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In defence of boredom

In defence of boredom

Boredom was made obsolete in 2007 when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone. Never again would there be a needlessly dull moment. According to UK communications regulator Ofcom’s 2018 report “A Decade of Digital Dependency”, we spend an average of nearly three hours a day on our smartphones (four if you’re aged 15 to 24), and are online for twice as long as we were ten years ago: 24 hours a week (40 for one in five of us), or a whole day. That’s attributed to smartphones, now used by 78 per cent of us versus 17 per cent in 2008, when the iPhone went on sale, and before which we were really bored.

Just look at all the previously boring situations that are enlivened by reaching for our smartphones: queues, ad breaks, lulls in conversations, walking down the street, crossing the road, driving. 90 per cent of respondents to a survey by American telecoms provider Verizon Wireless confessed to using their handsets in the bathroom. The vast majority of smartphones in Japan, where they took off years before they did in the West, are waterproof by popular demand so that they can be taken in the shower. In our always-on era, being alone with your thoughts is as old-fashioned as an iPod – even scary.

But then that’s only to be expected, as boredom is scientifically proven to be dangerous. Being prone to boredom has been variously shown to increase your risk of gambling addiction and binge eating, aggression and depression. A study of middle-aged civil servants by the University College London found that reporting high levels of boredom makes you twice as likely to die of heart disease, because you’re more likely to drink and smoke. As the inevitable headlines observed, you really can be bored to death - and not just because texting while driving makes you 23 times more likely to crash.

Religion also warns us against boredom: the devil makes work for idle hands. Boredom is itself a devil: “the noonday demon” which is recorded as afflicting Christian monks who lived and worshipped in separate cells in the harsh, desolate deserts of North Africa in the fourth century AD. Also known as acedia, from the Greek meaning “indifference” or “apathy”, this spiritual sloth was regarded as the gateway sin that left the door open for other temptations to enter and faith to depart. Thus possessed, the monks became wrathful at their situation and lusted for escape. Fairly understandably.

Peter Toohey’s 2011 book Boredom: A Lively History holds that this is “probably the earliest account of existential boredom”, defined by him as “a powerful and unrelieved sense of emptiness, isolation and disgust in which the individual feels a persistent lack of interest in and difficulty with concentrating on his current circumstances”. Existential boredom was famously articulated by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in his debut 1938 novel Nausea. Roman thinker Seneca, an advisor to Emperor Nero between 54 and 52 AD, characterised boredom as a “seasickness”, using the Greek word nausia.

Sartre had intended to title his book Melancholia after the Renaissance version of existential boredom, which was a medical condition attributed to an excess of black bile, one of four “humours” that had to be balanced for good health, brought on by too much studying. But then as Toohey, a classics professor at the University of Calgary and a plain-speaking Australian, remarks, scholars “tend to dignify their proneness to simple boredom by inventing impressive intellectual terms for it”. Melancholia, ennui, mal de vivre: it’s all just boredom by another, fancier name. He also contends that people only tend to kill themselves from existential boredom in literature. (Depression is another matter.) 

Many contemporary scholars believe that boredom was invented in the eighteenth century, citing factors such as the rise of leisure, growing belief in individual rights (including that of happiness), secularisation, bureaucratisation (organisation of time) and the coining of the word “boredom” (often wrongly credited to Charles Dickens’ 800-plus-page novel Bleak House, itself very boring.) The concept dates back further though. An inscription in the Italian city of Benevento thanks a Roman consul for rescuing the citizens from boredom - probably, Toohey offers, by organising gladiatorial games, a favoured political gambit to prevent the rabble from rousing. Some societies allow more opportunity for boredom than others: Australian Aboriginals have no word for boredom, presumably because they were preoccupied with surviving in the brutal outback.

Exalted existential boredom has much exercised intellectuals over the centuries, particularly philosophers, Humble boredom has become newly interesting in more recent years, to experts in diverse disciplines: history, art, cultural studies, sociology, psychology and genetics. There’s an academic journal dedicated to the burgeoning field: the Boredom Studies Reader, the first edition of which was published in 2016. There’s even an International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference, which despite the unappealing name has attracted nearly 150 attendees to Warsaw over four years since it was started in 2014, initially just for Polish academics. (Toohey was invited but he couldn’t make it.) Consensus is shifting from boredom as a demon to necessary evil and even virtue.

“That’s because the process involved is daydreaming,” says Dr Mann. “This is a crucial path to creativity. When we are bored our mind will search for stimulation and, if it can’t find it, create its own by wandering. Reading facilitates daydreaming a bit more than writing does.” 

Just-mindless-enough activities such as this activate your brain’s daydream-weaver, the default mode network: interacting areas that put ideas together in less linear or convergent fashion, breaking you out of mental ruts by creating connections between things that, out of their external context, are free to associate. That’s why, famously, good ideas often come to you in the shower - assuming you’re not looking at your phone. Researchers at Georgia Institute of Technology have, contrary to what your teacher told you, associated more frequent mind-wandering with higher intelligence.

