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In praise of boredom



A surprisingly common conversation in therapy is the one about boredom and apathy. Yes, everyone who comes to therapy aren’t always struggling with intense negative emotions. Quite a few people who approach me are actually – in their own words – grappling with abject disconnection from a meaningful life. A majority of my clients are from urban environments. They variously describe their existential state as robotic, programmed and that of mechanized for productivity

In these instances, the psychological dissonance hasn’t yet drifted the individual towards complete disillusionment but there is a looming despondency. A client once said – “I am not actively looking to end things but I kinda won’t mind if everything just … stops.”


Emotional numbness in these instances can even shape itself into anhedonia. There is a loss of “connection” even though there is an excess of being “networked”. There is a plethora of social media, dating, shopping, and messaging apps dotting their home-screens like an unfinished game of tetris. But the mind has kind of checked out. Some people consider boredom and apathy to be disparate and without any specific linkages but in my experience as a therapist, I have noticed how they tend to tail each other often.

 

My therapy clients who are working professionals with conventionally structured corporate jobs rue the idea of boredom. Some even find it threatening to their self-image. They would do whatever it takes to shoo it away as if it were a mangy stray that has wandered in through a broken window. It takes to hiding in a difficult-to-reach nook crying all through the night. They can hear it but are unable to grab it and get it out. The longer it stays, the lesser the chances they can focus on anything else. What they are resistant to is the idea that perhaps this unexpected or even unwanted visitor might slowly become a part of their daily routine. It makes itself at home and they get accustomed to if not comfortable even in its presence. What they initially thought would upturn their lives ends up becoming an integral part of it.

 

It is interesting to note that even as we are piling up more distractions on our respective screens, a growing concern highlighted in several mental health conversations is the creeper-like presence of apathy and disconnection. Whether it is the infinite scroll or revenge bedside procrastination, urbanely mobile people in the age groups of 20-40-ish seem to be swinging between purposeless content consumption and regrets – morphing into anxiety on occasions - about an “unlived” life.

 

Boredom in our individual and social perception is almost always framed as an aversive or avoidable experience. We are encouraged to circumvent it, in the very least.  It is something we quickly need to mitigate, change and/or escape. Boredom indicates lack of activity and if we are conditioned to value our time only through metrics of productivity, it obviously feels like a waste.

 

S, an advertising professional, tells me that her work demands constant connection and interaction. There really isn’t ever any breathing space away from demands of clients or even her own team members. On top of that her parents live in a different city and discuss her “resistance” to marriage ever phone-call they make. Which is daily. Even when she has tapped out of the office at the end of a work day, her phone screen buzzes incessantly with new updates on the 3 professional networking whatsapp groups.

 

“Sometimes I want to unscrew my skull and place my brain in a jar for a few hours. I want silence inside my head and nothing to do, mentally. I want to go back to being a child, sitting in my grandmother’s rocking chair fascinated by the movement of dust in light.”

 

Technically, that is what boredom is: a resting period for your brain’s ongoing athletic jaunts. A gap in which the mundane gains prominence to slow down and freeze frame on the moving carousel of the world. A pause that provides much-need emptiness and silence to the perpetual “ongoingness”.

 

 

Boredom as the dream bird

 

“Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience. A rustling in the leaves drives him away.”

 

Philosopher Walter Benjamin had an ornate definition for boredom. It might seem grandiose to exalt it but there is a modicum of truth in the fact that boredom can be a catalyst to newer experiences. Writer Milan Kundera refers to the act of non-doing, sitting “in the hillside on a glorious afternoon” with a dog as a companion as the most elevated form of peace. As someone who has purposely built a life where I can enjoy these lazy afternoons in the company of dogs, cats, plants and music, I concur. While also admitting that not everyone in a capitalist society can afford this slowness. People are forced to work two jobs while taking care of their families. Boredom gets a rotten deal in today’s capitalist frenzy where busyness is synonymous with value. It is either treated like an item of elitist luxury or a detour from never-ending “self-development”.

 

American Psychological dictionary defines boredom as a state of “‘a state of weariness or ennui resulting from a lack of engagement with stimuli in the environment” (VandenBos, 2007). This is aided by other research to specifically differentiate between states of boredom and those of depressive disconnection and apathy, alienation or isolation.

For the purpose of our discussion, we are exploring more of the former.

 

Several neuroscientists and clinicians who work with children emphasize the significance of periodic boredom for kids. When your child hits peak irritability during their summer vacation months because they have “nothing to do”, it is  a good idea to expose them to boredom and not disrupt it by stacking their day with a ton of activities.

 

Jodi Musoff, (MA, Med) is an educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute. She asserts that boredom helps children develop problem solving skills, planning strategies along with instilling flexibility in their developing psyche. These are particularly necessary skills to cultivate for children who might have very organized daily routines. One reason this checks out is simply that it is easy for our brain to put things in an auto-pilot in order to survive on a day-to-day basis.

