“Quality boredom” can be a way to reclaim our time
Over 2,000 years ago, somewhere in Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca documented a crisis of the mind: “How long the same things? Surely I will yawn, I will sleep, I will eat, I will be thirsty, I will be cold, I will be hot. Is there no end? Seneca was bored. He probably felt the “midday demon” – what the monks of the Middle Ages appointed lethargy and restlessness that accompany the repetition of daily life.
Boredom is incredibly fascinating to think about. What is the point to it? To walk tirelessly, toss and turn anxiously in bed, to worry about not having things to do. Restlessness, anxiety, and worry all point to a sense of unease that accompanies boredom – highlighting the fact that we are not equipped to make our time ours. East does boredom make sense? Sometimes. This requires distinguishing between boredom as a state we occasionally dive into and boredom as a personality trait that signals more chronic dissatisfaction.
But boredom should not be our downfall. The Land of Torpor offers a chance for meaningful reflection, social connection, and the sparking of creative energy dried out and dull, which is affirmed in studies done over the years. There’s a good way to be bored, and when addressed in a meaningful way, boredom offers a way to make amends with who we are and what we do.
Is boredom an emotion? Partially yes, because it signals a lack of satisfaction and can motivate people to do something, just like “thirst” and “hunger”. It is also an ongoing cognitive process, wrote psychologists James Danckert and John D. Eastwood in out of my skull. They define boredom as the uncomfortable feeling of “wanting to do something, but not doing anything”. We are bored, feel indescribable restlessness and wait for the world to get better. But neither are we: we constantly fall into digital bubbles and take on tasks and get busy because we can’t imagine a reality where our time isn’t fragmented into pockets of productivity.
“Quality boredom” is a more refined way of understanding the possible benefits boredom can have for us. On the one hand, a bored person is more likely to be creative and productive, even if it doesn’t seem intuitive. Studies dating as far back as the 1970s underscore this link; this was reiterated again in 2019 when a study found people who were asked to do methodically boring tasks, say sorting a bowl of beans by color, ended up having better ideas than people who did a “more creative activity” first. The 21st century has a host of such research pressed into it: this 2014 study asked people to come up with different possible uses for a pair of plastic cups, and another one also asked people to do a seemingly mundane task. In any case, those who were most bored ended up with a more pronounced creative flair.
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It makes sense: when the mind is bored, wanders and even daydreams, mental recesses can indeed stimulate creativity, generate ideas or conjure up interesting ways to solve situations. It’s hard to get truly bored given that we’re engrossed in our digital worlds, but research argues for creating ideas if we can’t find them.
Although boredom can represent inertia, it has the potential to inspire people to action. The excitement that accompanies the desire to do something can motivate people in many ways. “The negative and aversive experience of boredom acts as a force that motivates us to pursue a goal that we feel is more challenging, interesting, challenging, or fulfilling than the goal we are currently pursuing,” philosopher Andreas Epidorou said in a 2014 Frontiers in Psychology article. This is also something evolutionary psychology shows: being stale and stodgy could have helped people find new ways to grow. “A boring village life might have spurred our ancestors to explore what might be on the other side of that river, or perhaps try a new berry they found in the woods,” wrote Sara Chodosh in PopSci, calling it “evolutionary weirdness”.
Can we really tap into boredom? According For Sandi Mann, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, simply letting the mind wander, without any stimulation to guide it, is one solution. Quality boredom requires deliberately choosing an activity that does not require brain spinning. Consider walking a familiar route, sitting with your eyes closed, and even doing laps. Scrolling through the streams doesn’t count here as it requires concentration and mental work to some extent.
Instead, the idea is to dive into activities without looking for a clear reward – it’s almost like we’re tricking our brain into not looking for anything. There are to research to show why people feel inspired or more creative after spending time in nature. “If you’ve been using your brain to multi-task – like most of us do most of the day – and you put that aside and go for a walk, without all the gadgets, you let the prefrontal cortex recover,” says the researcher of a 2012 study. “And that’s when we see these bursts of creativity, problem-solving and feelings of well-being.”
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During the pandemic, we also realized how destructive boredom can be. It has become shorthand for any experience that made us feel disconnected from our realities, so much so that confinement blurry the lines between boredom and depression as a whole. This naturally has disturbing implications, as it exaggerates our general unease with an unease so deep that it settles in our bones. But it’s not a problem that goes away looking the other way; we cannot turn away from boredom in and around boredom.
We are used to not having time to be bored or to think. A 2014 study found that many people choose to administer painful electric shocks to themselves, rather than being left alone with their thoughts, noted The Guardian. A man electrocuted himself 190 times in 15 minutes. Our discomfort with boredom remains rather contradictory, to say the least.
The problem is much deeper: there is a cultural misunderstanding around the idea of boredom. People who are bored are quickly labeled as “lazy”, “uninspired”, not curious. We measure individual value by productivity, productivity by physical action and action by results. There’s a hint of mechanical predictability at play, which takes the vintage out of efficiency. But boredom promises nothing; free time or downtime is considered time off wasted. It is also subversive and anxiety-provoking for the status quo, because people who have the capacity to be bored are also people who can radically think and imagine realities outside capitalist norms of productivity.
There’s no better time to better understand boredom, and even embrace it. On the one hand, it is very important that we understand how boredom is not a static state; it involves actions, ideological and physical, some more obvious than others. Two, there’s a hint of self-reflection at play here. If we do nothing, we have more time and energy to take stock of our desires, choices, and relationships.
It’s a plea to give the brain time to wander, and to let us claim time as our own.