Note: This is a guest post written by Ali Cornish of Everthrive.
What is boredom?
Boredom is the experience of frustration when we want the stimulation of a satisfying experience, but are unable to achieve it. Boredom leaves its victims craving relief from a very unpleasant state.
It’s terrible to be bored. At least, that’s what I’ve been told from a young age.
As a child, I was not allowed to be bored. Upon complaining to my parents about my excruciating boredom, they would reply, “How could you be bored when there is so much you could do?” I did have a lot to do. At the time, I was pursuing piano and violin, with weekly lessons and daily practices. I went to ballet classes twice a week, art lessons on weekends, and when I wasn’t doing school work, music, art, or dance, I was sometimes very bored.
As a child, I felt boredom’s annoyance very acutely. It was very frustrating and exasperating at times to endure the never-ending oppression of Sunday afternoons with nothing to do. Even as an adult, I avoid boredom like the plague.
Why is boredom so terrible? Why do we avoid it?
Now, when I find myself unengaged with an activity, I feel uncertain. I might even feel lost, alone, and slightly afraid. I naturally want to avoid negative feelings. So, to alleviate the pain, I reach for the nearest distraction. With a distracter, such as a smart phone or a tablet, I don’t ever have to be bored. There’s so much to do when I have my phone in hand! Checking email, Instagram, Facebook, editing recently taken photos, texting my “favorites”… Hours can go by. After checking all the whatnots on my devices, I finally come up for air to find that I am even more annoyed than when I started to sense boredom’s oppression.
I was annoyed because I sensed a loss. I missed out on an opportunity to engage in something other than my phone. I simply distracted myself instead of allowing the white space of boredom to creep in.
Because it’s so tortuous, we do everything we can to escape boredom
There are many ways we successfully avoid boredom. When we are uncomfortable with the possibility of boredom overtaking us with its looming, vast expanse of timelessness, we fill up our schedules to the brim. We engage in the “business of being busy”: we maintain a sense of productivity at all times fearing that we are not reaching our potentials. We multitask, a skill that gives us feelings of accomplishment. If others see us “doing nothing,” then we might be judged. We feel pressured from all different angles to be engaged all of the time. Even when commuting on the train or plane, if we’re caught without a device or some reading material, others may find us confusing. There was a time when people staring into their phones were the odd ones out. Now, people who take time to rest or think while traveling from A to B are the weirdoes.
Another way to shirk boredom is by reaching for our mobile devices. Often, we do this before we even realize it. Technology makes it so easy to distract ourselves since it gives us the illusion that we are actually accomplishing something. We think we are doing work, but we’re just scrolling, skimming, making quick evaluations for no real reason. When we’re done, we’re left hanging, and a bit sad/lost/alone when we emerge from our devices.
Why are we scared to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts?
Our device’s constant connection brings us immediate gratification. We carry out conversations with multiple layers – text, image, sound – with multiple people, so that we can never be overcome with a “lack of stimulation.” It’s painful to be alone with ourselves and our thoughts.
What did I lose by robbing myself of boredom?
When we rob ourselves of boredom, we lose time for ourselves. We lose time for creativity, time to think, and time to think about what boredom is telling us. What I’d like to put forward is that boredom is misunderstood, and that we need to struggle through boredom to find the light it can bring to our lives.
We need boredom.
How can we use boredom to our advantage?
The German word for boredom, “langweile,” can be translated as a combination of “long” and “while.” That’s exactly what boredom gives us: a long while. Boredom gives us an encounter with time: time to tune into ourselves. Time can be a daunting thing for many of us. It can be very long, or very short, depending on what we do with it. There is great potential when we go slowly with our use of time. We develop patience and serenity in times when we are inactive. Feeling peaceful when we are alone with our minds is very important for mental health.
Boredom signals to us that it’s time to make a change, and it’s time to get creative. Studies show that when we allow for boredom, we make way for creative thoughts. When we rob ourselves of a chance to daydream, creativity can be greatly reduced. Daydreams stimulate and develop the imagination, craft new ambitions, and help us reach a higher level of consciousness and connection with ourselves.
Boredom has been called the “last privilege of the free mind” since it gives us the ability to rest, to think, and to encounter ourselves for a span of time. We should take the time to diagnose what our boredom is telling us.
We are made better because of boredom
Thinking back to my childhood when I struggled with boredom, I remember its frustration and annoyance, but also I knew that there was a light at the end of the boredom tunnel. I was also aware of why I was bored: I was too tired from all my ballet, piano, music, art, and schoolwork to have an original thought. But, after a time, I fought my way out of boredom by tapping into creative activities. I read books, explored thickets in the backyard, and built forts with my brother Mike. I peered at swamp grime through microscopes, wove small rugs for my dolls, and I choreographed intricate scenes of gypsy life with my best friend Julia. I puzzled out 500 piece jigsaws on my bedroom floor and made home videos of various family escapades to the embarrassment of those involved.
All those seemingly random activities weren’t simply an “iPhone” style distraction from my boredom. Weighed together, they purposefully exercised my curiosity about the world. My small victories over boredom also increased my concentration and ability to persevere at a task. I was able to develop my imagination and social skills as well.
Boredom equipped me with the time to reflect, time to be creative, and the ability to take action.
In order to apply the lessons boredom teaches us, we should acknowledge the potential that boredom affords us. Instead of dreading it and filling it up with distracting, nonessential tasks, we should encounter it head-on, knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We are made better by boredom.
Avoid the lure of distraction. Bring back boredom.