Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful

Why Boredom Can Be Profoundly Useful 1
Photo by meredith hunter on Unsplash

Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.

Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:

“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”

G.K. Chesterton

I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.

For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but 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

Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. 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 towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. 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 Fall)

The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force 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, rather than mindless content consumers.

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

Wijnand van Tilburg

The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.

“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, boredom researcher

Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.

The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.

Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. 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. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.

“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 a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. 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. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto 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

References

  1. Peter Enticott, ‘What does boredom to do your brain‘, Deakin University

How to Gain Deep Understanding

If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.

In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.

The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.

There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.

Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.

Active learning.png
The effectiveness of active learning, from the University of South Australia

Ways to promote deep understanding

Do the thing

Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.

You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.

Apply it to problems in your life

Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.

“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”

John Dewey

“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”

John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam

Discuss and debate

Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.

Analyse and evaluate

Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.

Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.

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The difference between surface and deep understanding, from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Repetition

There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.

All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.

“Neurons that fire together wire together.”

Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist

Write it down

Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.

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It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.