The Cardboard Box Test: Dealing With a Bout of Boredom

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Boredom is not something that’s exclusively experienced by youngsters on long car journeys or on rainy days during school holidays. It can also afflict us as adults, when we begin to feel a sense that life has lost some of its variety and flavour. Tackling a feeling of ‘life-boredom’ gives us the chance to draw on some of the life skills we began to develop as children.

I bet we all said it at some point when we were children, or at the very least heard our own or other people’s children say it: “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!”. It’s a familiar refrain from long car journeys and rainy Sunday afternoons, to which my own parents’ response was invariably: “Well, go and find something to do then!”.

Learning to manage boredom — to find something to do, to create interesting activities, to amuse ourselves with whatever comes to hand — is an important developmental task for the growing child. If parents fill a child’s day with organised activities and never allow them to experience boredom, then the child loses a valuable opportunity to develop some important life skills: imagination, inventiveness, autonomy, personal responsibility and self-direction or motivation. The ubiquity of the internet, multi-channel 24-hour TV and a variety of games consoles, portable or otherwise, have already claimed some of the territory that in previous generations was occupied by pretending to be “Cowboys and Indians” or starship explorers, or by holding dolls’ tea-parties or fashion shows (fill in the blanks as you see fit). The cliché has it that children often prefer to play with the cardboard box that their Christmas or birthday presents came in rather than with the toys themselves. And there’s something reassuring in that — that children’s imaginations can still be stimulated and engaged by something so simple.

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But what about when boredom becomes more than just a rainy Sunday afternoon problem? What about when, as an adult, the whole of life becomes a bit of a bore; a monotone, monochromatic, featureless life; not so bad that we sink into depression or feel that life is not worth living — just a bit, well, dull. Over coffee with a friend the other day, we fell into a long discussion about this concept of ‘life-boredom’ and how we might tackle it. But first of all, how exactly do you know you have it?

  • A sense that there’s very little to differentiate one day from the next?
  • Feeling that life has little to offer other than all work and no play? Or conversely, that there’s too much ‘spare time’ and not enough structure to the day or week?
  • A feeling that there’s not much to look forward to?
  • A sense that something needs to change but you’re not sure what?

All of these things, in extremis, can contribute to feelings which can be very self-destructive; but here I’m talking not about a slide into depression or self-harm or substance abuse, but rather about a generalised feeling of life being a little bit bland and boring. It’s a feeling that is easy to brush aside in the rush to get through a busy schedule but that keeps resurfacing in odd moments of reflection.

Fundamentally, I think it’s about a lack of balance and variety in life. Putting the sparkle back in may not be easy. In the current economic climate, money is tight and time is precious, and it’s not always possible to book a much-needed holiday, or to buy that exciting new ‘whatever’ that you’ve had your eye on for months, or to decide on a sudden and dramatic change of career. But I don’t think that the grand gesture, the big buy, or the trip of a lifetime is actually the answer for a bout of ‘life-boredom’; I think the answer is to make an effort to fit small additions or changes into your days so that the overall effect is to add more variety to the flavour of your life, rather than change your diet completely for a while.

It would be easy at this point to come up with a list of suggestions for changes or additions that we could each implement to make our lives more flavoursome, but then who am I to suggest anything to anyone? Perhaps it’s at times like this that we need to draw on some of those life skills that we began to develop as children — imagination, creativity, and an ability and willingness to find things to do with whatever materials (including time and money, however limited) that we have available. Better that than sitting around thinking “I’m bored! There’s nothing to do!” and then doing nothing about it.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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