Understanding and Transforming Boredom

The great philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, ‘The Two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom.’ The associations with boredom have invariably been negative and it is seen as undesirable by most. Another great philosopher Soren Kierkegaard confirms the same when he says ‘There is something more terrible than a hell of suffering: a hell of boredom. ‘

A question that I pondered on a lot is whether boredom is a quality of our surroundings or quality of our mind. Is boring induced in the mind by a boring environment or does boredom comes from a boredom-inducing mind? This is what I am trying to address here.

Psychology looks at boredom as an emotional and psychological state experience when we are left without anything in particular to do and are not interested in our surroundings.

Philosophy, on the other hand, looks at boredom as a certain type of perception. Boredom is a condition characterized by a perception of one’s environment as dull, tedious and lacking in stimulation. This can result either from leisure or a lack of aesthetic interest. That is why Leo Tolstoy defined boredom as the desire for desires.

I believe boredom is more a product of one’s mind than one’s surroundings. When people are bored it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored, said Americal Social Philosopher, Eric Hoffer. In fact, I believe some of the greatest works of creativity, invention and discovery take place in what would otherwise be called a state of boredom. The novelist Robert Pirsig says boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.

How a child or a teen or a young adult handles boredom can become a key differentiator in the person’s growth and development. The default reaction to boredom is that you tend to get into a mode of restlessness and blind consumption. Blind consumption can mean indulging in passive entertainment like web series or taking to substance abuse or reckless spending or ruminating on negative thoughts too.

The skill or the trick here is how can one transition from boredom to creativity than to consumption. Here is my thesis as to how we can pull this trick off. It takes the help of one of these three agents viz. Purpose, Meaning or Inspiration.

Purpose: If one has an overarching purpose for living, an orientation towards a long term goal, it can jolt you out of your slumber and get you into action mode.

Inspiration: Or you need inspiration, an ideal, a vision of something so beautiful, majestic and awesome, that it gets you to pick that pen and paper, or that hat and umbrella and gets you going.

Meaning: The last trick under your sleeve could be to seek meaning in boredom. Viktor E. Frankl, in his life’s work titled Man’s Search for Meaning said, ‘Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.’ He says further, ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.’

Understand that none of this comes naturally and it takes immense power of the mind to actuate. Handling boredom is a skill, a life skill rather that only a few ever master in their lifetime.

Boredom, some psychologists believe, has an evolutionary basis and it encourages humans to seek out new challenges. It also seems to influence human learning and ingenuity. Having said so, here is a word of caution. Though for most of us boredom can be normal, for some it can also be an indicator of an underlying disease and one can tell this by observing when one’s feelings become excessive, all-consuming and start interfering with daily living.

Be it an honest day’s labour or an intricate work of art, it seems we have a choice whether to become passive and alienated towards our work or get immersed in the tedium. Before passively reacting to boredom, first attempt to acknowledge the state of boredom. Become mindful of it. The Zen master Jean Kabat-Zihn said ‘When you pay attention to boredom, it becomes very interesting.’ And then find a rope of purpose, inspiration or meaning and throw it across new horizons and peaks and pull yourself out, to reach newer heights.

And if nothing works, think of this :

‘Is life not a thousand times too short for us to bore ourselves’

Friedrich Nietzsche

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