The Rise of Boredom: How our Stone-Age Brains Fail in Our Space-Age World
Take a step back in time and imagine you are a hunter-gatherer living 30,000 years ago in prehistoric France. Your survival depends on a few things, like recognizing when there is imminent danger. You certainly can’t afford to mistake a vicious sabre-toothed tiger for a friendly feline.
Since it was crucial that you responded to these potential threats rapidly, you were constantly scanning your surroundings — every movement, every rustle of the bushes. You were vigilant.
When a harmless gecko suddenly crawled past you, your amygdala immediately lit up and registered it as “danger,” even when it posed no real threat.
We also learned a lot about our environment. There wasn’t any written language yet, but we did attach labels to things — at least in our minds. We recognized the sound of a lemur as “safe,” the sight of a blueberry as “delicious and edible,” and the roar of a tiger as “dangerous.”
But we couldn’t just sit around and listen to the beautiful songs of birds all day, endlessly bathe in natural hot springs, or even fully savor the delicious beef we just ate. Sure, we enjoyed them occasionally, but if we focused too much of our attention on them, it would likely compromise our survival. We had to really pay attention and be ready to take action, whether that meant protecting ourselves or the group we were part of.
In this way, human senses evolved not for maximal pleasure or enjoyment, but for our survival — and we thus didn’t pay too much attention on savoring our own actual, sensory experiences. If we were all in a constant state of bliss (physical or otherwise), this would likely detract from focusing on the important things (survival). The fact that sex feels good, of course, is the product of natural selection’s “desire” for the species to propagate its genes.
The pay-off for all of this was great, and for tens of thousands of years we were able to vigilantly scan, accurately label and survive in the unpredictable world we lived in.
The Good Life
There wasn’t much going on — perhaps it wasn’t always easy, but life was simple. We’d hunt, forage, sleep, reproduce. Occasionally we’d draw cool buffalo art in caves, or maybe we’d sing and dance a bit, and then pray to the sky for more rain.
Did we ever get bored?
Well, just imagine a situation where our ancestor was captured by a neighboring tribe and held in captivity; being locked up in a small cage, combined with the lack of control, would likely lead to bouts of boredom. Like the modern office environment, he’d feel literally trapped, because he was (animals, by the way, have also shown signs of boredom in captivity).
And sure, we might get a little bored of carving that 100th cobalt stone spear, but otherwise, I believe it’s unlikely that a caveman had deep feelings of boredom — rarely, if ever.
Despite there being no Netflix around (or written language, for that matter), our ancestors were likely very engaged, happy and interested in life. Why? Because their attention was focused on doing things that had a direct and tangible impact on their lives — like finding food or carving stone tools.
There were very few things to “distract” us, perhaps apart from a few cave paintings that captured our imaginations every now and then.
Therefore, the meaning of things was obvious, and what they did had a purpose (survival/social bonding). People were just living life, without much else to do, and that was satisfying in itself.
We’ll see shortly why living in the opposite type of world — in isolation and engulfed text/images/videos that are non-representative of reality — actually creates the perfect environment for a dreadful type of boredom.
Written Language and the Shift to a World full of Symbols
A few thousands years later, we started to make and attach specific symbols to things around us (it took us a while). The first real symbols, apart from our art, were probably little clay tablets that we engraved. Perhaps we were counting how many goats we had, or used them as tokens for trading.
Eventually those symbols evolved into alphabets. Now we could capture entire concepts, communicate them to others, and get people on the same page. We were starting to live in a largely symbolic world, where everything had a label, including things that weren’t actually real — “concepts.”
We also started to produce more food than we needed, had relatively reliable shelter, and people were teeming with ideas that they wanted to share (circa 10,000 BC). We were writing, thinking, talking, and philosophizing.
Life should have become very interesting at that point, and in some ways, it did. These words became a proxy for reality, and of course created a medium of communication that lead to the unfolding of modern science, literature and so forth — magnificent things, no doubt.
Along with it, though, came a massive increase in boredom.
The reason was pretty simple. We now had to worry less about our immediate environment, and had another place to direct our attention; precisely because we had words, we could choose to direct our attention to the non-real world of words. We could lose ourselves in reading or writing our own words, or the words of others.
This was highly intoxicating.
We can predict what happened next simply by looking at children, who have a tendency to fall into a deep fascination with things that adults might not even notice or care about, like a booger. At this age the world doesn’t yet have fixed meaning — it is still a wonderful place to be discovered — free from specific meanings attached to symbols or concepts.
