I arrived here out of boredom.
“Danger!, Danger!,” my unconscious shouted.
“You are locked up, and the only thing to see or hear is a silent painting, drying up tenuous and prudent”.
At the same time, the body was telling me: “I want to get rid of the restless leg, the tremor of absurd fear, the overwhelmed feeling, the silence that bursts my ears, of . the .. ever … slower …. watch ….. ticking …… time ……. away …….. but ……… never ………. closer ……….. to ………… six”.
And therefore I write, to gently stab time.
We don’t know what our distant ancestors did when they were bored because according to Julie Sedivy in her article Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings? they didn’t write about it.
For example, the saga of King Harold of Iceland, written around the year 1230 begins with action.
“King Harold proclaimed a general tax and assembled a fleet, summoning his forces across the length and breadth of the Earth”.
In the third paragraph, the king launches his fleet against a rebel army, fights numerous battles that end in massacres, covers the wounds of his men, gives rewards to the loyalists and ends “supreme over all Norway”. What the saga doesn’t tell us is how Harold felt about all this or why he did it.
Was he bored?
Boredom is a preamble
Boredom brought me to this page. I write to bury a dagger in time. Perhaps, with the power of a medieval king, I’d have instead started a war. But the way humans respond to boredom has changed dramatically in recent years.
This is how Dr. John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at the University of York in Toronto, tells it.
“We are very used to being passively entertained,” he says. “We have changed our understanding of the human condition to a basin that needs to be filled”. And like an addiction, “… we need another hit to remain at the same level of satisfaction”.
There must be a reason for boredom and why we suffer from it since we are the result of advantageous physical and mental adaptations. It’s a theory that boredom is a natural response created and improved through tens of thousands of years of evolution. It could, for example, be a solution to harmful situations or an antechamber to depression.
Dr. Eastwood continues.
“The emotions are there to help us react, register and regulate our response to the stimulus of our environment,” he says. Boredom, therefore, can be a kind of early warning system. “Generally we don’t take it as a warning, but children do, they badger you to get out of the situation”.
I understand what Dr. Eastwood is saying. As a grandfather in my 60’s, I remember that while my children were at home, between dawn and night there was never a moment of boredom. Unintentionally and without warning each day was a surprise, even in high school. Now their role as “time murderers” has been taken by their children, my grandchildren, but only two or three days a month.
And although getting out of boredom can lead us to extreme measures to alleviate it, like starting a war, it can also lead to positive change. There are scientists who study boredom with fascination. There are creatives who consider it indispensable. There are philosophers who ponder it.
The science (and the danger!) of boredom
The investigation of boredom has become more interesting, is the title of an article in the psychology journal Motivation and Emotion.
According to the article, there are five types of boredom that go from a calm and pleasant experience to something more similar to depression.
The research team, led by Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz and the Thurgau Teacher Training University in Konstanz, Germany, collected real-time data from college and high school students several times a day over a two-week period.
“Boredom was the most frequent and intense emotion experienced by students,” Goetz wrote, “much more intense than pleasure, anxiety, or anger.”
And if we integrate Goetz’s observation with the following statistics, we conclude that a bored young man is very dangerous.
“In a survey conducted in 2003, American teens who said they were often bored, were 50% more likely than their less often bored peers to smoke, drink and use illegal drugs”.
And for adults, the following warning.
Recent scientific research has found that getting easily bored indicates an increased risk of depression, anxiety disorders, gambling addictions, eating disorders, aggression and other psychosocial problems. And if you’re still not scared, add two and a half times more likely to die from heart disease. This last one according to a 2010 study.
Which makes me think if the technological advances that have filled our hours with leisure have really been advances. Is it better to suffer from excessive work than an excess of boredom?
No, work doesn’t free us from boredom.
The boredom burnout syndrome is a disease in modern organizations. It’s explained by Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin, two Swiss business consultants, in their book Diagnose Boreout, published in 2007. It’s not stress, it’s the absence of relevant tasks that kill us.
