In defense of boredom
Think of boredom as an act of reclamation. In an age when multiple industries aim just to capture your idle time, it could even be seen as an act of rebellion.
“Boredom isn’t a bad thing at all. The true negative is the time that we waste, all those moments that are stolen by anxieties, by social media,” says Pietro Minto, the Italian author of Come Annoiarsi Meglio (or How to Be Bored Better; May 2021), in an email interview. “To be able to choose to do nothing is heaven. Yet, it’s becoming more difficult because the ‘bad’ boredom is filling all of our time. It takes resistance to win out and have some ‘good’ boredom.”
A good relationship with boredom is generally considered a sign of mental health, the experts agree. “It’s important to understand boredom because it is such a common human experience,” says James Danckert, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience area head at University of Waterloo, Canada, and co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom (Harvard University Press; 2020).
Boredom indicates a mind at peace with itself; a blank canvas that can spark creativity and contemplation. It is likely to lead to considered action or engaging activity that the subject finds meaningful (as opposed to the meaningless activity used to “fill” empty time).
Conversely, the intense restlessness mistaken for boredom in the social media age indicates a deficiency of mental wellness. It is linked to higher incidence of depression and anxiety, as well as behaviours that we might consider maladaptive, Danckert says.
“The boredom-prone demonstrate higher levels of aggression and sensation-seeking, which can lead to unwanted outcomes,” Danckert says. If we can recognise and try to avoid succumbing to the agitation and restlessness that so often accompanies feelings of boredom today, then we give ourselves a chance to choose more positive reactions to the experience.
EMBRACE THE PAUSE
The response to boredom has changed over time. It used to be: let me find something fun to do. Now it’s a desperate grab for empty mental calories. “Today, when we feel bored we also feel threatened in some sense. Boredom suggests to us that we are not being particularly effective at that moment,” Danckert says. Instead of a panic response, boredom needs to be turned back into something constructive.
In his book, Minto writes of the difference between free time and “freed time” — the former being time that we fill unthinkingly with something mindless; the latter being time that we claim and spend doing something we choose. “It’s difficult to defend our freed time but it’s crucial to learn how to do it,” he says.
Proof that social media isn’t the answer lies in the ennui that often sets in while scrolling, like the regret of eating the last of a large bag of chips.
“It’s irrelevant how many stimuli we have. The core of the issue is how little we are conscious of how we use our time.”
So how does one learn to embrace and benefit from boredom again?
* Rebuild your personal relationship with time, says Minto. Don’t allow strong distractions to steal your time and fill it with things that don’t really matter to you, things like the endless flow of Reels on Instagram. Return to doing nothing, in small increments at first, until you can get to the next natural stage: the wandering mind.
* Let the mind wander. “The in-the-moment feelings of boredom are neither good nor bad. They are just a signal telling us that we are no longer engaged with the world. If we can recognise that and try to avoid succumbing to the agitation and restlessness that so often accompany feelings of boredom today, then we give ourselves a chance to choose more positive reactions to the experience,” says Danckert. Even if that choice is just to daydream a bit.
* Confront the difficult questions. “Where am I headed?” “What matters to me most?” “Am I pursuing the things I really value?” These are the kinds of questions that rear their heads in fallow time. The discomfort felt in confronting them caused restlessness and agitation even before the age of screens. But periods of boredom are important precisely because they allow one the space “to reflect on those important questions and choose paths forward that promote our own sense of agency,” Danckert says.
* Turn away from things and towards people. It may seem like Twitter is always there for you but it’s an app, and your phone is a thing. Rather than building a fake relationship with unfeeling bits of technology, turn this time over to the people in your life. Rebuild bridges that have likely been damaged by short attention spans, busy days, fraying tempers.
“I recently gave one family an exercise: spend one hour together. They came back to me and said they didn’t know how to spend that hour!” says Dr Manoj Kumar Sharma, a psychologist and tech de-addiction specialist with the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru. “It’s time for these patterns to change, with persistence,” he adds. Talk; cook; go for a walk; relearn how to listen.
* Buck the trend. Using technology to evade boredom is a race that will never end. It takes away from time you could be using to de-stress, to think, and vitally, to stop being a consumer or a product. Buck the trend and tune out; silence the clamour, and give peace a chance.