Psychology
12 Oct 2018

Boredom is inevitable, but is it good for us?

The everyday grind doesn't have to be boring if we look at it from the right perspective -- an interview with the psychologist Bartłomiej Dobroczyński.

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Boredom is inevitable, but is it good for us? - NewsMavens
Woman thinking, PixaBay

The following fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz’s interview with Bartłomiej Dobroczyński first appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in August 2018.

Agnieszka Jucewicz: Is it true that intelligent people never get bored?

Bartłomiej Dobroczyński: [Not exactly] While it’s true that intelligent people don’t get truly bored, it’s also true that only intelligent people (or creatures) are able to experience boredom. Frogs don’t get bored, but dogs, monkeys and people -- do! But of course, we can distinguish between boredom resulting from a lack of activity and the one caused by the excess of some irritable factor, for example a repetitive argument over the same problem. Boredom can be positive or negative.

AJ: Today, it seems to be perceived mainly in a negative way. In our consumer culture, boredom functions as a whip that urges people to engage in various forms of events and activities, accelerating the whole mechanism, and keeping the system running. If you’re bored in this wonderful world full of diversions and entertainment, you must be stupid.

We could also look at it as a sign of luxury. Most people on our planet have no time or reason to be bored. They use all their energy to stay alive. A starving man fleeing a war doesn’t get bored.

AJ: Many people can’t imagine surviving a minute without external stimuli. It makes them panic. Children shouldn’t feel bored either -- every single hour of their day must be planned and efficiently utilized.

I understand this panic. People are mostly unaware that they live in a world where someone -- or something -- is constantly telling them what to do, what to buy, and where to go. They are persistently urged to stay on the ball -- otherwise they will miss out! And they don’t want to be left out so they work, earn and spend money on all these seemingly important things to blend in and feel accepted by society.

A parent in a consumer culture might find it difficult to tolerate their child’s boredom, simply because they can’t handle their own lack of activity.

AJ: In today’s hectic world, boredom in the form of reflection seems pretty revolutionary.

Absolutely! Someone declaring: “I opt for boredom!” challenges all the modern values of consumer society. And society’s reaction to this declaration is not usually a positive one.

AJ: Do they react negatively out of fear?

Certainly! Because a person announcing: “I won’t be participating in this sick contest anymore -- I won’t boast about my new car on Facebook or post holiday photos on Instagram”, poses a threat to this culture and its standards.

AJ: A friend of mine always chooses the same holiday destination. She’s constantly forced to explain her decision to others, often hearing: “Aren’t you bored of that place?”

Clearly, that’s where she can relax and recharge her batteries! She’s experiencing a liberating monotony, not boredom! Do you know what she’s really doing by carrying out the same activities every day? She’s meditating.

There are people who desperately need to catch up with their soul and for them, the only way to do it is to stop rushing in multiple directions.

Look at the routine in Catholic or Buddist monasteries: strict wake-up times, scheduled prayers, work and meals. Stimulation reduced to a minimum, no attractions or unexpected incidents. I have a friend who frequently visits monasteries, and calls it a divine, wonderful experience -- her mind opens up and she gains a new perspective on life.

Such repetitiveness may be another person’s nightmare; some people draw energy from excitement and continuous action.

We’re all different in terms of the amount of stimulation we require in order to function. Immanuel Kant would go for a walk at the same time every day. He led an extremely monotonous and uneventful life but that’s probably what helped him gather his thoughts. Amedeo Modigliani was a drunk and a drug user, living from one tantrum to another. Perhaps if his life had been calm, organised and “boring”, he wouldn’t have painted a single picture?

A certain sort of tediousness and ability to postpone the moment of gratification can be incredibly satisfying. One of my life mentors claimed that the true winner is the one who manages to resist eating ice-cream and keeps it in the freezer. The ability to delay gratification is one of the things that differentiates us from animals.

AJ: It just came to me that people working in the corporate world also live according to a strict schedule. But I don’t suppose many of them would say that their minds open up. Quite the opposite.

That’s a completely different kind of monotony -- neither wanted nor freely chosen, but externally imposed. However, there are people who somehow throw themselves into their daily corporate routine or a tiresome physical work and enjoy it. Nevertheless, it’s a rare gift. I also need to stress that the slogan: “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” which is very popular in the “coaching” and “motivational” environment -- is a bunch of nonsense. Most people will never love what they do professionally.

AJ: Can we do anything to make the monotony less unpleasant?

Personally, I would recommend mindfulness training, which helps us translate dullness into something creative and life-giving. But going back to monasteries, I’d like to point out that today’s asceticism -- in a form of self-restraint and a certain repetitiousness -- could be an equivalent to the challenges formerly posed to humans by nature.

AJ: So we all should become ascetics now?

Of course not.

But boredom as a form of contemplation evokes our sensibility in the same way as denying ourselves food enhances our sense of taste. It triggers our imagination, inventiveness and awareness.

Meister Eckhart argued that sooner or later, everything gets boring. You can’t drink red wine every day and always enjoy it.

AJ: That’s a shame.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile to embrace mindfulness and learn to continuously notice new aspects of the same actions or well-known objects? A tree or a stone are never boring, if we look at them from the right perspective.

AJ: So it would be more precise to state that it’s not intelligent but rather mindful people who never get bored?

That’s right!

***

Bartłomiej Dobroczyński is the Head of the Department of General Psychology at the Institute of Psychology at  the Jagiellonian University.

Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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