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The Gift of Boredom
Posted: 11/29/2011 | Personal Development Comments
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Nobody is bored when he is trying to make something that is beautiful or to discover something that is true. ~W.R. Inge

Imagine you’re at the DMV, waiting your turn among the sea of humanity. You’re sitting in one of those plastic, molded seats in an endless row of plastic, molded seats. The sign on the wall says, “Now serving: #35.” The crumpled piece of paper in your hand says #112. There’s no cell reception in the building, so your go-to activities of checking emails, texts and messages or calling a sympathetic friend aren’t available. You have no idea how long you’ll have to wait. What are you experiencing? Does time slow to a crawl? How do you pass the time?
This scenario brings up different experiences for different people. For some this can be a painful experience. It might bring up anxiety, sadness, hopelessness or boredom. Erich Fromm says, “I am convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored.”
What is boredom? Various sources offer these definitions: extremely dull or dry; unimaginative; concerned with petty or uninteresting details; dissatisfaction; the blahs; fatigue from overexposure to something. Boredom feels different to different people. It is often thought of as one or more of these three basic scenarios: we’re prevented from engaging in a desired activity; we’re forced to engage in an undesirable activity; we’re unable to engage in any activity. 
Author C.D. Fisher says that boredom is, an unpleasant, transient affective (emotional) state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.
Why would this be? We might feel overwhelmed or anxious when faced with a task we lack skills to complete and that could be covered over by what some might call boredom. We might feel bored when we have a much higher skill level than a task requires. How do we challenge ourselves daily to learn more, engage more and stay more awake?
We could be bored because we’re accustomed to high levels of stimulation offered by our culture of distraction. M.R. Leary says that boredom is an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes. Younger people especially are exposed to constant titillation. Watch any movie that is at least 25 years old and you’ll immediately feel the slower pacing compared to contemporary films. We’re addicted to action and excitement.
Surprisingly, brain-imaging technology shows that our bored brain is still highly active, using only about 5% less energy than when we’re engaged in a routine task. According to a Washington University-St. Louis study, even this tiny reduction in energy creates the illusion that time has slowed down. Naturally, we are eager for a distraction whether it’s a conversation, a mental game, or even a nap.
Boredom is nothing but the experience of a paralysis of our productive powers. –Erich Fromm
It’s true that boredom can be detrimental at times. In some people, boredom can lead to impulsive and unhealthy behaviors. A study of Marines, found that 1/4 returning from deployment have repeated instances of misconduct. 17.1% of those screened positive for PTSD. “Deployment-related stressors” like boredom were considered a significant factor. Many soldiers, thinking they were signing up for an adventure, ended up with repetitive jobs of little perceived value.
But much research suggests that boredom can be beneficial. Psychologists at the University of Limerick in Ireland theorize bored people experience a momentary meaninglessness that spurs them on to seek purpose and meaning in their lives. According to their research, boredom can inspire altruism and empathy.
Psychologist Van Tilburg says, “Being bored may be miserable, but at the same time it provides benefits for those in need of support.”
I’m remembering years ago when I was an actress in New York and had a side job spraying perfume at Bloomingdales. In the bottom of the basket I was holding, I would bury a monologue or scene for acting class or an audition. Between sprays I would memorize what was on the paper. This helped me feel like I was moving toward my goal of working more as an actress and more toward the meaning of what I was doing in New York. 
Researchers at East Anglia University in England found that boredom might “be recognized as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and activity.” Their research suggests that the brain occasionally tunes out the external world to stir our creative juices.
Boredom may be less about lack of stimulation in our environment and more about avoiding unpleasant emotions. Psychologist John Eastwood advises us not to find a distraction for our boredom, but rather, “Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life.” He goes on to say that boredom can actually help us “discover the possibility and content of one’s desires.”
Boredom can lead to existential angst, but as we find meaning in our lives we have an empowering context for our activities. Like the Zen saying, “Before enlightenment I chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment I chop wood and carry water.” A task may not seem meaningful in itself, but within the context of a meaningful life it’s rich with possibility.
How can we connect with the possibility of our greatest desires at the DMV? We can use this downtime to our benefit by meditating. Take a few moments to observe your environment. Take in all the people around you, from the children to the elderly. Observe the frustration of some and the contentment of others. Listen to the ambient sounds of the room. Close your eyes and follow your breath. Ask your highest awareness, “What can I learn from this experience? What do I need to know now?”
Our boredom can give us a terrific opportunity to turn inward and reflect on our lives. We can resist the urge for novelty and distraction. When we are truly in the moment, we move into a peaceful state of mind. From there we can look at our problems objectively. Solutions pop up that we haven’t considered before. Creative ideas are aroused, and we may even become excited about a new project. Insights bubble up from our center, and even at the DMV, we can recognize this one, perfect moment.
What have you learned from boredom? Do you find quick ways to alleviate your boredom, or have you taken the time to just be with yourself in that moment? Your comments make a difference for all of us.


James L. Giles       Posted: 11/30/2011 9:08:00 AM

Good morning Dr. Jennifer. I found your article on ''Boredom'' to be pithy,informative, and stimulating. I also reflect upon it in light of my ongoing studies of creativity, genius, the relationship between creativity and madness, etc. Thank you for your work. Be encouraged and inspired to continue what you have begun. Warmest regards.

James L. GiLes

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