The Good Life – In Defense of Boredom

It seems to me that there’s considerable misunderstanding about what it means to be bored. In our fast-paced world, being bored is considered to be a very negative state, even an abnormal and unhealthy state. It’s supposedly a state that exists when our external environment isn’t stimulating enough to spark our interest and passion. Think for a moment about some of the boredom-triggers that we each experience: waiting at airports; performing simple, repetitive tasks such as peeling and chopping vegetables; and reading what we consider to be dry study materials for a course we are taking. Frequently, we find our jobs boring. We are bored by books and films that aren’t sufficiently packed with action. A friend of mine who is a couples’ counselor tells me that boredom is one of the most frequently cited reasons for tension and animosity within a relationship. We tend to believe that, once we have finished with whatever boring activity, external environment, or person that we find ourselves temporarily saddled with, we will once again become interested and engaged in the world around us.

We are so used to thinking that once this or that has changed, then everything will be better. “When I finally have a job with more variety and responsibility, it will be so much easier for me to get up and go to work.” “If I only had someone to share my life with, my weekends wouldn’t be so dull.” “If my spouse only had a bit more zest for life, then I wouldn’t be feeling so unfulfilled.” What if we have it backwards, though? What if boredom has nothing to do with the external world? What if it’s something that we carry around with us — a mood or feeling, just like anger, resentment or joy?

Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th Indx edition (1998)) defines boredom as “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.” The key words in this definition are “lack of interest.” Whose interest is it that is lacking? Clearly it’s our own. With apologies to Shakespeare for paraphrasing Hamlet, there is nothing good or bad in this life except in the way that we choose to think about things. The same goes for what is boring or exciting. If we are bored by the prospect of waiting for several hours in a ferry line-up, the responsibility for that lack of interest falls squarely on our own shoulders. The people and things that can change our lives for the better are all around us, everywhere, all the time. The world is full of miracles, if we choose to see them.

Having said that, though, boredom is an inescapable part of the human experience. It is simply one of the emotional states that make us who we are and I imagine it is a very rare person who doesn’t feel bored on a fairly frequent basis.

All the more reason, then, to understand that there is something truly wrong with the assumption that boredom is a negative feeling, something that must be avoided at all costs by turning on a television set, picking up a newspaper, playing a video game, drinking alcohol, or having an affair.

What we really need to do is change the way we perceive boredom. Consider, for instance, that we are rarely bored in situations where we are feeling threatened or in danger. Boredom, then, is an emotional signal that we are at least temporarily safe and relatively comfortable. Perhaps, what we are saying when we complain that our partners are boring is that we trust them and feel at ease around them. One way to see boredom is as a time of mental stillness, a place of calm at the stormy centre of our complex existence. It’s a state of mind in which our imaginations are released from the bombardment of novel stimuli. We are therefore free to wander, recharge, and perhaps receive new ideas and inspirations that will eventually lead us to states of heightened passion and engagement. Occasional boredom, then, is one of the elements vital for a life well lived. Perpetual boredom, on the other hand, is almost certainly a sign that we need to drastically revise the way we see the world.

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