The case for boredom

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During these times of isolation, the internet is plagued with articles that try to sidestep the chronic boredom that is all too common: “Self-isolating: 47 things to do if you’re bored at home,” “How to relieve work from home boredom in lockdown,” “Bored during lockdown? Here are some things you can do.” The lists include clearing out the wardrobe, learning calligraphy and building LEGO sets. These activities aren’t inherently inferior, but I wish every list had the same activity at the top: thinking.

Someone’s boredom does not make them boring, nor does it suggest a lack of tasks at hand. Rather, it suggests a lack of stimulation and perhaps inclination that can feel relentlessly dissatisfying. There is an irritable restlessness that most find different ways to avoid. But in this oft-avoided discomfort, there exists a potential to get to know yourself a lot better, to learn what you really want. Simply sitting down to think or taking a walk and letting ideas stew in the mind may make a world of difference.

Think of the proper dose of boredom as a nudge from the brain that it’s time to take charge. It’s a spur to do something, anything, that will make the day purposeful again. Because, in some ways, a human brain is uniquely a meaning-making machine. If you give a cat somewhere to sleep and eat, it is probably going to be fine with that gig. But for humans, those base requirements are only the foundation of a hierarchy of needs. Love, belonging, esteem and self-actualization are essential to us. In this light, boredom at the surface can seem trivial, a mere luxury that comes with the absence of danger or other pressing stresses. Yet, practicing boredom could become more necessary in the coming years, for the sake of soundness of mind.

Presently, time is severely fragmented, checking news stories with one eye and monitoring the kitchen stove with the other. Eventually, something will have to give.

Was it always like this?

Over the course of my own life, I have noticed a change. The iPhone and various social media already existed when I was in lower school, but I did not have access to it. I looked forward to having time at the end of the day to read books or to invent make-believe games with my friends on the playground. After second grade when I got an Xbox, it was different. It was almost as if my food was being chewed for me as I consumed stories on the screen almost entirely passively. Whereas with make-believe, I had to use more of my own imagination and ideas, and with reading, I had to learn new words, create mental images and make inferences. Today, I see children interacting with new forms of technology from a much earlier age. I remember spending time with a family friend’s baby boy in 2018. Despite being maybe three or four, every screen that he saw he would swipe his fingers across as if everything was a smartphone. I know that humankind lived without modern technology for tens of thousands of years, but for the baby and me alike, it is very hard to fathom a world without the conveniences with which I have grown up.

When was the last time I was bored for an entire day? I cannot remember, since, like most, I have not had to face my thoughts against my will. I have Instacart, Instagram and instant delivery, and I can busy myself with tasks endlessly. Still, I wonder, was the urge to seek more and more stimulation always there, just waiting to be uncovered? Regardless of where the behavior comes from, the behavior itself remains the issue, and I am concerned that my generation — and perhaps all generations are susceptible to this — has grown up in a culture that rewards fast-paced, highly condensed information and commodities. Instead of fostering imagination and the development of interpersonal skills, overstimulation at a young age normalizes the state of watching TV, playing video games and listening to music all at once. My theory is that this lifestyle develops a tolerance of sorts and makes everyday things they’ll inevitably have to learn much less interesting, and these people will be less inclined and able to concentrate on a single task.

In the culture reporter Jennifer Schuessler’s 2010 essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves,” she explained that boredom historically has been “an important source of creativity, well-being and our very sense of self.” It’s a state that imposes a person to think about himself or herself, notice things in life that are often overlooked or channel the restlessness to do something new. At the same time, in “Boredom: A Lively History,” University of Calgary professor Peter Toohey wrote that “nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized in the same environment.” It is no coincidence that sensory deprivation has been used as a form of torture.

So it seems that embracing boredom can be both freeing and debilitating, depending on the amount. As physical exercise can maintain health or erode the body, so measures to react to boredom more proactively need not be drastic changes in a lifestyle. I’m not advocating for unplugging during a time in which cyberspace is more essential than ever. Instead, I find that if during certain points in the day, I simply let the urge for external stimulation to pass, my mind will eventually come up with an interesting idea to ponder or a novel ambition to pursue. To me, all that this requires is an incremental spark of curiosity and the willingness to be uncomfortable. Then, when the mind wanders, wait and see what ensues.

Contact Matthew Turk at mjturk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Matthew Turk is a writer for The Stanford Daily.