Much of life is mundane. If you’re lucky, you have just enough excitement to keep you on your toes and not so much it stresses you out and wears you down. However thrilling your existence, though, you have to learn to deal with some boredom, and the better you get at it, the more interesting you will be.
Boredom has long been highly underrated, but it’s having a moment in science, fashion, and literature now. In a culture accustomed to constant entertainment, we tend not to appreciate that learning how to be bored is an important adaptive function and can be good for us.
Still, scientists say the lulls between fun times are necessary and generative, making us more creative and productive. Boredom is restorative.
Appreciating tedium also helps make us less tedious people. Or, as the early 20th-century British philosopher and poet GK Chesterton wrote in his 1905 essay Heretics, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
Interest in boredom has boomed of late because we’ve become so addicted to fun now that we have technology to amuse us at all times of the day and night. We constantly have our faces in screens and are forever ingesting stuff: podcasts, news, messages, movies, videos, comics, shopping, pornography, games, social media. The relentless input is leaving us overstimulated while not necessarily making us more informed.
The antidote to all the entertainment may just be “fruitful monotony,” as 20th-century philosopher Bertrand Russell described necessary tedium. The ability to deal with dull downtime is a necessary element of a healthy existence for kids and adults.
Those whose minds never wander aimlessly fail to develop creativity, according to Teresa Bolton, a child psychologist in the UK who specializes in the connection between boredom and imagination. Her work has shown that kids need to be bored so that they cultivate an “internal stimulus” that will make them more creative and satisfied as adults.
The same sentiment seems to apply to grownups as well. In March, three studies by management professors out of Australian National University looked at boredom’s effects on idea generation, negative emotions, and response to dull stimuli. The researchers found that bored subjects, forced to tediously sort a bowl of beans by color before being asked to solve a problem, came up with more creative ideas without added bad feelings.
But they noted that only subjects “with a high learning goal orientation, high need for cognition, high openness to experience, and high internal locus of control showed a significant increase in creativity when feeling bored.” In other words, those who are least inclined to experiencing boredom also benefit the most from tedium, while those who haven’t learned to love monotony are not getting much from dull moments.
The beauty of tedium
Given that some tedium is inescapable, however, it makes sense to be a person who actively takes an interest in things to wring the benefits from boredom. How do you do that? Musician John Cage has advised, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then 16. Then 32. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.”
Cage is just one of many creators who contends that boredom is in the eye of the beholder and that attention renders things interesting. To find a thing interesting, however, we must first take an interest, which means making an effort and paying attention to details that may seem pretty dull at first glance.
That isn’t necessarily easy, especially when we have so many other options. In fact, American poet Kenneth Goldsmith believes that there is already far too much interesting stuff out there. He refrains from adding more to a cluttered world. Instead, Goldsmith uses existing texts to create his own works, focusing on juxtapositions that are interesting. He revels in being “the most boring writer that ever lived” and says that there’s “a certain kind of unboring boredom that’s fascinating, engrossing, transcendent, and downright sexy.”
In that sense then, the contemporary poet is a lot like 20th-century pop art god Andy Warhol, whose works focused on repetition, continually serving up the same boring image of everyday items like a Campbell’s Soup can in different colors until they became interesting for the details each similar but distinct print yielded. Warhol also claimed to love boring things, and his fascination with the mundane changed the art world forever.
Forms of boredom
That said, not all types of tedium are created equal. As Goldsmith points out, there is sexy boring and “boring boring,” which is when you are forced to sit through a torturously dull experience, like a bad poetry reading. Voluntary tedium—daydreaming on a park bench, say—may be fun, and learning to find the beauty in an obscure or dry topic may be a talent, but imposed monotony of the kind that happens when you are stuck in gridlocked traffic isn’t necessarily going to turn into fun no matter how hard you try.
There is also a big difference between monotony and deep, existential ennui, which itself can be either paralyzing or liberating. Either you don’t see the point in doing anything at all, or the pointlessness makes every experience equally meaningless, and therefore, as worthwhile as anything is bound to be. For those who have passed through the tunnel of nothingness and need no grand purpose to survive, every cut on this porker called life is fine. However, a profound disinterest in things can also be an important, informative signal that we need a change or challenge.
The key to mastering boredom is pushing ourselves to explore this feeling we normally assiduously try to avoid. So, the next time you are tempted to turn on your TV or scroll through social media, don’t. Instead of seeking entertainment, feed your brain with fruitful monotony.
It might just prolong your life. A 2010 long-term study found that people can be bored to death. Research of more than 7,000 civil servants in England over 25 years showed that people who complained of boredom were 40% more likely to die by the study’s end than colleagues who took an interest in things.
The survivors seemed to prove the point Zelda Fitzgerald made in her 1922 essay “Eulogy on the Flapper,” where she wrote of the typical jazz age lady, who like herself scandalously defied the time’s conventions: “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.”