What is boredom: the epitome of inefficiency, or a catalyst for creativity and action?
Socially stigmatised and trivialised, boredom remains a universal state of mind. Defined rather imprecisely and with great variety, I myself have reached the conclusion that boredom cannot have a truly objective definition, as it is simply a subjective experience. Your individual interpretation of boredom and its experiential components, such as awareness and arousal (Eastwood et al., 2012), will therefore dictate how you yourself would begin to define it.
But how has boredom been defined? Is it the indifference to your current surroundings, which fail to sufficiently seize your attention? Or is it the searching of an alternative source of stimulation, which cannot be satisfied? John Eastwood defines it as an issue of attention and awareness, and describes it as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” (2012, p. 482). This corresponds to Adam Phillips’ (1993) definition, which depicts boredom as “free floating attention” and the “state of suspended anticipation” (p.69,77). For the purpose of this essay, I have conceptualized boredom, based on these definitions, as the inadequate orientation of your attention, and the failure to distract your unengaged mind from the paradox of waiting; waiting for something that you simply cannot anticipate, until you find it.
Despite its negative connotations, boredom has substantial untapped potential. The downtime associated with boredom allows for inward reflection, and mind wandering that we often experience when bored is a proponent of creativity and innovative associations. Being able to experience boredom also increases capacity for solitude (Turkle, 2015, p.146), which maintains a host of benefits in itself. Furthermore, Bench and Lench claim that, as boredom ensues, we are inspired to pursue new goals and experiences as interest in current stimuli decreases (2013, p.468), which could hypothetically increase proactivity, and therefore, productivity. Nevertheless, our constant connectivity and digital stimulation means that we are able to escape boredom with ease, and the societal pressure to maintain productivity means that we are socialised to avoid boredom at all costs. Hence, we are often unable to levy boredom to our advantage simply because we do not experience it, and do not welcome it as a possibility to self-reflect and reclaim solitude.
Why we can’t stand to be bored
According to a survey of North American Youth in 2003, 91% of respondents claim to experience boredom (The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, 2003). Although more than a decade has passed since this survey, I would doubt that those figures would have decreased. Despite the exponential increase in digitalisation, and the increased availability of digital devices, we are less able to deal with boredom than ever. Let me provide a scenario to illustrate my point: you’re bored, in class, a lecture, a work meeting, or writing an assignment — what is the first thing you do? Personally, I would reach for my phone, check my social media apps, anything stimulating enough to provide an almost instant relief from my mental disengagement, which would finally capture my ‘free-floating attention’. According to Katherine Hayes, I am not alone. The generational shift in cognitive styles from deep attention towards hyper attention has left us “preferring multiple information streams, seeking a high level of stimulation, and having a low tolerance for boredom” (p.187). This is why, when we feel bored, we seek an unsustainably high level of stimulation as an instantaneous reprieve from boredom. However, the more we turn to our digital devices to escape the clutches of boredom, the less equipped we are to deal with it, and less we can stand to be bored.
It’s not just our generational preference of hyper attention which won’t let us be bored. A quick Google search of ‘why boredom is bad’ will turn up with 21.9 million results in less than a second. In a capitalist society, where being productive is the ultimate form of virtuosity, companies and workplaces often see boredom as a “serious impediment to organizational efficiency and innovation” (Butler et al., 2011, p.332). It is drilled into our socialization to reject any downtime, excluding sleep, that isn’t characterised by productive efficiency. Our most precious commodity is our attention, and the goal of a capitalist society is thus to garner it. Therefore, it is a learned condition that if your attention is not being grabbed, then you must be failing. It is this culture and philosophy, according to Maria Popova (2014), which has made us believe that boredom is the opposite of creativity, and has tried its hardest to offer us the quickest escape from boredom — our digital devices.
But is boredom really the contradiction of innovation and creativity? It seems paradoxical to paint the picture of boredom as a catalyst for both creativity and action. How can boredom, otherwise described as being preoccupied by the lack of preoccupation (Phillips, 1993, p.69), induce challenge-seeking behaviour and inspire us to cultivate new creative ideas, to self-reflect, or to pursue a new hobby?
The functional purpose of boredom
Sherry Turkle (2015), a professor of the social studies of science and technology, emphasises the existence of a relationship between boredom and solitude. Boredom, in her words, “can be recognised as your imagination calling you” (p.141), and is an opportunity for both inward self-reflection, and mind-wandering. By learning to approach boredom as a chance to divert your focus inward, you can increase your capacity for mindful reflection. Thus, time that you normally spend bored and unoccupied, becomes a time to enjoy solitude, a state of mind which is both constructive and mentally beneficial (p.140–146). Through solitude, and thus an improved and more secure sense of self, we can maximise our empathetic capacities, and increase our social capabilities (p. 23, 104).
