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We Need To Change Our Relationship With Boredom

I perhaps dread nothing more than dreariness. I can manage stress, I can quell anger, I can allay jealousy, but boredom remains an elusive malaise that I, and many others, struggle with. To those with the ability to perfectly remain on-task, pursuing passions and pleasure with equal ease, I commend you. However, such a talent is hard to come by. Most of us fail at least some of the time, and I believe our relationship with boredom is to blame.

Compare how we treat boredom to how we treat anger. Anger demands a sort of catharsis from us, whether that be to inflict harm, distribute justice, or simply express the emotion to a sympathetic listener. When anger pulls on our less acceptable instincts, though, we recognize a need to temper our reaction with reason. For example, instead of wantonly exacting revenge on a close friend, we might instead realize the need to communicate and take a better line forward. In such a case, commitment to our friend outweighs what anger might initially demand of us.

What’s more, we socially support such noble action, even towards complete strangers. Just as it is wrong to lash out at a friend, it is rude to fly off the handle at a random driver and it is unacceptable to chew out a colleague. Instead, we ascribe virtue to level-headedness and a healthy relationship with anger. We teach children (and sometimes adults) about how to acknowledge, process, and respond to the emotion. From a young age, we learn to “take deep breaths” and “talk out our problems.” While such strategies possess only certain degrees of merit, it shows a general social commitment we have to tempering anger across our lives.

Boredom, in many ways, is like anger. It also demands a catharsis from us, whether that be a brief read, a listen to a podcast, or a compulsive scan of one’s email for the fifth time today. Unlike anger, though, we often aren’t reflective of our consequent action. For example, instead of contemplating whether a 10–20-minute string of YouTube videos is an appropriate action in the loo, we’re watching before we even hit the seat. Even if our commitments do outweigh boredom’s reactive demands, we didn’t examine the action at all, and we miss our call to better action.

Why is this? It seems (at least in part) to be a product of social ambivalence. Outside curtailing the outward expression of boredom in church and classroom, no mentor spends much time teaching children or adults how to recognize, process, and respond to boredom. At best, there will be a vague call for discipline, though the practice seems merely to grin and bear boredom for the sake of productivity rather than constructively address the emotion.

To make matters worse, several powerful forces encourage us to cave to boredom. Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and the like are all designed to be as psychologically rewarding as possible as quickly as possible. Though I wish not to proselytize about social media generally, it seems an industry preying on a collective gap in emotional competency would not fly in other arenas. A company based on exacting angry revenge? Terrible. A company based on jealous spying? Ludicrous. A company based on bored scrolling? A multi-billion dollar idea.

But why should we care? Caving to boredom, unlike anger, doesn’t seem to produce any real outward harm in our friendships or our personal life. The idle minute here or there satisfying the call of boredom will likely leave our prospects no different than where they started. An issue arises, though, when the idle minute turns to the idle hour without us realizing. In yielding to boredom, we are robbed of intentionality. Hours we could spend pursuing a passion, getting more sleep, or merely getting ahead on work are lost in the all-consuming maw of easy gratification.

Now, a trained reader of any self-help book probably expects a turn to rigorous discipline in the face of distraction. Despite the similar prefaces of this argument to mine, I don’t think everyone should wake up at 3am every day, do 750 push-ups, and make avocado toast. That’s a route to burnout and nothing less. Nor do I think people should renounce social media. Those platforms bring joy and connection into people’s lives, albeit sometimes problematically. I think instead, we need to treat boredom as we do any other emotion: one to be processed with productive and unproductive reactions.

Such a turn requires a degree of understanding and compassion for ourselves not espoused by most pundits touting the need for discipline in our lives. Like anger, the solution to boredom is not to effectively ignore it by “grinning and bearing it.” It is to recognize when it occurs, consider our reaction, and try our best to respond well. Further, we need to more support social norms which uphold this view. Rather than tout discipline or ignore boredom altogether we need to teach our children and peers healthy responses to the emotion, extending compassion rather than rebuke.

Alas, I cannot say much more beyond this point. I do not know any perfect strategies for boredom. I do know, however, that collectively ignoring the valid emotion does nothing to help us. We need to change our relationship with boredom and reclaim our intentional lives.

Illustration: Danaja Kurnik

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