Going for a shower ahead of your brainstorming meeting is not always a viable option however, and reading the phone book aloud may make your colleagues call security. “Much better to take a walk,” agrees Dr Mann. “Switch off your devices and just walk. Or swim, or stare at the clouds. The main thing we need to learn is to build some boredom into our day, and to switch off in order to switch on.” She no longer listens to the car radio on her commute, freeing up “free-range time” for her mind to roam untethered.

Boredom can therefore be conducive to work if you, say, schedule dull, repetitive tasks before more creative ones, or a period of quiet time between absorbing information and synthesising it into a report or presentation, as opposed to cramming your every waking hour with reading and podcasts. (This correspondent likes to research an article then allow at least a night for it to percolate before starting to write.) But boredom is somewhat less helpful when you really need to do is finish that report or presentation.

“I see boredom as our brain telling us that we need to feed it more stimuli,” says Dr Larry Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, who has been studying the impact of technology on how we think and behave for over 30 years. “It’s a biochemical reaction to our usual state of overload and our brain’s craving for the chemicals that make us feel good, such as dopamine.”

Early brains only had to process mostly sensory information – movement, smell º to ensure the safety of our ancestors. The amount of stimuli that our brains have to deal with has multiplied exponentially, but our processor hasn’t been updated. “And now we have so many more internal and external stimuli that the brain cannot handle all of them at the same time,” says Dr Rosen, who along with Adam Gazzaley, professor of neuroscience, physiology and psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco, co-authored 2016 book The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World.

The result is that we’re constantly task-switching before completing whatever we’re working on, but much less efficiently than our smartphones flit between apps. While our primitive hardware lags, technology may actually be speeding up boredom’s onset, by exposing us to what the co-authors call “pervasive, high-frequency reward feedback” and lowering our tolerance for slower activities. Simultaneously, technology amplifies our anxiety – another hard-to-override emotion. The co-authors recommend setting your phone to only allow emergency calls from key contacts in order to dial down FOMO and managing colleagues’ expectations by telling them that you’ll be off grid for, say, 90 minutes at a time, after which you’ll devote 20 minutes to correspondence (a “90-20 plan”).

For staving off boredom meanwhile, the co-authors suggest science-backed strategies such as standing up (even better, and if you have a treadmill desk, walking, which boosts blood flow to the brain) or listening to music, which improves mood and cognitive performance. (Familiar music decreases stress and is likely less distracting: productivity guru Tim Ferriss’ 2016 book Tools of Titans details how various high achievers repeat to the same album or even single track for focus, which sounds boring but seems to work.) They also propose training yourself to resist boredom by scheduling breaks, which help you stay focused, as a reward, then gradually extending the time that you spend on task.

Depending on what you do in your break, you could see this as a form of “structured boredom”. And some breaks are more productive when it comes to restoring attention, reducing stress or otherwise facilitating work than others. Like daydreaming. Napping. Talking to other humans (face to face or on the phone, not text). Training your eyes with the 20-20-20 rule (every 20 minutes, look at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds) or exercising the rest of your body (even just for 12 minutes). Grabbing a drink and small snack. Immersing yourself in nature (or just looking at pictures). Reading a chapter of fiction.

“I make it habit to always have a novel to read as a brain escape, and try to keep my phone away while doing so,” says Dr Rosen. “Sadly, I am not so good at ignoring my phone.” Fighting boredom is difficult. But surrendering to it scarcely feels much easier. So why do we harbour such resistance to something that is inevitable, natural and helpful?

“My subject was not fully recognised as legitimate at my institute,” recalls Mariusz Finkielsztein, the organiser of the conference and a sociologist at the University of Warsaw whose PHD was on the very meta topic of boredom at universities. His institute did however let him, while still just a PHD student, start a conference on “some not-established, bit exotic” subject, for which he’s very grateful. After a two-year hiatus while he completed his PHD, the conference will likely be held again next year, but not in Warsaw: “Organising a conference in the same place may become a bit tedious.”

The definition of boredom depends on what kind of expert you speak to. Finkielsztein, naturally, understands it from a sociological perspective. “Boredom is produced during the course of interaction when we feel the sense of meaninglessness,” he says. It’s “a huge misunderstanding” to equate boredom with idleness: you can be bored while doing nothing, but you can also be bored while doing something. “How many people are bored while working?” A lot: the research, including his own, is in agreement that boredom is one of the most common workplace emotions, which may not come as a great surprise. But he’s “still excited” by the philosophical focus on existential boredom. And he’s also “very keen” on the evolutionary approach: boredom as a survival mechanism.

As Toohey notes, boredom has been linked to, or called a less intense version, of disgust, which is believed to be an evolved response that helps us avoid disease. (The Latin word taedium, as in taedium vitae or “weariness of life”, another impressive intellectual term for existential boredom, can also mean “disgust”.) It’s been posited that boredom warns us against “infectious” social situations that could be bad for our health. Boredom can be seen then as nature’s way of telling you to extricate yourself from, say, a dinner party, but also more literal and dangerous confinement. In studies of confined animals, initial, observable boredom gives way to, in turn, frustration, agitation, anger, violence (including self-harm) and depression - just as it does in confined humans.