This sticky, green glob of nostril-dwelling goo was magnificent in its own right. The malleable texture was magically produced from us; a substance yet to be discovered, transformed and shaped to our will; it acted as a source of entertainment, whether we stuck them under our tables for later, shoved them in our mouths to taste, or observed the trajectory of the little green bullets as we flicked them across the room.
But alas, we were discouraged from “mining for gold” too often. We slowly began to understand good and bad, and eventually lost our fascination with these once-inspiring goblets, now labeling them as “gross.”
Similarly, the explosion of words, books, literature very much took away our childlike appreciation of our immediate environment, and thrust us into a world largely made up of symbols and perceptions.
This had some consequences.
Bored Poets, Philosophers and Mathematicians
At times, people got really, really caught up in words. Socrates was one of those deep thinkers that loved his words. So much so, that the Greeks often complained about the monotony of both his writings and speeches.
In other words, people got a bit bored of Socrates.
Also during that time, Greek historian Plutarch shared an account of Pyrrhus, who became increasingly bored during retirement.
Early Christians came up with a word for this feeling, they called it acedia — “a state of restlessness and inability either to work or to pray.”
Acedia was so troublesome that it was seen as a precursor to one of the 8 deadly sins — sloth (despair and sadness were often confused, so there combined at some point into just sloth, and 8 deadly sins became 7 deadly sins that we think of today).
By the Renaissance, acedia became known as the Noonday Demon, presumably because the feeling was at its worst around noon, or early afternoon. The Noonday Demon “amounts to heaviness of the eyelids,” while others described it as “spiritual loathing, dryness of the soul,” or a desire to take midday naps.
The French called it ennui, and found that it was particularly rampant amongst mathematicians, scientists and philosophers — people who spend a lot of time immersed in a world full of symbols. In English, the word bored first appeared in Charles Dickens’ book, Bleak House, almost 200 years ago.
Later, in defense of boredom’s supposedly innate nature, one German philosopher, Heidegger, wrote that “life to a certain extent is boring, but at the same time to realize that this does not make life unlivable.” This didn’t provide much consolation.
“Boredom: the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest”
As the years went by and our modern society emerged, school kids complained of boring classes, boring books, and boring teachers.
“It’s not interesting.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“I’m being forced to do something I don’t want to do”
In the business world, “employee disengagement,” which is just another term for boredom, became a huge issue. (what’s the point of my job, am I challenged to grow, and does it have meaning to me?)
Psychologists in the 21st century started studying boredom, and found — perhaps unsurprisingly — that people spend a lot of time being bored.
All signs pointed towards one thing: It seemed like boredom had become an inescapable, even natural, part of our lives.
But things were about to get a lot worse…that is, a lot more boring.
Our Lives Turn into TV Icons
“When nothing is interesting, neither are we.”
While books represented often complex topics and concepts, comprehending them required some imagination on the part of the reader. The media and the invention of TV took this to a different level though, as the “icons” we saw on TV were increasingly more representative of reality.
Things got bad quickly. Instead of being in a real community, TV took over as our main source of shared community.
We also didn’t need to experience the actual world ourselves, since we could see the forests of Thailand and pixelated pandas on our screens.
Instead of actually living our lives, we could live through the eyes and stories of our favorite actors and actresses. The cast from Friends was more interesting than our friends.
And when we didn’t like something we saw, like the advertisement asking for donations for poor children in Rwanda, we could simply switch the channel.
Not only did this new “reality” become more accessible, but the prevalence of media had a peculiar effect on our lives; we began to need the media to keep us interested in our own lives.
“As for many addicts, the ‘special treat’ of TV begins to substitute for something nourishing and needed, and the original hunger subsides to a strange objectless unease” — David Foster Wallace
The consequence was that TV decreased our innate capacity to engage with our direct environment, and thus made the real world around us less enjoyable — less interesting.
Then came computers and phones…
II. How The Noonday Demons got Really, Really Bad
The Boredom Equation
Fast forward to our modern day: Boredom has quite literally become a killer. There are many studies that have found that people who are easily bored may be at greater risk for depression, anxiety disorders, gambling addictions, eating disorders, aggression and mental illness (not to mention alcoholism and drug abuse). Another study found that if you get easily bored, you’re twice as likely to die from heart disease.
Here is what I believe is the equation that causes us so much angst.
