In praise of being bored

1_llgs8isafV62SSXgHVVr5wPhoto by Julian Howard on Unsplash

Boredom is a state of mind that many of us frantically try to avoid. The moment it starts to creep into our awareness – that sense of tedious lethargy which seems to taint our very souls – we instinctively want to liberate ourselves from the moment; to escape into anything else. It’s often associated with feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor, and as such, has been tarred with a negativity that’s difficult to shake off. Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character:

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”  – G.K. Chesterton

Philosopher Martin Heidegger thought that without focus, we’re faced with nothingness, and can experience dreaded existential anxiety:

“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference” – Martin Heidegger

It may as well be lumped into the same category as leprosy and Piers Morgan, for all the good it does us. And yet, boredom is a misunderstood phenomenon. It happens to have a multitude of benefits that few of us are aware of, which could be judiciously reaped if we manage to achieve the laborious feat of leaving our phones the fuck alone for a few minutes.

As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us to go towards it. It serves as a mechanism to seek beneficial new experiences. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.

“Something’s got to happen – that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.” – Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus)

The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during times of boredom can tell us a lot about what we want, and deliver the kick up the arse we need to achieve it. Self-destructive and addictive social media habits are causing us to miss important observations about ourselves; invaluable insights that shine a light on our deepest desires. Instead of filling our time with entertaining nonsense, we can focus on what’s meaningful. Boredom forces us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, instead of mindless content consumers.

“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.” – Wijnand van Tilburg

Professor John Eastwood is a seasoned boredom researcher, and cautions against our pernicious desire to escape it:

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life” – John Eastwood

Few people like to be alone with nothing but their thoughts, because their thoughts are often difficult and would rather be avoided. But running away only exacerbates the problem; it grows in your mind like a rapacious, steroid-injecting virus, goading you into a fight that must eventually be fought. The beasts that you bury deep within will always rise to the surface; no amount of distraction will numb them into submission.

Another detrimental effect of constant busyness and distraction is the feeling that your brain is full of worthless clutter, and running the same pace as a dark-skinned gentleman shortly after stumbling on a KKK cross-burning. Consuming hundreds of memes every day will result in anxiety and fatigue. If you allow yourself to be bored on occasion, you’ll probably be less tired at the end of the day. It’s like a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate. Imagine all of the extra stuff that you’d be able to achieve.

Having had the spirit to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you then decide to do will be suffused with more creativity. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics, so if you lack the ability to let yourself be bored, you might want to consider taking a shitload of magic mushrooms instead. Who knows what wonders you’ll create.

“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.” – Sandi Mann

On the surface, being bored seems like a rascal to be avoided, a waste of our precious time. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. Relent to your boredom, you may just stumble on something important.

“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.

Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.” –  Joseph Brodsky


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