Updated: Feb 4, 2021
What boredom can teach us and how it can be a useful tool to boost our creativity
This time last year I wrote a blog entitled “Does Your Life Feel Like Groundhog Day”. I wrote it back when Corona was just the name of a beer and phrases like “social distancing”, “Lockdown” and “Covidiot” had yet to be invented.
I was going to refresh the original blog to make it more “Covid-relevant” (yes I did just invent a new word) but I started to dig into why we’re all fed up of being bored. And it turns out, boredom is quite an interesting topic!
So join me on my light hearted look into boredom to find out why we get bored and why it drives us crazy. Learn five “boring” facts about boredom including when it was invented. And learn a few simple ways to not only live with boredom, but to thrive on it.
If you can bothered that is….
Today - 2nd February - is officially Groundhog Day. Widely celebrated in the USA, this tradition sees a small rodent called a Groundhog ‘predict’ whether Spring will come early or late. Most of us (of a certain age) will remember the 1993 film Groundhog Day, based around a grumpy, cynical weather man (played by Bill Murray) who is assigned to cover Groundhog Day in a small American town.
To cut a long story short he’s forced to re-live the same day again and again until he learns how to be a better person.
Groundhog Day has since become an expression we use when we’re feeling stuck or bored in life. When every day feels the same, like we’re just going through the motions. Eat, sleep, work repeat…
"Like, right now in lockdown" says everyone.
Here we have a perfect storm for a boredom creating environment. We feel more bored when we feel trapped, out of control and doing tasks that are repetitive.
"I’m so bored of being bored. Because being bored is really boring" Minions
What is boredom?
According to Wikipedia, there’s no universally accepted definition of boredom. Maybe someone couldn’t be bothered to define it. We all have our own ways of being and feeling bored so maybe we don’t need it. Anyway I love to understand how everything works so here’s my attempt at unravelling this unpopular emotion.
Back to Wikipedia, boredom is described as “an emotional and occasionally psychological state experienced when an individual is left without anything in particular to do, is not interested in their surroundings, or feels that a day or period is dull or tedious”.
My summary is that feeling like there’s nothing going on externally of interest to us that we can meaningfully engage with.
There’s a common misconception that boredom is a state of apathy, but it’s actually an anxious state.
Our flooded minds are constantly looking outside ourselves for any kind of mental stimulation, like the next dopamine hit that comes from our digital devices, carefully designed to keep our attention. We are addicted to doing.
Why do we hate being bored?
We find boredom so painful and uncomfortable we will do absolutely ANYTHING to avoid it. In fact during a scientific experiment where a group of participants were left alone in room for 15 minutes with nothing to do except push a button to give themselves an electric shock, a shocking (I know) 67% of men and 25% of women chose to push the button. They initially swore you wouldn’t be able to pay them to give themselves a shock.
So what’s behind the pain?
You are afraid of being alone with your thoughts
I know this first hand from doing therapeutic work. Most of my clients are terrified of stopping and thinking in case they feel the other emotions which they’ve been hiding from and pushing down for years.
This pandemic is causing anxiety for many obvious reasons, but I believe one of the less obvious reasons is a fear that you’re going to learn something about yourself you didn’t want to know. Like how unhappy you are with your career/partner/life in general. Or how you’ve spent so much time running around and distracting yourself with entertainment, shopping or work that you don’t actually know who you are anymore.
Cue those “who am I?” Why am I here? and “what shall I do with my life” type of thoughts.
And here’s some other interesting facts I learned about boredom.
“Boring” Fact One - Boredom was non-existent until the late 18th century
It came along about the same time as the Industrial Revolution when we got all “successful” and “productive”.
We are meaning making machines and love to feel that there is purpose and value in what we do. Historically our purpose was to survive – and this kept us really, really busy finding food, building shelter, reproducing and running away from predators.
No time for distractions. No need for a bit of downtime in front of the TV. It’s all we could do to stay alive!
And now our lives are so much “easier” we literally don’t know what to do with ourselves half the time. Everything is automated, available, and instant.
Advertisers tell us all the time what we’re lacking in, and provided we buy the thing they tell us we need we’ll be happier and more fulfilled.
Except we’re not.
We are totally over-stimulated and everything is now “on demand” so we rarely have to spend any time with nothing to watch, engage with or wait for.
Just look at what goes on in a Doctor’s waiting room. Within seconds of sitting down most people will pull their phones out and start mindlessly scrolling. I often make a conscious decision not to do that.
I started writing this blog in a hospital waiting room which at the time I thought was a much more “productive” thing to do. But my pride was short lived once I realised this too was a way of avoiding the pain of having nothing to do except stare at the wall and wonder when the chair was last sanitized…
“Boring" Fact 2 – Some people are phobic about being bored
There is an actual phobia of being bored – Thassaphobia. It’s the fear of sitting idle. I don’t have much to say about this fact, other than it just goes to show boredom is something so anxiety inducing it’s got it’s own phobia name.
“Boring” Fact 3 - There are 5 types of boredom
According to some recent research led by Thomas Goetz of the University of Konstanz.
