Why we all need to learn about boredom

You probably haven’t thought much about boredom. That is no surprise because of all the activity and distractions that consume most of our lives. Whenever there’s even a minute to spare we quickly fill up it with something we think will be productive, or we do something mind-numbing like watching TV or scrolling through social media. But boredom is the most powerful human emotion to learn about. In fact, many philosophers throughout history have written about boredom. Here we’ll look at two of the more recent ones.

Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th Century Danish philosopher, thought a lot about boredom. You’ll see that in the passage below he views it as largely negative:

Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion (Either/Or, p. 51).

    While he views it as negative, he makes a couple of interesting points. First, it has the “capacity to initiate motion”. Boredom seems to be a biologically programed kick in the butt that keeps us in perpetual motion. This is a survival instinct designed to keep us alive in the past but today this impulse for perpetual motion is becoming counterproductive and leads to anxiety and many other problems.

    He also says that it is “calm and sedate.” This is because boredom slows down time to the rhythm of nature. Most of the time we are super busy and we don’t even notice what time it is, but as soon as we are bored we notice every tick of the clock. In this way, we become fully aware of time and its slow passage. It funny that we all claim that we don’t have that much time, but when we are bored we seem to have too much of it.

    Finally, Kierkegaard says that boredom is “absolutely magical.” This I totally agree with. In fact, boredom is a form of alchemy. It is a magical space of life transformation if we learn how to harness its power.

Bertrand Russell                

Bertrand Russell, the 20th century Briton, is one of the only ones who have not seen it as a wholly negative emotion. He begins his chapter Boredom and Excitement from his book The Conquest of Happiness by saying,

Boredom as a factor in human behaviour has received, in my opinion, far less attention than it deserves. It has been, I believe, one of the greatest motive powers throughout the historical epoch, and is so at the present day more than ever (p. 48).

    Why is it that we have ignored boredom? It is because most of us view it as something negative and we avoid it like the plague. Russell is emphasizing that boredom is not something negative, but simply a very powerful human motivator for all types of behaviours. The reason why it has been viewed negatively for so long is that we are not aware of our reactions to it. In fact, Russell continues that in medieval times,

It must have been boredom as much as anything else that led to the practice of witch hunts as the sole sport by which winter evening could be enlivened (p. 50).

And today,

Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbours have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half of the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it (p. 51).

    What seems clear from both Kierkegaard and Russell is not that boredom is in itself an evil emotion like many of us have be conditioned to think, but that it is a powerful human emotion that drives our behaviours. If we want to learn more about ourselves, our motives, and our behaviours, we need to pay attention and learn about boredom.

Here’s what I get from these two philosophers. First, boredom is a powerful human emotion ….if we can become aware of how we react to boredom

How Boredom Creates a Satisfying Life

Some people say that the world drastically changed on June 29th, 2007, the day of sale of the first iPhone. In my opinion, this is the true beginning of the age of distraction. Smart phones changed everything. We could literally carry the world with us a all times, with almost everything available to us at any moment. This seems pretty good right? But there is a really dark side to all this quick and easy engagement and distraction.

Distraction is a Nasty Habit

Distraction and diversion are addictive. Humans are genetically driven to seek engagement as part of the survival instinct. In the past, it kept us on the move thinking and doing things to ensure our survival against potential threats. Our ancestors probably always kept themselves busy hunting, building better shelters, and defending themselves against outside threats.

Because we are hard-wired to avoid doing nothing, we find the path of least resistance to keep ourselves engaged. In the past, it was not so easy to distract ourselves from being bored. For our ancestors there was very little passive engagement. All their engagement was hard fought and productive.

Even just a few years ago we had to be much more active in seeking out engagement. We had to go to the video store, we went out with friends for coffee and if we wanted to find some information, you had to go to the library. We still have this drive to always be engaged, but it has become so easy to satiate it that our tolerance for it has gone sky high. We’re addicted.      

Today is a double whammy for addictive distraction.

First, because the basic tasks of living are so easily achieved, we have far more time on our hands. We don’t have to grow your vegetables, or churn some butter before dinner.  Second, there is so much distraction and diversion available that most of us fill that extra time with easily obtained passive engagement. TV, Internet, and social media now offer a constant flow of passive engagement that fills all of our down time and distracts us from life.

So we are hard-wired to crave easy engagement and there is so much of it available.

All this distraction is eroding our life satisfaction. A lot of us spend our days at a job we don’t really like and then come home, eat dinner, and spend the rest of the evening watching TV or surfing the web. It’s no wonder we are so unfulfilled.

Our downtime could be used to examine our lives, change our situation, or do things that really make us feel alive, but because it has become so easy to tranquilize ourselves with passive engagement that offers temporary escape, our lives remain stagnant. Also, because we have so much passive engagement, we have built a really high tolerance for it and we need more and more of it to satisfy us. This makes it even harder to break out of the passive engagement cycle to change our lives.

Boredom Can Make Our Lives More Satisfying

It seems counter-intuitive to say that boredom can help us live a satisfying life, but it’s true. If we allow ourselves to do nothing instead of immediately flipping on the TV, or grabbing our phone, we begin to realize that those things were just distracting us from things we really wanted to do. By allowing ourselves to be bored we do a few things. First, boredom quickly makes us realize how much time we actually have in a day.

When I first let boredom back into my life by not watching TV or going on my phone, I would stare at the clock and realize that I had five hours to kill before bedtime. Part of me almost wished that I could skip the five hours of doing nothing and go straight to bed. That was a scary thought: I had worked all day only to want to fast forward the part of my day that I was supposed be looking forward to!

Boredom makes us realize what we actually want to do. When I was not distracting myself with easy entertainment that numbed my brain, I actively began looking for other things to do, but things that were more meaningful. I decided to finally read a book I had been wanting to for over six months, the one I had told myself I didn’t have time for.

Finally, boredom increases our tolerance for slower and harder yet ultimately more rewarding activities. When we give up easy distraction and diversion, our brains begin to recover and we're able to endure slower activities like reading, writing in a journal, building a model airplane, or even a long term goal that we never seem to get around to.

So let boredom destroy the distraction that holds us back in life!