Excited About Boredom

“Life, friends, is boring.” So said the poet John Berryman in 1964. He went on: “We must not say so. After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns, we ourselves flash and yearn, and moreover my mother told me as a boy, ‘Ever to confess you’re bored means you have no Inner Resources’.” Many of us are increasingly without Inner Resources. We like to be busy, and cannot tolerate empty silences or bare calendars. We cannot bear to bored. As such we are fools.

Two months ago, my day job ceased to exist, unexpectedly. After the initial pangs of relief, I was filled with a feeling of complete terror. Not fright at impending financial ruin, although I very well ought, nor a sense of alarm at the sudden cessation of my career. No, it was a fear of the infinite abyss of nothingness that lay ahead: a sickening sense of dread at the prospect of boredom, and the uncertainty of how I would fill my days.

We go to great lengths to avoid boredom, described by Dickens as a “chronic malady”, and by Kierkegaard as “the root of all evil”. We are conscious of it throughout our lives — from childhood, when we are in a grown-up world void of organised entertainment or planned activities, on into the first flush of youth, when we seek fun and amusement at every possible turn, and finally in adulthood, when our busy world is occasionally punctuated with the realisation that there isn’t really that much to do.

But I have discovered that boredom is bliss — and our increasingly digital world is depriving us of the sheer joy of it. Seldom do we stop and think, and drink of the bounty of pleasures that life has to offer.

The idea that boredom can be a pleasure is not new. In The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), Robert Burton wrote: “I write of melancholy, by being busy to avoid melancholy.” He sparked a long tradition of philosophers and thinkers who devoted themselves to the problems of boredom and were thus entertained by boredom itself.

It’s not just the arts that flourish from the ashes of boredom. Scientific research has found that in moderation, boredom can encourage mental growth by pushing the boundaries of your cognitive comfort zone. In other words, boredom — or a lack of stimulating activity — has been scientifically proven to breed creative thought. 

A recent study by the University of Central Lancashire tested the creative-boosting power of boredom: 80 participants were instructed either to copy numbers from a phone book or not to do so. This was followed by an exercise to think of as many uses as possible for two plastic cups. The group who had endured the monotony of the telephone numbers task were found to come up with more creative uses for the cups.

Boredom is heaven. It lets us think. It allows us to daydream. In childhood, it inspires interesting games and adventures. In teenage years, boredom allows one to forget the pressures of adolescence by providing a sense of escape, but only if you let it.

Above all, boredom is a joy because it derives from the most precious of all dimensions: time. Time is running out. Time cannot be replaced. Our time is limited. And as such, time is a luxury that we should bask in and savour. Let’s abandon our screens, seize the day, let our minds wander, find our Inner Resources and revel in the infinite joys that boredom brings.

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