The Case for Boredom

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Does anyone get bored any more? Given the prevalence of streaming TV, social media, instant messaging and news aggregation sites, boredom seems on the way out. But what could we lose if we’re never bored?

Attack of the Phone Zombies

We’ve come a long way since “mobile phone” meant picking up the receiver and walking as far as the curly cord would let you. Now over half of the adults in the US have not only cell phones, but smartphones. And the way we use them has changed. I recall not so long ago hearing of a coffee shop banning portable electronics (mostly laptops) from the store. Today that would be outrageous. Instead it is all but expected that people will check their phones at any moment of the night or day, indoors or out, with company or alone.

People are feeling comfortable using their phones in the midst of other activities. The dangers of texting and driving are well known, but people (and I am among this group) will walk with their heads down, looking at the phone, depending on peripheral vision and some fragments of attention to keep them from stepping in front of a bus. Olympia, Washington thought enough of this problem to send out a press release warning teens about the dangers of phoning while walking.

There’s Always Something On

Phone zombies are the most tangible sign that mobile technology changes how we use our attention. But our ever-present tech toys also have more subtle effects. I find that at the first hint of boredom, my phone/tablet/laptop comes out in a flash and in seconds I can find something novel and amusing to make that bored feeling go away. On the face of it, this seems delightful. I never have to be bored again. When cable TV emerged a few decades ago, Bruce Springsteen sang that there were 500 channels and nothing on. Bruce was wrong. Now because of our ability to search, time-shift, and wirelessly stream, we can easily find something extremely amusing to us at any time. We never need to be bored again.

Boredom and the Arts

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I heard about the relationship between boredom and creativity long before I had my first email address. As a high schooler in Drama class, our wizened instructor said that boredom was a necessary precondition for creative work. At that time, cable TV was probably the biggest consumer of adolescent attention. If it was hard to pull myself away from a TV show in order to complete work due the next day in class, how much harder is it to turn down the immediate gratification of novelty to work on some project with no immediate consequences? How much harder is it today when we can easily binge on a half-dozen episodes of our favorite TV series from the comfort of our couch?

On the other hand, the times I felt most creative were when distractions were minimal and the tools for creativity were near at hand. Where I went to school, we had some of the earliest Macintosh computers, and internet connections were still over the horizon. Though I had little artistic skill on paper, I found the Mac could help me express myself visually and I spent many a free period drawing and printing humorous illustrations and comics.

Bored in the Magic Kingdom

A few years ago, I traveled with my extended family to Disney World in Florida. Traveling with large groups seems to require dragging a lot of equipment through the park that can’t be taken on rides. At each ride, someone was appointed to “watch the stuff” while everyone else rode. Did I mention that we went at the height of the season and that some of the lines were well over one hour long? Suddenly “watching the stuff’ was becoming a major trial.

My first tactic, after finding a place in the shade to hide from 100% humidity and ninety-plus degrees Fahrenheit temperatures, was to dive into the entertainment I had brought with me. I had a few audiobooks loaded into an MP3 player and I could sit happily for a while listening, but eventually I grew tired of it and turned my audiobook off.

At first, I was bored. Here I was in Disney, waiting on my family, with nothing to do. Then my attitude started to change. At first, I started people-watching: seeing all the faces streaming past that I had not noticed while busy herding my family around or trying to find an attraction on the other side of the park. Now I could see them.

Then I realized that, until everyone came back from their ride, I had no responsibilities or tasks. I could let my mind wander and I did. My memory seemed to unfold and little details of the environment reminded me of moments from years past, which in turn unlocked other memories and ideas and a flurry of connections between them. Suddenly I was being entertained not by a theme park or my electronic gadgets, but by my own mind, something that had not happened in a long time. Because this stream of novelty was personal to me, it was creation and not consumption. Without intent, I had slipped from being bored and slightly annoyed to being creative, energized and engaged. People patted me on the back for being such a good sport about our trip to Disney but in truth I had a far better time than they could imagine.

Media Fasting for Better Mental Health

Numerous religious traditions make regular fasting a part of their creeds. Fasting is said to instill discipline and clarify the body and mind. Perhaps it’s time for a device fast: a time to put down the phone, leave the TV and the computer where they are, and just keep the company of our own thoughts for a time. Given my own experience at Disney, I think we’d be amazed at the rich inner world we miss out on when all we see is a non-stop fast-forward stream of others’ creations.

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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