Overstimulation x Modern Technology = Existential Boredom
But first, let’s clarify the two types of boredom:
The Simple: The first is the type when you’re waiting in a long line and don’t have anything to do. This is momentary, largely situational, and lots of people might feel the same way given the circumstances. We’ve all felt impatience, restlessness, and even annoyance when we’re waiting ages for something to happen.
The Existential: This second type, which I’m most interested in, causes more frequent existential angst — a more serious form of boredom. It’s the inescapable, chronic boredom that’s there even when you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. Often times, it’s a precursor to depressive thoughts, nihilism and narcissism. This is the type of I’ll refer to moving forward.
The Main Culprit: Overstimulation from Technology
“We have changed our understanding of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled” — Dr. Eastwood, clinical psychologist
Do you ever feel a little bored, take out your phone and scan through emails? You look at messages, not knowing how to reply, and debate what smiley face to use even though you know it doesn’t really matter. You feel a sense of guilt about spending your “down time” clicking and scanning, checking aimlessly, and not being productive.
When our stone-age brains continue to scan our space-age environment, we get an endless flow of stimuli — phone screens, messages, advertisements. Words have shaped into emoticons, shifted into pictures, transformed into videos. All have turned into symbols to represent our world. These symbols morph and change so quickly that they’re quickly rendered meaningless. The stakes are very, very low.
We’re further drawn to technology because of that magic little neurotransmitter: dopamine. Facebook, Google, and pretty much everyone nowadays know this very well; and they use neuroscience to get the biggest dopamine bang for their buck. We are flooded with dopamine whenever we engage with technology; but because of the endless repetition and predictability, we need increasing amounts of stimulation in order to get the same dopamine bang.
This sort of overstimulation from our digital lifestyle is one major reason for our decreasing attention spans. Non-stop digital consumption does decrease our attention span — in fact, nowadays it’s about 8 seconds, less than that of a goldfish, which has an attention span of 9 seconds.
Psychologist Dr. Eastwood has pioneered research on boredom that concluded that the ability and failure to direct our attention is a core mechanism in boredom. It’s thus not surprising that in our modern lives, where attention is traded like a commodity, the frequency of being bored increases.
Escape is Futile
What happens when we try and “escape” the discomfort, like by eating a half-pound of chocolate or reaching for our phone? Well, we begin to develop an even worse habit; we lose control and become unable to direct our own attention to what’s important — like actually enjoying a conversation, pursuing an activity that puts us in a state of flow, or even focusing on a simple task like reading a book for 10 minutes.
This creates an unhealthy relationship with discomfort — so whatever activities we do are never satisfying. Slowly, in a world where we can “choose” what we want, we move from app to app, new thing to new thing. Unlike our hunter-gatherer ancestors, most of our decisions hold little or no weight in the real world, and things start to lose their intrinsic meaning.
“Boredom becomes widespread” — philosopher Lars Svendsen explains — “when traditional structures of meaning disappear.”
The little moments where we try to escape boredom actually have the opposite effect — they are an illusion of the worst kind, a trap. By distracting ourselves, and avoiding discomfort, we actually fall deeper into the rabbit hole.
In the end, we’ve become disillusioned and jaded by our engagement with technology. We know a great deal about it’s potential, but we have also come face to face with it’s limits. It can only change so much; and can only bring so much meaning to our lives.
Despite this sense of meaninglessness, we continue to engage with it. We continue to get dopamine hits, again and again, despite the underlying sense of futility. Eventually, all meaning dissolves…and we’re just left thinking — “what’s the point of it all?”
The situation has been made a lot more complicated by the types of technology we’ve developed, and this combination of emotional and intellectual futility, alongside ongoing physiological stimulation, leads to existential boredom.
So then, we must consider that perhaps the change needs to be an internal one, rather than an external one…
III. How to Reclaim Your Mind and Defeat Boredom
If misplaced attention plus our inability to direct attention for any decent period of time are leading causes of boredom, then perhaps we might try doing the opposite of what we normally do. Does that mean we should stop checking our phones and instead read a book every day? You might think that’s a good idea. After all, Warren Buffet apparently leaves his daily schedule completely open most days and spends the majority of his time reading and thinking.
“I just sit in my office and read all day,” he says.
Yes, I agree, reading is important, especially books rather than Huffpost listicles — and most of us should probably read more. But Warren is reading with a purpose in mind — managing and identifying long term investments. We have to admit that a majority of us are not investors, and that if getting to Warren’s level requires us to read 500 pages a day (not uncommon for him), we’d likely die of boredom first.
