What If We Have It Wrong About Boredom?
Despite its negative connotations, boredom may actually be valuable.
Posted September 13, 2016
The heavy weight of boredom
Boredom has long been regarded as a negative mental state. Indeed, it plays a pivotal role in one of the earliest surviving literary works, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. It tells the tale of the Mesopotamian King Uruk, who finds himself ‘oppressed by idleness.’ This state of ennui is then the premise for the entire story, since it prompts Uruk to embark upon a quest to discover some sense of purpose, and to build a legacy worthy of his name. That said, the word itself is fairly new. It only entered the English language in 1852, when Charles Dickens creatively adapted the verb ‘to bore’ – to pierce or wear down – in his novel Bleak House. And indeed it was a bleak mental state that Dickens sought to depict with this word. Lady Dedlock is frequently found lamenting that she is ‘bored to death’ with her life. And as we can perhaps all recognise, the word typically depicts a listless state of malaise – some dispiriting combination of frustration, surfeit, sadness, disgust, indifference, apathy, and confinement. Basically, in the words of Orrin Klapp, boredom is a ‘deficit in the quality of life.’
The subtle virtues of boredom
But is it? Alongside this dominant negative appraisal of boredom, it is possible to discern a subtly different strand of thought, one that is quieter and less obvious, but which actually finds some strange value in it. In this line of thinking, the issue is not so much with boredom per se, but with people’s inability to tolerate or engage with it. Indeed, many of the issues associated with boredom – such as dysfunctional behaviours associated with boredom proneness – can arguably be viewed as the result of a desperate fleeing from boredom. From this perspective, the really interesting question is, what happens if we stop trying to flee from it. In Robert M. Pirsig’s classic philosophical novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, there is a very curious passage. Musing on the Zen meditation practice of ‘just sitting,’ he writes… ‘Zen has something to say about boredom. Its main practice of “just sitting” has got to be the world’s most boring activity… You don’t do anything much: not move, not think, not care. What could be more boring? Yet in the very center of this boredom is the very thing Zen Buddhism seeks to teach. What is it? What is it at the very center of boredom that you’re not seeing? What indeed! In an attempt to answer this question, I delved into the literature in this area. I also conducted a phenomenology on boredom – using myself as a test case! – which I recently published in Qualitative Research in Psychology. As a result, I found that there seemed to be three main answers to Pirsig’s question – three possible virtues of boredom.
Altered time perception
Ok, we all know that time seems to drag when we’re bored – a phenomenon that has repeatedly been confirmed in experimental studies. But could there be value in this? There is a funny (and yet unsettling) episode in Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s biting satire of the Second World War, involving a character called Dunbar. His central ambition in life is to prolong it as long as possible… which he does by cultivating boredom. He explains how he often goes shooting skeet because ‘he hated every minute of it,’ meaning that time became elongated and drawn out. Explaining his rationale to his sceptical colleagues, one admits, ‘Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?’ ‘I do,’ Dunbar replies. ‘Why,’ came the response. ‘What else is there?’ But there is not only the lengthening of time here. It is possible that boredom can generate even more illuminating shifts in perspective. For instance, the Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky once delivered an intriguing speech, entitled In Praise of Boredom, in which he argued that it ‘represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour’. Crucially, however, Brodsky saw this experience as intensely valuable, with boredom offering a ‘window on time’s infinity.’ A glimpse through this window, he felt, had the potential to radically alter our sense of place in the cosmos – helping us appreciate how fleeting and precious is our own brief existence, and encouraging us to make the most of it.
Have you ever found that it is often when you’re bored, doodling away absentmindedly perhaps, when some of your most perceptive insights arrive, bubbling up unbidden from the depths of your subconscious? Boredom has long been regarded as a prelude to creativity. Consider Friedrich Nietzsche, no less, who wrote that great artists ‘require a lot of boredom if their work is to succeed. For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable ‘windless calm’ of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its effect on them’. Indeed, Manfred Kets de Vries has argued that boredom has played a crucial role in many great artistic and scientific breakthroughs: For instance, Decartes allegedly ‘discovered’ the notions of x and y while idling in bed watching a fly on the ceiling, while Einstein reportedly achieved the initial pivotal insight into the nature of relativity while boredly daydreaming. Such anecdotes have been corroborated by recent research. For instance, in experimental studies, it has been found that people induced into a state of boredom perform far better on creativity tests (e.g., thinking of novel uses for plastic cups), compared to participants who are either elated, relaxed or distressed,. One explanation is that boredom allows attention to wander, and the mind to free-associate, thus facilitating creativity. Indeed, from a neurophysiological perspective, boredom may activate the default mode network, which is thought to play a key role in creativity (e.g., stimulus independent thought).
Finally, and perhaps most dauntingly but also most transformatively, boredom can be a means of self-exploration, coming face-to-face with oneself. This brings us back to meditation, and to Pirsig’s point that ‘in the very center of this boredom is the very thing Zen Buddhism seeks to teach.’ Zen is widely regarded to have begun with the Indian monk Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism to China in 520 A.D. According to semi-historical legend, upon arrival in China, having failed to initially be well-received, he retreated North to a cave and spent nine years meditating facing its wall. Such was his subsequent influence that wall-facing became the dominant form of meditation in Zen. The contemporary teacher Osho freely acknowledges that this activity is perhaps the very epitome of boredom. However, Eastern traditions have an interesting explanation for this boredom: at its core, it is the result of psychological tension that arises if people are uncomfortable being alone with themselves. As such, it is suggested that many people seek company or distraction to avoid this type of uncomfortable self-encounter. However, Buddhist theory holds that if one can tolerate and push on through this boredom and discomfort, one is able to gain vital insights into one’s mind and self. Such experiential insights can potentially be liberating and transformative; as Osho puts it, ‘Watching the wall – slowly, slowly thoughts disappear, thinking stops, mind evaporates and what is left is your authentic reality.’
My forthcoming book, entitled The Positive Power of Negative Emotions – which includes a treatment of boredom – will be published by Piatkus in October 2016.
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