 

Neuroscientist Jill Bolte Taylor, the author of “My Stroke of Insight” – a fascinating book that chronicles her own encounter with a stroke in her brain at the age of 37 – compares the overworked brain to garbage collectors going on strike. You suddenly realize how important the seamless, sometimes almost invisible daily routine of the work that is being performed without missing a beat. She states that every activity or movement we make, physically or mentally, requires our brains cells to communicate. Whether you are frying an egg or tying your shoelaces or sorting an excel worksheet, your neurons are engaged. Therefore, it is mandatory for the brain to get some rest, a moment of pause, from its round-the-clock

 

Apart from rest, it would also seem that occasional boredom also serves to improve our social connections. Ironic but true. Alicia Walf, a researcher in the Department of Cognitive Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, indicates that when we are bored, we are nudged to eschew the same old, predictable patterns and quotidian repetitions in favour of searching for and fostering newer, more creative ways to reimagine our time, our interpersonal engagements and our general interactions with the world at large and, of course, ourselves.

 

Raj, a software programmer, sighs in quiet rebellion against his packed daily schedule and regrets the fact that he stopped playing the guitar after he started working professsionally a few years ago.

Now, even when he has sufficient time to himself, he ends up scrolling through Instagram rather than picking up the guitar that he has yet to unpack after moving homes almost an year ago.

 

This is not just a matter of will.

It is a series of responses that culminate into a habit.

A cluster of habits that form a behaviour.

A compilation of behaviours that end up defining our choices on a day-to-day basis.

 

 

Let us unpack this by the differentiating between trait boredom v/s state boredom.

The most uncomplicated way to differentiate is recognizing that trait boredom refers to the propensity or disposition towards feeling bored; it indicates your susceptibility towards boredom. State boredom on the other hand refers to getting bored situationally. It is indicative of being bored in specific situations or circumstances.

 

It is important to understand that an excessive avoidance of boredom or fearing it can be an implicit way of masking traumatic life experiences. Boredom can involve stillness, inactivity and pausing. For quite a few people who have dealt with acutely traumatic life experiences over long periods in time, inactivity and stillness can activate certain painful memories or intrusive thoughts. This also leads us to recognizing the impact of boredom on its own, not just as an ancillary emotional state that comes along with other, seemingly more intense emotions.

 

Gender accounts for certain specific experiential differences as well. Experimental studies have shown that women (identified female at birth) often do well on language-learning tasks because they are less likely to experience state boredom than men (identified male at birth). Women displayed a higher degree of strategic competence in coping with and successfully handling state boredom. Men, on the other hand, needed more diverse stimuli to keep themselves successfully engaged.

This shatters the myth that women are “too emotional” to handle certain workplace decision-making since they showed a greater degree of focus without need too many different stimuli or novel sensations to evade state boredom.

 

This also means that workplace engagement should account for these differences when it comes to task allocation, mentoring and coaching.

 

Productivity, precarity and boredom

 

Look, whether we agree or not, we are all some sort of cogs in the capitalism machine.Hustle capitalism seems to place a premium on both trait and state boredom. Every era of capitalism carried with it what is called a dominant reactive affect (DRA). Precarity and replaceability in workplace, relationships, and social structures. Being bored is then automatically considered a threat. An impediment to our “success”. And success in this attention economy is often – mistakenly – considered the same as growth. While it is not that one has to be averse to success, it is more important to understand what we constitutes this definition of “success”. Then there is the financial impact of even considering “boredom”. So many workplaces dictate the need to be constantly hooked onto some form of activity. Your promotion, your position; everything seems to depend on how “omnipresent” you present be. Never mind the fact that even God rested on Sunday after creating the world!


Even those therapy clients of mine who are social activists seem to mentally penalize themselves when they tap out of their messaging apps for a bit. The fear of missing out dictates us to the extent that even our ill-health which requires legit rest is considered an inconvenience in the larger scheme of success.

 

Attention economy focuses on marketing human interest, attention and involvement as a singular and scarce commodity. There are several antitheses at play here. We “google” a term because we want access to quick and accurate information. We want to cut short the time it would have taken for us in the pre-internet era to find information. Ironically, while doing so, we end up losing ourselves in time warps where are attention disappears within the endless scrolling. These contradictory signals obviously affect the way in which our neurological pathways function.

 

Keeping these things in mind, it seems important to gain back some of our “boredom”. Boredom is a vital period of brain rest. We need to stop being afraid of it or allowing the proverbial fear of being replaced remain latched to us like an endless drip. We have to recognize that both our sustenance and survival require timeouts in which we zone out of the chatter within and outside.

 

Sometimes it is ideal to be idle.


And with that terrible turn of phrase is brought about my own need to shut down this laptop and spend some time mimicking the dog resting on my lap right now.


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