In his experiments, participants were asked to carry around a gadget which regularly checked in on how they were feeling. If they said they were bored, they were asked more questions to find out their deeper feelings beneath the boredom.
I’ve summarized the 5 types to keep this blog short otherwise your attention span may wander and I don’t want you to get bored. At least until you get to the end and know how to be bored productively!
1. Indifferent boredom – relaxed, fatigued & cheerful.
2. Calibrating boredom – want to do something but don’t know what.
3. Searching boredom – restless doing nothing and actively try to find something interesting to do.
4. Reactant boredom – being in a situation you don’t want to be in. Think school or work.
5. Apathetic boredom – not feeling any emotions at all. A bit like feeling depressed.
So now you can relieve some of the boredom deciding which type of boredom you’re having.
“Boring” Fact 4 - Some of us may be more pre-disposed to being bored
People who are highly impulsive, or who find it hard to regulate their own emotions may be more prone to being bored.
There is even a Boredom Proneness Scale, invented in 1986 by Farmer and Sundberg to understand boredom traits. You can take an online quiz to discover how likely you are to be very bored. Just google it. Have a go just for fun but be mindful of labelling yourself as a bored person. I’m no fan of labels as it just contributes to a fixed mindset!
Apparently I’m bored 0% of the time which I don’t quite believe as I’ve definitely felt bored a lot during lockdown. But I do like to have creative time and have a good sense of purpose and where I’m going so I find most of the things I spend my time doing quite meaningful.
Except for when I had to give in and clean the oven.
"Boring" Fact 5 - Boredom can increase creativity
Boredom can provide an opportunity to turn inward and use the time for thought and reflection.
According to Psychology Today “Boredom can enable creativity and problem-solving by allowing the mind to wander and daydream”. In various studies, when people were made to do boring tasks, their minds wandered and they were able to think more creatively and have more ideas. “In the absence of external stimulation, we use our imagination and think in different ways”.
By allowing our conscious mind to be quiet, we access the parts of our mind that are free from the usual habits of thought and beliefs about ourselves. This allows us to find new ways of thinking about problems, decisions and even lead to lightbulb moments as we’re get new insights about ourselves and our world.
So what can you do if you are bored in lockdown?
In simple terms, being bored is like any other emotion. It comes and goes, and sometimes, emotions are uncomfortable.
But there’s a few little things you can do to improve your relationship with boredom and use it in a more positive way.
Notice the small things
Most of the time we’re bored simply because we’re not tuned in to what’s going on around us. Whilst we’re spending most of our time in the familiar environments of our homes it can be hard to find anything novel to stimulate the mind. We instead turn to our phones or the TV to find something interesting to focus on.
Pay attention to the small things. Subtle changes in your mood, a conversation with your family, some activity in nature. This is very grounding and also great if you feel anxious or stressed.
In her amazing Ted Talk called “Living With Intent”, Mallika Chopra tells the story of her brilliant interview with Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher and best-selling author of the “Power of Now”.
Mallika learns first hand the power of being in the present moment and tuning into the surroundings. “listen to the bells” was the advice of Eckhart. I recommend you watch this when you’re feeling bored. Go distraction free, and really hear the message.
Let your mind wander in peace
Next time you decide you’re bored, rather than reaching for your phone or finding a distraction just try sitting with your thoughts for a while. Allow yourself to ponder those bigger questions, allow some curiosity and creativity to emerge.
After her experience with Eckhart, Mallika meditates on 3 simple questions every morning.
Who am I? What do I want? How can I serve? I did this without thinking during the video and was surprised how moving this was. Mine were: healer; happiness & peace; and a strange vision of infinite stars……
Letting your mind wander where it wants can lead to new ideas, or new perceptions. This is why you have some of your best ideas in the shower or out walking, not sat at your desk trying to think!
Watch your patterns of thought
For some of you, especially if being alone with your own thoughts is your idea of a nightmare, sitting allowing your mind to wander may reveal some negative repetitive thought patterns that result in you ruminating and worrying.
Scientists estimate that on average we have around 60,000 thoughts per day, 95% of which are the same ones from the previous day… and the day before that!
If you find you have negative repetitive thoughts then you’ll benefit from replacing them with more positive suggestion. As this is a subconscious driven habit, using guided meditations or hypnosis audios to focus your mind on more positive outcomes can lift your mood and help re-wire your thought patterns. After all, your thoughts are what drive your feelings and actions, so you’re hitting negative habits at source.
So there you have it. It doesn’t mean you’ll be able to remove boredom from your life, or even start loving the feeling. It’s always going to be one of those emotions we’d rather not experience. BUT a bit more understanding and a change of perspective goes a long way.
And without wanting to sound to overly British or patronizing, right now the best we can do is “Keep Calm and Carry On”.
Because that’s where resilience comes from. And we don’t have much choice right now.
“Breathe darling. This is just a chapter, it’s not your whole story” S.C. Lourie
If you want to know more about how to improve your emotional resilience and re-wire negative thought patterns take a look at my website and drop me an email www.transformwithkirsty.com/contactus.