sleeping.

People prone to boredom are also prone to mental disorders such as depression, overeating, substance misuse and dependence, and gambling. And they often prefer pain to boredom—not only suffering pain, but inflicting it as well. For them, the choice is simply one of boredom and pain, a choice between pain and pain. 

Benefits of boredom

Yet boredom can also be your way of telling yourself that you’re not spending your time as well as you could, that you should rather be doing something else, something more enjoyable or more useful, or more important and fulfilling.

And so boredom can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities. Most of our achievements, of man’s achievements, are born out of the dread of boredom. 

Indeed, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who spent time in prison, intimated that prison may be the ideal setting for a creative person. Said Russell, "A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase."

Dealing with boredom

There are many ways of reducing the propensity to boredom.

If boredom is an awareness of unmet arousal, you can minimize boredom by avoiding situations over which you have no or little control—cutting out distractions, motivating yourself, expecting less, putting things into their proper perspective (realizing how lucky you really are), and so on.

But rather than fighting a constant battle against boredom, it is easier and much more productive to actually embrace it. If boredom is a window on the fundamental nature of reality, and, by extension, on the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling the curtains. Yes, the night outside is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.

For just these reasons, many Eastern traditions embrace and encourage boredom, seeing it as the pathway to a higher consciousness.

So instead of fighting boredom, go along with it, make something out of it; in short, be yourself, less boring.

Schopenhauer said that boredom is but the reverse side of fascination, since both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other. So instead of being outside a situation, learn to get inside it, however hard this may be.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh advocates appending the word "meditation" to whatever activity it is that you find boring, for example, "waiting in an airport—meditation." (British psychiatrist Russell Razzaque's Mindful Moment Training is a free online resource that aims to reconnect you with the real you.)

In the words of Samuel Johnson, "It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible."

 

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of MadnessThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help GuideHide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception, and other books.

Find Neel on Twitter and Facebook

Watch Neel's most recent TED talk, In Praise of Idleness

Neel Burton, M.D., is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and writer who lives and teaches in Oxford, England.

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