Let Waiting and Boredom Be Your Guide

They’re not the same, but waiting and boredom both produce unexpected benefits.

Posted May 31, 2020

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Albert Guillaume, 5 minutes d'entr'acte.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Waiting and boredom have been the bugbears of my life. Maybe yours too. I hate them both. It’s been a surprise just how wildly important they’ve lately become. That’s since we’ve been locked in by this novel coronavirus. Waiting for it to end, deprived of the emotional engagement of daily work and its socializing, worried whether we’ll get it, and whether there’ll be a cure. It’s meant a life banged up at home that for many has become as boring as it is uncertain.

Boredom is beginning to lessen, now that the lockdown is easing in many places. But it’s still there. One of my colleagues, who can’t wait to get back to work, is still telling me precisely how long it takes for paint to dry. Boredom is something everyone gets now and then. You don’t need the virus to catch it. For most people, being bored is an emotion that’s regularly forced on them. Remember what it was like at school? One way to describe boredom goes like this: It’s an emotion of mild unease that’s brought on by temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances. Predictable is important, isn’t it? Things will always be the same. But unavoidable is just as important, because you can’t escape this sameness. But, of course, it’s temporary: the virus will come to an end, or I will with it. This experience of boredom makes you feel very uneasy, and sometimes it feels absolutely disgusting.

Some people seem to get bored much more than others. They’re really suffering right now. The virus makes it all more acute. Why do some people suffer boredom more than others? This is sometimes put down to a lower level of the brain chemical linked with reward and pleasure, dopamine. I am going to invent a statistic now and say that about 4.5% of the population are in this position. It’s a guess, yes, but I’m matching the rate of severe boredom with the rate for severe depression. Boredom and depression, not surprisingly, are sometimes linked. Victims of severe boredom will get just as easily troubled by the virus lock-in as anyone else, though theirs might be a bit harder to manage.

Boredom, whether it’s the product of your brain’s chemical deficiencies, or whether it’s brought on by factors outside of you, is characterized by a lack of engagement with the world. That’s one of the points made by John Eastwood and James Danckert in their new book, Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (Harvard University Press, June 2020). John Eastwood elsewhere maintains that boredom is a “regulatory alarm to the presence of cognitive slack and serves to keep us moving toward meaningful engagement and accomplishment.” So, boredom, you could say, is an unpleasant state that aims to drive us, its beneficiaries, into some sort of productive action that will remedy its effects. What boredom’s trying to do is to get you to reengage. That’s not so easy now. The virus allied with the force of the law are conspiring to keep us all disengaged.

What about waiting? In lots of ways, it’s more pervasive and more of a challenge right now than boredom. This is especially so as the lock-down eases. The lockdown may be starting to lift, we’re even getting less bored, but the waiting is just as strong. When will it all end? I don’t mean an end simply for the situation of waiting—which loosely means hanging about for someone or something to appear on the horizon. I mean an end to the way it feels to wait, the experience of waiting: locked in with a sense of frustration, perhaps with a sense of boredom, perhaps with a sense of dread (what if I get it?). If you’re working at home with a partner and a cat frustration may be the worst part of it. Just such a person told me this last week, “My landlord will have to be told that my apartment is definitely not as large as it was advertised.”

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Jean-Dominique Bauby (left) in 1996, "dictating" his memoir to Claude Mendibil.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Here’s a very dramatic example that might show how waiting and a lock-in can work. What’s striking in this example is that it shows how a pretty destructive experience of waiting can be turned to your own good. On December 8, 1995, the 43-year-old French journalist and editor, Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffered a huge stroke and sank into a 20- day coma. He died after 15 months of waiting. When he awoke from his coma, Jean-Do was completely paralyzed and had little chance of long-term survival. He was trapped in a condition termed Locked-In Syndrome (LIS). During that 15-month period of unavoidable and predictable circumstance, Jean-Dominique Bauby somehow succeeded to write his best-selling memoir, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, despite his Locked-In Syndrome. He produced it by blinking the letters of the words he wanted to write to a sympathetic carer, Claude Mendibil. The book describes his life before and after the stroke. The book was also made into a popular movie. 

Bauby had nothing but daydreaming, or perhaps thinking of nothing at all, to help him mentally to self-medicate while he waited out the last 15-months of life. That’s where his book came from. Did his literary daydreaming help his period of waiting? Or was it the other way round? There’s been recent research on the benefits of daydreaming and even just thinking of nothing at all and it says yes, waiting and daydreaming do help. Deniz Vatansever from Cambridge University has worked on what the brain does when it’s doing nothing—waiting passively you might want to say. He found that the regions of the brain known as the “default mode network” are very active when people are in an inactive, waiting state. Vatansever says the brain is, “highly active in the background without carrying out any specific task.” Strangely enough, it seems to be this background operation of the brain that may be linked, says Vatansever, to creativity. Is this where Bauby got it from? Was it the waiting?

Waiting, anticipation, frustration, and even boredom can often be turned to your own advantage. A powerful case is made for their benefits by Andreas Elpidorou of the University of Louisville in his new book Propelled: How Boredom, Frustration, and Anticipation Lead Us to the Good Life (Oxford University Press, June 2020). “To lead the good life," Andreas Elpidorou tells us, “We need boredom and frustration. We also need to anticipate, wait, and long for future events.” I guess the emotions did not really lead Jean-Dominique Bauby along the path to a better life, as he had so little left of it to enjoy. But maybe these emotional conditions did lead him to a happier life, for that short period he had left alive. Jean-Dominique Bauby isn’t around to tell us if that’s true. But you might want to speculate that in situations like his, where waiting takes over, the brain kicks into gear thanks to daydreaming and to waiting. And look what it can produce. Look what it can solve. So, my conclusion? I’m adapting the words of the Dutch social science professor, Karolien Poels: “Put that phone away, forget Netflix, and let waiting and boredom guide you!”