However, as is the case with boredom, our current lifestyle limits our ability to benefit from solitude. We are so used to constant connectivity and the instantaneous nature of communication, that when we feel alone, we would do almost anything to avoid being left in solitude with our own thoughts (p.28). It is then when our perception of solitude merges with that of loneliness, and it is at that point where we need to begin to understand and identify the root of the problem; our adverse attitude towards boredom, is leaving us inexperienced with dealing with our own thoughts, and the first step towards reclaiming solitude, is to reclaim boredom.
The benefits of boredom are not limited there. The downtime associated with boredom enables us to let our mind wander, and to daydream. Again, in a culture fixated on productive efficiency, boredom and its potential derivative, daydreaming, are regarded as threats to the capitalist system. However, what society does not acknowledge is that daydreaming is an indispensable cognitive instrument. Oftentimes, when we are faced with an inadequate and unsatisfying orientation of attention, we start to reformulate our internal problems and situations, and to think of new, creative, and innovative solutions. Jonah Lehrer, who wrote on article on the ‘Virtues of Daydreaming’ for the New Yorker, claims that, by letting our minds wander, “we begin exploring our own associations, contemplating counterfactuals and fictive scenarios that only exist within the head” (2012, para. 3). This also correlates with Mann and Cadman’s (2014) understanding of daydreaming, and its relationship to dynamic memory, as the wandering of the mind can enable individuals to re-examine a situation, and simulate prospective solutions based upon novel connections or information (p.167). Therefore, by promoting a more internal focus on your thoughts, feelings, and experiences, daydreaming and mind-wandering can become a mediator of boredom and creativity (p.171). Contrary to what society would have us believe, boredom can be a source of both innovation and creativity, but only on the condition that you let yourself experience it.
Lastly, boredom can be an inspiration for change. As John Eastwood would describe it, boredom is the “unfulfilled yearning for a more desirable activity” (2012, p.486). As your interest in your current activity or engagement with an object fades, and the intensity of your emotions diminish, the prospect of a more ‘desirable activity’ will indicate that it is time to seek a new, more satisfying engagement. According to Bench and Lench (2013), boredom plays a significant role in encouraging people to pursue new goals. This is contrary to what society claims, as boredom has always been linked to waiting; waiting for something to distract you, waiting for your unoccupied time to end, or waiting for anything to anchor your ‘free-floating attention’. By encouraging you to be proactive, boredom no longer requires a waiting period, but inspires a plan for action. Boredom, ironically, can promote productivity.
To conclude, how you yourself can benefit from boredom, depends entirely on your attitude towards it. If you treat it as something to escape or to distract yourself from, then you may never be able to realise and experience its full potential. However, if you welcome the downtime with open arms and an open mind, then you can begin to understand that boredom is not what society, or those 21.9 million results on Google would tell you. It is not the epitome of inefficiency or unproductivity. If you let it, boredom can become a catalyst for creativity and innovation, and an inspiration for action.
Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459–472.
Butler, N., Olaison, L., Sliwa, M., & Spoelstra, S. (2011). Work, play and boredom. ephemera theory & politics in organization, 11(4), 329–335.
Eastwood, J. D., Frischen, A., Fenske, M. J., & Smilek, D. (2012). The unengaged mind: Defining boredom in terms of attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482–495.
Hayles, N. K. (2007). Hyper and deep attention: The generational divide in cognitive modes. Profession, 187–199.
Lehrer, J. (2012). The Virtues of Daydreaming. The New Yorker. Retrieved 5 January 2018, from https://www.newyorker.com/tech/frontal-cortex/the-virtues-of-daydreaming
Mann, S., & Cadman, R. (2014). Does being bored make us more creative?. Creativity Research Journal, 26(2), 165–173.
National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. (2003). National survey of American attitudes on substance abuse VIII: Teens and parents. New York, NY: Columbia University.
Phillips, A. (1994). On kissing, tickling, and being bored: Psychoanalytic essays on the unexamined life. Harvard University Press.
Popova, M. (2014). Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on Why a Capacity for Boredom Is Essential for a Full Life. Brain Pickings. Retrieved 5 January 2018, from https://www.brainpickings.org/2014/06/19/adam-phillips-boredom/
Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin Press.