Fleeing from boredom

The unpleasant feeling we get when bored, of being in some kind of empty space where time stretches endlessly forwards, is captured well in Charles Simic’s poem:

By Charles Simic

I’m the child of your rainy Sundays.
I watched time crawl
Over the ceiling
Like a wounded fly.
A day would last forever,
Making pellets of bread,
Waiting for a branch
On a bare tree to move.
The silence would deepen,
The sky would darken,
As Grandmother knitted
With a ball of black yarn.
I know Heaven’s like that.
In eternity’s classrooms,
The angels sit like bored children
With their heads bowed.

Boredom has a variety of definitions, but in essence is a disagreeable mental state of being without stimulation, which oftentimes makes us feel very restless. Interestingly, different people seem to have a varying threshold of tolerance for boredom: some can manage to bear it for longer than others. People with higher thresholds of tolerance for boredom tend achieve better in education than those of us with lower thresholds. This might say something more about the structure of formal school than it does about boredom, of course. The sociologist Philip Jackson concluded in his famous study ‘Life in Classrooms’, after many hours of observation, that one of the main (but hidden) purposes of school was to get children used to being bored–thus preparing them for a life of boredom as workers.

In our everyday life the rapid advent of mobile technology means that we have very effective and efficient means at our fingertips to avoid being bored, almost wherever we go, at any time in the day. No longer do we have to sit on trains and buses people watching or gazing out of the window. Instead we can watch a TV programme, message friends, reply to emails and catch up with the news.

But is our now almost constant avoidance of boredom a good thing? Certainly, Bertrand Russell was concerned, well before the proliferation of so much mobile technology, that the growing public ‘allergy’ to boredom was equivalent to some kind of addiction to excitement. This constant pursuit of excitement did not leave room, Russell warned, to the kind of non-stimulated state of mind that he called ‘fructifying boredom’–a kind of ‘stillness of mind’ out of which creativity could flow. This assertion chimes with some recent research that shows that a state of boredom can actually generate more creative thinking (Mann and Cadman, 2014).

Putting these thoughts together, it seems that whilst too much boredom is not a good thing, evading all states of boredom could also be deleterious. For if we constantly stimulate our minds from the outside, we also avoid the possibility of experiencing fructifying boredom–a state of non-stimulation, into which ideas and feelings can float, coalescing in creative and playful ways. Our flight from boredom, therefore, could be a flight from parts of ourselves that need a free space in which to emerge, and a journey away from an inner space of play.

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