Studying boredom is good fodder for dinner parties, insists Dr Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire’s School of Psychology who, like Toohey, is dubbed by Finkzielstein as one of the “big stars” of boredom studies. (She was also invited to the conference but it clashed with her son’s bar mitzvah.) “Everyone can relate to boredom so it’s a topic that actually captures the imagination,” she says.

Dr Mann’s definition of boredom is as a “negative emotion” that arises when our need for neural stimulation is not met. “Thus it isn’t just having nothing to do, which is the common belief,” she explains. “It is having nothing to do that appeals at that time and it is the wanting to have something that does appeal.”

Boredom can however have a positive effect on creativity, as widely reported research by Dr Mann and her colleague Rebekah Cadman has demonstrated. In one study, subjects copied out numbers from a phone book, then thought of as many uses as they could for a pair of paper cups. They thought of more ideas than the control group, who were mercifully spared the tedium of copying out the numbers. In another experiment, subjects who just read the numbers aloud were even more creative than the writers.

Boredom in today’s culture “tends to signify having no immediate purpose or task”, says Josh Cohen, a privately practising psychoanalyst and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths University of London: “If we could resist the idea that our time is a resource that must be put to perpetual use, the Calvinistic notion that to ‘waste’ time is to squander the gifts of God, what we call boredom would surely trouble us less.”

Cohen’s 2019 book Not Working is not an idealistic manifesto for downing tools, which isn’t a realistic option for most of us in the current system. It’s more a meditation on why we find the idea of not working so radical, disturbing or shameful. “My point is that there is also a non-working, sabbatical dimension in ourselves which should be respected for what it is, rather than co-opted as the handmaiden of our working selves,” he says. “In the end, I’m advocating a more humane and curious relationship to our non-working selves. I’m not sure exactly what that means politically, because we’re so far away from it.”

By his own admission an “inveterate” starer out of windows and aimless walker, Cohen takes “a certain unexcitable pleasure” in getting lost in his own thoughts. “I am as prone as anyone to hear the voice that tells me to get out of my easy chair and do what I need to do, and worse still, I often have to heed it,” he says. “But what I try very hard not to do, and I think mostly succeed in, is hate myself for not wanting to leave the chair.”

Humans, like all physical entities, are subject to the law of inertia: we must eventually stop, ultimately permanently. Freud postulated two opposite impulses: the striving “life drive”, which ensures the continuation of the species through hard work and sexual reproduction, and the self-destructive “death drive”, which longs to rest in peace, or at least just chill out for a bit. Even the most prolific among us are not exempt from inertia, as Cohen’s book illustrates with in-depth profiles of Andy Warhol, Orson Welles, Emily Dickinson, and David Foster Wallace, “who channelled feelings of indifference, slothful indulgence, withdrawal and boredom into remarkable cultural achievements”.

Not coincidentally, boredom became a subject of serious scientific inquiry in the 30s following the advent of factory work and industrialists’ realisation that idle hands weren’t just less productive but were also free to stir up unrest. Methods for alleviating the tedium of repetitive tasks that emerged from the first studies were money as motivator and amphetamines, ephedrine and caffeine as stimulants. Not much has changed then, except that in modern productivity culture, where work has superseded religion as our source of meaning and individuals are responsible for their own success or failure at the mercy of an unforgiving market, boredom is justified as a means to yet more output.

This is a bad paradox, as Cohen highlights: “Once inactivity becomes a means to facilitating greater levels of productivity, it’s no longer inactivity.” He doesn’t dismiss boredom’s link to creativity, but asserts that it can be creative as boredom, not just a “waystation”. This, he says, is what Oscar Wilde was getting at with his epigram: “The basis of action is lack of imagination. It is the last resource of those who know not how to dream.” Wilde also said, “To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.” Frenetic activity is an evasion, which casts all those habits of successful people and their relentless daily routines in a different light.

Cohen isn’t as hard as Wilde on the unthinking repetition of rituals: “It’s when you get into the ‘non-stop inertia’ of robotic workaholism that things become more worrisome.” The notion of striving to be being “better”, as so many of us feel compelled to, is ambiguous: “Better than what, or who?” But might it not, he asks, be “better” to recognise that resistance to work and purpose is “a necessary and integral dimension of our humanity, not an inconvenience we need to overcome”. In which case, perhaps boredom shouldn’t be feared, or fought, or forced to productivity’s end, but appreciated.

“I don’t plan to be bored, but I leave spare time for it,” says Boredom Conference organiser Finkielsztein. “I don’t feverishly occupy each second of my life because I’m subconsciously afraid of boredom.” To him, boredom is a “tool” for gaining self-consciousness, confronting the final realities of our lives –meaninglessness, dejection, death – and even seeing through the utopian vision that ours is the best of all possible worlds: “I use it to specify what is truly important and what is just an illusion of meaning”. 


Words: Jamie Millar
Illustration: Pat Bradbury