And by the way, the billionaire also eats an egg McMuffin from McDonalds every morning, drinks Coca-Cola every day, and often indulges in sugary strawberry milkshakes. His obvious success and investment expertise aside, surely there are better ways to live our lives and still be happy without having our noses buried in boring books and clogging our arteries.
Get Rid of Obvious Problems
You can, as any experienced monk will tell you, be happy in any situation if you so choose to accept it. Of course, this is easier said than done. In reality, some of us have terrible jobs, and if we feel trapped like a caged animal, then boredom is almost guaranteed. One survey of Japanese employees found that 72% of them were “more bored than they were 5 years ago.”
This likely has something to do with Japan’s notoriously inefficient work culture, but it makes an important point: First, get rid of the obvious problems. It may be that your daily job provides no opportunity for growth, in which case you should consider finding new work. Or, maybe first try and move departments, or work on new projects.
We might get into a routine of seeing the same friends every week. They are good friends, you like the same football team, talk about the same stuff and you enjoy each other’s company — but the conversations are hardly fresh. We are social creatures and need the company of others, so you shouldn’t give this up. If you find yourself bored with certain friends, you could simply try a new activity. Though it’s also possible that your interests/goals have diverged; friends grow apart — it happens. In that case, venture out to find a new group and new hobby.
Or, perhaps, it’s simply time to break your exercise/gym routine. Routine, strangely, can be both addictive and boring at the same time. Even a seemingly positive activity like going to the gym every day could become addictive — that is, you get cranky or feel “weird” when you don’t go. But, you could also be bored doing the same kettlebell swings over and over, in which case you should mix it up, scrap the gym membership and take up a new activity like Acroyoga or Crossfit.
Embrace the Boredom
Oftentimes, though, the issues run much deeper — perhaps we have a great job, make new friends, find new hobbies, but we’re still prone to bouts of existential boredom.
In this case, instead of running away from our pain, or trying to entertain ourselves, perhaps it’s our perspectives or the types of actions that need modification.
“I define boredom as an inherently aversive state,” explains Dr. Eastwood, “I don’t think it makes any sense to say we should learn to cultivate the experience of boredom. I would say we should learn how to sit quietly without a lot of external stimulation — and not be bored.”
The best way to decondition ourselves, to re-order our brain, then, is pretty simple, yet perhaps counterintuitive: To get past boredom, you probably first have to do something “boring.”
Well, we might feel it’s boring at first when we’re not being over-stimulated; doing something that requires patience really feels like walking through sludge. We’ll likely feel anxious, too.
And it’s through this sort of pain and struggle that we can slowly start to change ourselves.
“Most of life’s greatest opportunities come out of moments of struggle; it’s up to you to make the most of these tests of creativity and character.” — Ray Dalio, Principles
To begin, you can start small and slowly remove distractions. Don’t check your phone until 1pm, instead of first thing in the morning. You’ll find that when you don’t start your day with swiping, it’s easier to focus. Small changes.
Put your phone on airplane mode, turn off notifications. Put it in a separate room when you go to bed.
Get an Amazon Echo so you can use speech instead of your phone. Use Alexa’s Daily Flash Briefing feature (weather/curated news/most recent emails/etc) to talk to you, rather than scrolling through your phone for 20 minutes each morning.
Another trick is to put your phone behind your computer and not in your pocket where you can still feel it — doing this makes it easier to forget that it’s there.
Create, Don’t Consume
“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity”
Once you’ve managed to stay free of distraction for long enough, you can move on to something that requires a bit more attention, like creating something.
The act of creating requires us to hold our attention for longer periods of time. Take up knitting, painting, making music, writing, making pottery, coloring, reading a book, or building a spaceship made from Legos.
To write this blog post, I shut off my phone, turned off my Wifi and gave the creative process my undivided attention. The first 20 minutes, nothing happened. I gazed endlessly into my screen, day-dreaming about holding a 5-minute hand stand on the beach in front of Scarlet Johansson in a futile effort to impress her. The anxiety started to surface until, finally, I couldn’t take it any longer and started to write something. We all have to start somewhere.
The other day I painted a cup — a good exercise in directing my attention, and patience.
I also carved, then painted, the Japanese symbol for life/destiny (命) out of a piece of wood.
There’s an “art bar” here in Tokyo where you can observe a pro artist, sip wine and splash paint on a canvas. I made my spectacular debut with this gorgeous Monet-esque whatever you want to call it.
At this point you’re probably thinking: “My 4-year old nephew paints better than you!”
