For most people, boredom is a passing, nearly trivial feeling that lifts as soon as their number is called, their chore is completed, or their train arrives. But, boredom has a darker side: easily bored people are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, eating disorders, hostility, anger, and yes, addiction.
It’s hard to imagine anyone being bored today. Computers, iPods, iPhones and gaming consoles can provide hours of activity, right? All these things are supposed to keep us happy and interested. Yet, we’re somehow more bored than ever before.
So, given that all our devices and gadgets haven’t made us any less bored, what can we do to fight boredom? The first step is to understand what you’re up against. John Eastwood, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto, has given boredom a lot of thought. After talking to patients and studying the topic, he identified three core characteristics of the emotion:
- You’re unable to engage your mind in a satisfying way
- You’re aware of the situation and consider it a problem
- You blame the environment (“this is so boring” or “there’s nothing to do”)
But no one is doomed to boredom. In fact, many of our best ideas and inventions arise from boredom. Philosophers have intuited this for centuries; Kierkegaard described boredom as a prequel to creation: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.” It’s sort of like the phenomenon of children inventing games when they have nothing with which to distract themselves.
The problem is that these days we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We try eliminating them. “We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices,” says Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire. This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums. Noodling on your phone is “like eating junk food,” she says.
So, instead of fleeing boredom, lean into it. Don’t jump to your phone to distract yourself. Summon your inner child-inventor and create something out of the tedium of life. Boredom, as it turns out, may actually be super-interesting!
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