“I’m so BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOORED”. It’s almost a rite of passage from childhood to becoming a teenager to face this dreaded affliction (and to let everyone around you know about it!). Whilst it may stereotypically be the curse of teenagers, boredom is a human emotion that we don’t simply grow out of. It shows up in our demotivation in the workplace and disenchantment in relationships. For every “I’m so bored” heard from the lips of teenagers, there’s probably a “the spark has just… gone” on the lips of adults.
Let’s start by acknowledging that we humans seem REALLY averse to boredom! Studies have even shown that we would rather experience physical pain. One study sat individuals alone in a lab and gave them the option to either daydream about something pleasant or give themselves an electric shock. Around two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women chose to shock themselves rather than sit there thinking. The reason they gave afterwards? They were bored.
But what is boredom? Put simply it’s a failure to engage with our environment.
Boredom can be a helpful emotional cue that something isn’t quite right for us. Maybe what we are doing isn’t challenging enough, it’s too challenging, or there is some other reason why we can’t engage.
Boredom can be experienced by some as an extreme discomfort similar to physical pain, particularly when we feel unable to get out of it and it becomes a chronic trait rather than a fleeting state. It’s understandable then why boredom is something that many of us try our best to avoid - whether that’s through numbing out or chasing some external stimuli.
Boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”
John Eastwood, Associate Professor of Psychology at York University in Toronto
There are two important components within this for me - the underlying desire we have to be in connection with the world around us, and a need to be able to self-regulate in order to do so.
If boredom gives us such discomfort, it explains why we develop compulsive self-regulation strategies such as reaching for our phones when we find ourselves without something to do. They are a way to fill the time, provide some stimulation, and feel connected to the world, much in the same way as newspapers and books did before.
What’s missed though in this immediate immersion into the (often overstimulating) digital world is an opportunity to practice using our own imagination to find ways to re-engage with our environment.
As I’ve written about before, we mammals are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain. In the study mentioned at the beginning, it seems obvious that the participants could have avoided pain by simply not giving themselves a shock. They could have accessed pleasure by sitting there daydreaming until the experiment was over. However, it seems that for a significant number of participants, the discomfort of boredom was greater than the pain of receiving a shock. I mean, maybe they just happened upon a large proportion of electro-play kinksters in their sample! More likely though, I think, is that for a significant number of participants, the route to pleasure through using their imagination was too challenging to make this their preferred option.
What’s interesting for me is that I see in myself and others signs that our threshold for boredom - the window of time in which we will happily do nothing - getting smaller and smaller, as well as tendencies towards burnout through choice*. Is this not strikingly similar to us choosing to shock ourselves rather than be with a feeling of boredom?
I wonder if there is a way out of our boredom avoidance and if there may be a benefit to us becoming a little more comfortable in its discomfort.
This is where, for me, this ties so nicely in with our work around pleasure. It starts with noticing - slowing down enough to notice what is happening for you in this present moment. What does boredom actually feel like for you? Do you notice it as a discomfort somewhere in your body (or only in your mind)? Does it show up as restlessness or resignation, or something else? Can you notice a need or desire beneath the feeling of boredom? Does the boredom come from a desire for attention or stimulation, or are you overstretched and tuning out?
“In the past, boredom was a good thing because it provided an impetus for you to develop your narrative,”
Baroness Susan Greenfield
It seems that imagination plays a key role in helping us to feel engaged with the task at hand, with our environment, or in our relationships. It has the capability to provide some stimulation when we are not challenged enough and to help us find solutions when something is too challenging. In a way, it’s our built-in multi-tool for self-regulation and engagement. In this framing, boredom becomes a really helpful cue that we need to call in some imagination.
Now I know that for some of us, our poor imagination might have been left gathering dust for a few decades whilst we have been occupying ourselves with Serious Grown Up Stuff. That’s OK though. There are plenty of things we can do to bring it online again, such as:
Soaking up our surroundings - looking at the night sky, going for a walk, and seeing how much we can notice about our environment
Stories - whether reading fiction, or storytelling
Play! (yes, I’m including kink here as a form of grown-up play, but ANY kind of play is beneficial)
The more we practice engaging our imagination, the more available it will be to us when we need it.
A practice for you to try:
The next time you find yourself in a waiting room, waiting for a bus, standing in a queue, etc. see if you can resist the urge to get your phone out and instead tune in to what’s happening in your body. From there, can you tune in to your environment? Is there anything you can get curious about? What if you were to really free your imagination? Can you find something to delight in in the everyday world that is already right in front of you?
* By “burnout through choice” I am referring to a kind of optional overworking by people who are in the privileged position of having some agency around how much of their time is filled with work or other “doing”, as opposed to people who are in a position of having to work for survival.
Some sources for extra reading:
Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring: an article from Nature Neuroscience, available in Scientific American here: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-boredom-is-anything-but-boring/
Boredom: an article from Harvard Medicine, available here: https://magazine.hms.harvard.edu/articles/boredom
Why boredom is surprisingly interesting: a podcast and transcript from the APA’s Speaking of Psychology interview with Erin Westgate, PhD, available here: https://www.apa.org/news/podcasts/speaking-of-psychology/boredom-issues-covid-19#:~:text=There's%20been%20a%20lot%20of,is%20that%20you're%20doing.
How to Expand your Imagination in 8 Days: an article from Tedx Mile High, available here: https://www.tedxmilehigh.com/how-expand-imagination/