Yes, that very well might be true. But don’t judge me on my artistic talents. The point here is that you’re focusing your attention on something for a prolonged period of time, and not constantly switching between tasks.
You might also point out that some of these artistic endeavors are still “symbols.” In a way yes, but because you can actually feel/touch/see/taste/smell them (but please don’t lick your painting), they are more real than most of the stuff we spend our time doing. And because they’re real, it’s easier to give them meaning (“I made this and I’m proud”). These things might seem trite — silly, even. You might feel that way at first, but I’m willing to bet that this feeling will change.
Choose an activity that doesn’t allow for much distraction. In doing so, you slowly start to chip away at your constant need for meaningless distraction, and you’ll actually be able to better enjoy each moment, and likely experience more joy as a result.
Now, if you can’t get yourself to do those things with any level of focus, and without reaching for your phone, it’s a good sign that you’re in need of a more serious detox.
More Drastic Measures
Here are three quick detox measures:
- Venture out into nature for a weekend without technology. If you’re scared that you won’t have a way to reach someone in case of an emergency, go with a friend, and bring some flares. Check out Digital Detox for organized retreats: http://digitaldetox.org/retreats/
- For some, you’ll delete Facebook/Instagram/Snapchat, or go on a one week vacation without your phone. Here’s a guide to deleting Facebook.
- Try sensory deprivation in a float tank. These are perfectly safe and often used by athletes for visualization training. I usually go for 60–90 minutes. The reason I suggest this is because it essentially puts your brain in a meditative state, even if you have zero experience meditating. It’s a good “reset” button.
I can personally attest to the benefits of meditation on improving my focus and attention span. During my 10 day silent meditation retreat — that’s over 100 hours of meditation — I wasn’t allowed to speak, read, write or make any eye-contact for 10 days. No phones or electronics.
There were probably only a couple of moments were I felt bored. But funny enough, the times I felt any boredom was when I wasn’t meditating! I had a wide range of emotions, and at some points I felt like there were narcotics injected directly into my brain. I won’t get into it here, but I did experience extreme moments of bliss (and frustration) that are often reported during long periods of meditation.
I recall a pink rose bush that I would pass every day on the way to the meditation hall. I’d stop, stoop over and smell the flowers, then keep on going. It was probably one of my favorite parts of the day. After a few days of lessened stimulation — no electronics, media or distractions — all of my senses were heightened. The smell of a flower was, wonderfully, all I needed to make me happy.
Neuroscientists have identified the part of the brain (it actually consists of several parts) that’s active when you’re not focused on anything or doing anything in particular — the default mode network (“DMN”). There’s still a lot of research to be done, but studies have shown that the quieting of the DMN is linked to creativity, but overactivity in this area is associated with anxiety and depression.
Brain scans on advanced meditators have shown a significant quieting of their DMN region. Lessened activity in the DMN allows you to experience the present moment with greater objectivity, less clouded by your feelings. Even just two weeks of meditation, for 10 minutes a day, can start to produce noticeable effects. Go download the Headspace or Calm app to start with guided meditations. If you want to really detox from technology, check out Vipassana retreats.
When we’re meditating, we’re left with ourselves, our thoughts, our feelings and our breath— and that can be extremely unsettling at first. But it’s easy to see how it’s the ultimate anecdote to boredom; spending 15–20 minutes daily in silence, without “doing” anything, is extremely liberating. Give it a try.
And Most Importantly, Don’t Ignore Your Feelings…
We can’t get rid of technology and we can’t jump in our DeLorean to go back in time to a pre-modern world. But as we’ve seen, it’s our approach to life, and what we do with technology that can influence us, and determines whether we’re bored or engaged. That’s in our power.
The worst thing you could do upon feeling bored is to switch to a mindless task by consuming something. Thinking too much doesn’t help, either. We need to step outside of ourselves.
“The more one forgets himself — by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love — the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.”
Boredom may seem inescapable at times, but these moments of despair are a sign for us to take action. Acting on our boredom could really be the start of greater creativity, fulfillment and overall joy in our lives.
“Boredom can be a cue that, if we listen to it and respond appropriately, can help us experience a more meaningful life. Think of it as a signal and ally toward a more fulfilling life, rather than a problem to obliterate.”
And when we’re able escape the shackles of boredom, the world opens up to us. We can dedicate ourselves to a greater mission, or another person, or an activity that we find deeply fulfilling, and we can step out of our own self-centered desires.
And in doing so, we might find that perhaps — like our ancestors certainly experienced — it doesn’t take that much to live a happy, not-so boring life.