Nala, a house cat, started to act weird. She frightened other nearby cats and also stalked the quiet, old dog. She tugged at curtain rods, dismantling them, and chewed bits of the sofa. Nala’s behavior worried her owner, who then took Nala to a cat behaviorist (yes, an actual occupation.) The cat psychologist analyzed Nala’s symptoms and diagnosed her with a case of. Wait for it. Acute boredom. Nala used to be a cat who had no time to be bored. Now, with her owner busy with other activities, Nala wasn’t getting the stimulation she craved. The result—ripped sofa corners and terrorized pets.
Suffice to say; a cat can cause enough damage when bored. How about us? How comfortable are we— humans—with boredom?
It’s summer as I write this. It’s the season for long road trips and even longer lines at tourist spots. We know what that means—some version of “Are we there yet?” And, if you dare, try adding a Wi-Fi free zone to the equation. It won’t be long before you hear the kids complain of being bored out of their skulls. Adults, too. Though, they may hesitate in saying the B-word out loud.
So, what causes boredom anyway, and why is our threshold to go from engaged to bored so low sometimes?
Boredom is when we experience time passing very s..l..o...w…l…y. The German term for boredom is langeweile, which literally translates into a “long period of time.”
Psychoanalyst Martin Wangh said this about our perception of boredom:
Time seems endless, there is no distinction between past, present, and future. There only seems to be an endless present.
Sounds familiar? I bet.
It’s not hard to trigger boredom these days. Tedious work presentations, monotonous emails to read and respond to, three baskets of laundry to be folded—I can name an endless list of boredom triggers. But was it always this way?
Peter Toohey, professor in the department of classics and religion at the University of Calgary, wrote the book “Boredom: A lively history.” What a brave attempt to juxtapose the words boredom and lively so close together!
In the book, Toohey points to Latin graffiti about boredom. The graffiti was many centuries old, some as early as 78 BC. Historians have attempted to decode and translate some of the inscribed words. One such read:
Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.
So, it’s not that our boredom is new by any means. But I’d wager we get bored all too easily now compared to our ancestors centuries ago.
In a research study published in 2012, psychologist Eastwood defined boredom as:
The aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.
We can be bored when one of two things happen:
1. We are forced to do things we’d rather not – studying for a test in a subject we’re not interested in, sitting through a monotonous presentation, standing in a long line at the grocery store when we could be elsewhere.
2. Boredom can also be triggered when we have a vast expanse of time but choose to do nothing—a sort of inertia that keeps us from getting off the couch on to the task list.
What does boredom feel like?
Boredom manifests itself in one of these ways:
- You are fidgety—like in a work presentation where you think your skull will explode if you have to hear another five minutes of the speaker droning on.
- You are in a quiet, languid, inert state, such as when you know you have a million things to do but can’t be bothered doing any of it because they are all oh, so unappealing!
While the definitions above may seem academic and irrelevant (or boring?), it’s important to recognize the kind of boredom we experience. Because left unattended, boredom can turn into other emotions—anger, irritation, anxiety, etc. and become that much more challenging to treat as it gathers steam.
Is Boredom always bad?
The emptiness of boredom can inspire and spur creativity.
Playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, the creator of Hamilton, credited his unattended afternoons with fostering inspiration.
Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom, I have fond memories of pretending ninjas were going to come into every room of the house and thinking to myself, What is the best move to defend myself? How will I ‘Home Alone’ these ninjas? I was learning to create incredible flights of fancy.
There is a line in the sand, though, in terms of how much boredom is sustainable.
The flip side is that boredom can lead to unnecessary risk-taking. Gambling, substance abuse, and compulsive shopping are all examples of unhealthy coping mechanisms we indulge in to detract ourselves from the dryness of the moment.
Also, unattended boredom can sometimes feel like depression, especially if you attribute the cause of boredom to yourself. This sometimes happens if you are self-deluded and blame your boredom on your lack of skills to engage with the world.
So, what should we do to not be bored?
Before we delve into the antidote for boredom, it’s important to recognize one critical fact.
The privilege of boredom
Boredom is a luxury.
When something serious is at stake, you have no time to be bored. Disillusioned, yes. Depressed, perhaps. But, bored? Nah.