What an irony, then, that it’s a boring time stabbing us that kills when our mood is to “kill time”.
For researchers, the future of the science of boredom is to find better ways to understand what boredom is and its relation to other mental states — for example, creativity.
Boredom → Creative genius
At first sight, being bored and being witty are polar opposites. Boredom is intolerable, while wit we seek, we desire, we embrace. Ingenuity is a grace that the privileged have, and in most of us — just a longing.
Ingenious, intelligent, talented — versus — lazy, stuck-up, hopeless. It’s not immediately evident, but these opposite states are in fact intimately connected.
Andreas Elpidorou, a researcher in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Louisville and an advocate of boredom, explains:
“Boredom motivates the search for a new goal when the current goal is no longer satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful to you”.
In his 2014 academic article, “The bright side of boredom,” Elpidorou argues that boredom …
“… acts as a regulatory state that keeps each one’s projects online. In the absence of boredom, one could remain trapped in frustrating situations and many rewarding emotional, cognitive and social experiences are lost. Boredom is at the same time a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to change objectives and projects. You could say that boredom is an incubator of brilliance. It’s the dirty, uncomfortable, confusing, frustrating place that one has to occupy for a while until we come up with the winning equation or formula”.
This idea of boredom → creative genius has been repeated many times.
The Hobbit was conceived when JRR Tolkien, a professor at Oxford, “had a huge stack of exams to be corrected, which was very laborious, and unfortunately also boring”. When he came across an exam page that a student had left blank, he was filled with joy. «Glorious! Nothing to read!”, Tolkien told the BBC in 1968. So he wrote on it, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”, not knowing why. And so the first line of one of the most beloved works of fiction was born.
Steve Jobs, who changed the world with his popular vision of technology, said the famous phrase, “I am a great believer in boredom. … All things [of technology] are wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful too”.
In an article in Wired, Steven Levy, the co-founder of Apple, expressed nostalgia for the long and boring summers of his youth that fueled his curiosity because “out of curiosity everything comes”, and worried about the erosion of boredom because of the products he helped create.
The philosophy of boredom
Our emotions are not discrete or isolated. In search of overrated happiness, we oscillate between extremes. So says Arthur Schopenhauer:
“The most general survey shows us that the two foes of human happiness are pain and boredom. We may go further, and say that in the degree in which we are fortunate enough to get away from one, we approach the other. Life presents, in fact, a more or less violent oscillation between the two.
The reason for this is that each of these two poles stands in a double antagonism to the other, external or objective, and inner or subjective. Needy surroundings and poverty produce pain; while, if a man is more than well off, he is bored. Accordingly, while the lower classes are engaged in a ceaseless struggle with need, in other words, with pain, the upper carry on a constant and often desperate battle with boredom.”
Schopenhauer’s words are words of realization and acceptance. Pain makes us seek happiness. Happiness predisposes us to boredom, which is painful. There is no escape, and therefore it is better to accept it.
Another weapon in our pitched battle against boredom is to adopt the Japanese aesthetic posture of wabi-sabi. Wabi-sabi offers a pleasant way to see the world.
Originated in Taoism during the Song Dynasty of China (960–1279), and then passed to Zen Buddhism, wabi-sabi is a relaxed acceptance of transience, nature, and melancholy, favoring the imperfect and incomplete of material objects — from architecture to ceramics and floral arrangements.
Every moment of boredom is an opportunity to practice wabi-sabi. This is described by Professor Tanehisa Otabe of the Aesthetic Institute of the University of Tokyo.
“The aesthetics of wabi-sabi opens our eyes to everyday life and gives us a method to handle what is common in an unusual and harmonious way.”
Nature and ordinary imperfections are transfigured into beauty to be appreciated at the smallest levels. They become sources of colors, designs and patterns, inspiration and strength, to work together with, instead of against.
Ask not what boredom can do to you, ask what you can do against boredom.
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