The Case For Boredom

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”
-Betrand Russell

Boredom is under attack from all sides. Every screen, device, app attacks it relentlessly. I believe there are some who have never truly experienced it. They have had unlimited access to stimulation and distraction from day one.

Parents regularly outsource parenting to their phones. It is an effective pacifier, I’ve been guilty of it. But the outcome is that kids are growing up without experiencing boredom. I believe this is will come back to haunt us in many ways. Kids need to be bored, often, even if it inconveniences adults. Why do we need boredom?

Steve Jobs once said: “I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity and out of curiosity comes everything.”

It’s ironic that the inventor of the iPhone and iPad would extol boredom but Steve was full of paradoxes, so we shouldn’t be too surprised. And he was very careful with how his kids used the devices his company created. He knew their potential to harm.

So Steve was right even if he was (unwittingly?) the instigator of the most effective assault ever made on the human attention span: boredom is critical to curiosity, which leads to creativity.

When’s the last time you saw a kid lost in their imagination? So few even get the chance to “make believe” any more. I believe kids need boredom. It’s the bridge to their imagination. The mind just seems to work this way. We can’t tap into our imagination unless we pay the toll of boredom.

And yes, we are wired for distraction, for shiny objects. That’s our evolution at work. We needed to be alert to stay alive. But due to the “low tech” nature of our primitive world there was still plenty of time for stillness, quiet and, yes, boredom. From here came art, stories, ideas and all the stuff we now experience.

Our modern world can be seen as the byproduct of boredom. Boredom was a critical catalyst. That moment when curiosity sparked and an idea was born. Taking that idea and making it a reality is core to who we are as humans. No other animal does that in a consistent way. Seeing what is not there and making it happen.

But I fear that in our desire to constantly improve our lives we have made stimulation the desired state of being, not contemplation. For those who have the luxury of no longer being hunted they now seek excitement elsewhere. Boredom is seen as the enemy.

Our devices offer instant gratification. The minute boredom strikes we reach for them. They fill the gaps. We swipe through our apps much as a smoker lights one cigarette with another. Bouncing between thin digital experiences that offer a shadow of reality to entertain for a moment, always leaving us wanting more. Something more real.

This addiction to devices and digital experiences is threatening the very essence of what makes us human. As Betrand Russell pointed out — what kind of ideas will current and future generations have when they never have a moment of time to stop and think? What kind of relationships will we have with each other when we demand excitement from everyone at all times and if they don’t provide it immediately we vacate the conversation mentally and get swallowed back into our devices.

Here’s scenes we all know: the family eating dinner together physically but really alone, all looking at their screens; the group of friends walking together but again, really alone. In seeking to eradicate boredom we have become more lonely. The bait and switch of digital experiences have left us feeling empty.

So we go on trading real experiences for “virtual” ones. Along the way we have traded caring about people to worrying about what they think of us. Our minds are being rewired for constant stimulation and selfishness. The rise of devices and the decline of boredom has far reaching consequences.

How deep into this faux digital reality can we go before we lose ourselves? Do we need to re-embrace boredom to remain human? How will we meet the challenges of our time without an abundant supply of curiosity, creativity and imagination? Can we survive without boredom?

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