I recently read the book American Dirt by Jeannine Cummins. The plot of the book is the perilous journey of a mother and son trying to escape the strangleholds of a violent cartel in Mexico. The protagonist has no time to be bored because she fears for her life every second of her existence.
To be bored indicates privilege. So, before we find a cure for boredom, we ought to first be grateful for the symptom.
So, how do we cure boredom?
No time to be bored
Full disclosure. Over the years, I have often said the following words to the teens (and adults) in my life.
Only boring people get bored.
I’d let you be the judge of whether it’s true or just mommyism. My philosophy on boredom should come as no surprise to anyone, though, considering I wrote a two-part blog post on how to be intentional even when you’re wasting time.
I genuinely believe there’s no time to be bored in a world as beautiful as this.
With so many skills to learn, hobbies to pursue, adventures to explore, who has the time to be bored?
All of us. Apparently.
Society is now one polished horde, formed of two mighty tribes, the Bores and Bored - Lord Byron
It’s because we are an overstimulated lot. A study proved that we don’t like to reflect or be in the moment quietly. People preferred to give themselves a mild electric shock instead of being left alone with their thoughts.
So, here are my top five tips to fend off boredom. These tips are universal in their appeal. Even if your job is similar to what a fax operator would do in the heydays of fax machines—monitor incoming faxes and making sure the fax machine doesn’t overheat. Hard to beat the tedium there, don’t you agree?
1. Benefit others
Change the beneficiary of your boring or mundane chore. Do it for someone else. Clean out your child’s closet (if she will allow it, of course) or cook for someone else (instead of yourself). It becomes easier to get through a task when the recipient is someone other than ourselves.
Many religions embrace this philosophy. People readily go through rituals or make personal sacrifices when done to appease a power higher than themselves.
2. Create rather than consume
Be an active creator rather than a passive consumer. Creative endeavors seldom lead to boredom. Activities such as putting together a puzzle, knitting a scarf, playing an instrument are all creative pursuits. We may tire of them because they can consume mental and physical resources, but they aren’t the ones causing skull-exploding boredom.
3. Distract wisely
We all need to take breaks from drudgery. And, unlike our ancestors, we have more ways to distract ourselves than we have time.
But, a degree of discernment is essential when picking what rabbit hole we choose to go down to alleviate our boredom. Again, weigh short-term happiness against long-term regret. Creative pursuits such as trying out an unfamiliar recipe will truly relieve the boredom and make you happy long-term instead of a mindless Netflix binge.
4. Embrace the suck
I’ve written about this exhaustively in this post. Even Captain America’s job isn’t all thrills and frills all day. Anticipate boredom and settle into it.
5. Wander and wonder
Few wonder cures work in almost any situation. Walking, especially in nature, is one of them. Simply unplug and go for a walk next time you are bored. Read this post for more data points on how exercise can help cure even the most stubborn cases of blahs.
Also, wandering is an opportunity to indulge in wonder. There is just so much we simply gloss over in the world. Like looking at everything through a microscope, paying attention to the details can unearth for us a wonderful world. That childlike curiosity will keep boredom at bay. Always.
Peter Toohey, in his book, Boredom: A lively history quotes a 2009 study that rated Britons as the fourth most bored of the twenty-two nations in Europe; that they suffer from boredom for approximately six hours a week, which translates to about 1/20th of their life spent in boredom. Americans aren’t far behind.
When life becomes comfortable and predictable, it can sometimes invite boredom in.
The solution, though, is not to overschedule. Compared to the tedium of the 20th century and the mind-numbing pre-industrialization jobs, we have a plethora of digital distractions and things to do. We can easily find boredom-fillers.
But it’s not advisable.
We need to allow neural connections in our brains to connect the dots from our learning and experiences. Those connections happen when the brain has these two resources: Time and space. Unfortunately, that’s precisely the condition we label as boredom.
So, stop to smell the roses. Be in the moment. Allow yourself to be bored.
You don’t need to banish boredom forever out of your life. You don’t have to make every minute of every day fascinating. Not for you. Not for your children.
A bored child today may produce the next Hamilton tomorrow.