We’ve all experienced it, that time we got stuck at a social event with someone who talked endlessly about themselves; or when we waited for ages in passport control after a tedious eight-hour flight; or sat through a lecture, wishing it were over…
What is it about boredom that reduces us to tired, irritable heaps? Of all the states of mind that exist, boredom is perhaps the most intriguing. What it is, why does it happen and, perhaps most curiously of all, does it have any purpose? In today’s rather relentless world, the possibility of ever being bored can seem remote. These days, it’s often the things I have to do – the supermarket shop, again? – rather than me not having enough to do, like when I was a child, that bore me.
The idea that boredom has its benefits isn’t lost on me, but it takes a bit of unpacking. Said to fall into two categories, boredom can be situational or repetitive. Situational boredom describes those occasions when hanging about with nothing to do is foisted upon us: waiting for a bus, for example (which is why I always carry a good book in my bag). Repetitive boredom occurs from doing the same task over and over again. This can even include activity we once enjoyed, but which now, months or years on, palls.
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Boredom can arise out of a lack of engagement, which can also occur when we are exhausted, depressed or anxious. When this happens, it’s important to see it for what it is and take steps to address any underlying problem that might be contributing to our low mood and ennui.
And sometimes we experience boredom because we have developed a need for instant gratification, part of our do-it-now/have-it-now mentality. How much time is spent scrolling Instagram in a futile bid to avoid boredom through distraction? Maybe we would be better off accepting we’re bored, then finding something worth engaging with.
What is the purpose of boredom?
Although boredom is often seen negatively – you know the proverb, ‘the devil finds work for idle hands’ – seeing it as some useful time out, allowing us the opportunity to clear the mind, can be helpful. It can be used as time to mull over, consider, reject and reconsider ideas and possibilities. So don’t fight it. When boredom comes knocking, welcome the downtime, succumb to it and see what it yields. Akin to daydreaming, which research has shown to be an active state of brain function, boredom could be your next great motivator.
It would seem, too, as if boredom is something to be feared. It’s certainly true that if our children tell us they’re bored, it can feel like a parenting failure or a red alert that they might find some thrill-seeking, and potentially dangerous, activity to compensate. But being kept relentlessly busy to avoid mischief can actually be counter-productive. Without the experience of boredom, children can’t develop the imagination or learn the self-motivation to address it.
Being bored is actually an important and necessary stage of intellectual development. Albert Einstein deliberately sought out a boring occupation – a desk job in a patent office – to allow his brain the time and space to come up with big ideas. Einstein called this creative boredom, when he let his brain idle in a quiet zone and then was able to give full rein to his relentless curiosity.
It may be that engendering curiosity can save us from boredom – curiosity in the how, what, why and when of life. Maybe we should see being bored as the transitional state it is: a welcome pause; an opportunity for reflection; a moment to collect and re-focus our thoughts; no more nor less than that, and certainly not something that has to always be fought against.
Featured illustration by Ellice Weaver.