The Blessings and Pain of Boredom

Bored white bulldog lying on a carpet, head resting on one paw

Deciding to Write About Boredom

I’ve written a number of columns about being stressed and overwhelmed with responsibilities, but only recently did I think to write about being bored. Many of the addicts I’ve worked with over the years say boredom is a relapse trigger. Maybe there’s something to this that is worth exploring, I thought, so I started to do some research.

In this way, I discovered that I get bored a lot more often than I realized. The reason I don’t think of myself as living a boring life is that if I don’t like what I’m doing, I usually have the freedom to do something else instead. Sometimes I flit from one project to another, for variety helps keep me focused.

It’s not that simple, though. Sometimes I work through boredom, as when I have a deadline. I can be patient. To make waiting easier, such as when I’m at the grocery store or doctor’s office, I focus on the present moment, on being mindful. 

Mindfulness – An Antidote to Boredom

I learned this years ago when I read some books by Thich Nhat Hanh. When we feel bored, he suggests, we should pay better attention to what is around us. We can literally meditate our way through the tedium. If we enter into a beginner’s mind, everything is new. Each breath is a different breath. Pay attention to the sensations, the emotions, and the thoughts that arise when we feel bored.

If we do that, what might we discover?

In Buddhist philosophy, there are five obstructions to our meditation practice called hindrances. These keep us from staying focused and aware. The goal isn’t to eradicate these states. They will always be with us in one form or another, at one time or another. Perhaps because we call them hindrances, it seems natural to want to push them away. This rarely works, though. Instead, we can notice them, observe them, be curious about them. 

Sloth and Torpor

The five states are desire, ill-will, sloth and torpor, restlessness and worry, and doubt. One I’m very familiar with is sloth and torpor. For instance, I sometimes nod off while meditating. When writing my columns, I have been known to close my eyes and start to fall asleep. Sitting with patients, I might yawn. 

Perhaps I didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe I’m bored. The why, though, matters less than the how and what. How do we feel? What are we thinking? Are there sensations in our body? In what way do we become distracted? If we focus our awareness on our experience in the present moment, we might find that even when we’re bored, that boredom no longer controls us. It’s just another sensation.

But what is that sensation? Do your eyelids droop when you’re bored? Does your head feel heavy, your mind ache? Is there a flutter in your belly, an antsy energy in your legs? 

When I sink my awareness into my bored body, I notice my limbs feel heavy, my eyes gritty, my breathing gets shallow, my mind is dull. This is the weariness that lies beneath boredom. Additionally, I might feel a general tension in my gut or tremulousness in my fingers. My body wants to move, to do something different. A restlessness lies at my core.

Noticing Feelings Relieves Boredom 

You may experience something similar, or your boredom might be different. To know, however, you have to pay attention to what’s going on inside you. Ironically, the more you can recognize the feelings you have when you’re bored, the less bored you’re going to be. 

That’s because people who understand their emotions rarely get bored. Melissa Dahl and Sarah Ruddy suspect this is because our emotions guide us toward the activities and projects that most give us a sense of value and purpose. To know what we want from life, to understand who we are and what we value, we have to know how we feel. [1] Unless we know what we feel, we don’t know what we want, so we can’t make informed choices about careers, family, volunteering, or other activities that give us a sense of purpose. Having a sense of purpose also makes us feel less bored.

So, if you don’t like boredom, learn who you are and what you feel and discover a purpose for your life.

Bored white bulldog lying on a carpet, head resting on one paw

Being Boredom-Prone or Not

Some of you, though, might not feel bored, regardless of how well you know yourself and your goals. That’s because some people are comfortable with routine and sameness. In their ordered and predictable lives, they feel, not bored, but secure.

These people score low on scales of novelty-seeking. Their homes are clean and well tended. They’re frugal and delay gratification. Generally, they plan ahead, and they follow their plans, sticking to their routines. Boredom is rarely an issue for them.  

People who score high on novelty-seeking, on the other hand, get bored easily. They are creative, innovative, and impulsive. They enjoy meeting new people and have few routines. Many of them like to travel, drive fast, take risks, live life to the fullest. Often, they have fun. They also tend to have addictions. [2] That’s because no matter how many new and exciting activities they engage in, they never feel fulfilled. 

“As fast as the new is experienced,” Peter Toohey cautions in his book about boredom, “it is liable to become boring.” [3] 

Breaking the Boredom Cycle

How do we avoid this cycle?

Those of us who are prone to getting bored may produce less dopamine in our brains. This would explain why we so often turn to addictions when boredom strikes. Drugs, chocolate, sex, shopping, driving fast, bungee jumping, gambling, and new experiences like traveling all boost dopamine. Because of this, they can become addictive. [4]

Other, more sedate activities also boost dopamine. Laughter, dinner with friends, hiking in the woods, gazing at ocean waves, exercising, volunteering, writing a poem, listening to music, petting a cat, playing with children, planting a garden, even learning something new all increase the level of dopamine in our brains. If we can substitute these healthy activities for the more destructive ones, we not only heal our brains with gentle bursts of dopamine, but we also help to relieve our boredom. By engaging in quiet fun, we can break the cycle of boredom and excitement and boredom again.

The Virtues of Boredom

Not that boredom is all bad, though. As with any emotion, boredom gives us information. Perhaps we’re drifting in life and need to find a career or a ministry that can give us a sense of purpose. On the other hand, boredom can spur us to create or invent something startling and beautiful. If it spurs us to change our life in a way that supports our growth, perhaps boredom is a good thing. Even so, few of us like being bored. What makes boredom helpful is that the discomfort it arouses encourages us to do something different. 

The question is, what do we do? 

If instead of seeking immediate escape, we allow ourselves to observe, notice, and experience the sensations, emotions, and thoughts that surround our boredom, we might find we make better choices than if we leap toward the first thing that numbs or distracts us. Mindfulness is a great tool. Besides, meditation, which is the exercise for mindfulness, increases our brain’s capacity to produce and use dopamine. No wonder we’re likely to feel less bored if we meditate.

We all get bored at one time or another. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, nor does it mean we’re lazy or dull. Learn to tolerate boredom. Manage the emotions that arise when we’re bored. Be interested in your experience, observe the emotions, then let them go. As one experience arises and fades away, another will take its place, life will go on, and you might find you don’t need to bungee jump or smoke pot or fly to the moon to escape boredom. Just being alive will be enough.

In faith and fondness,
Barbara

Credits

  1. Dahl, Melissa and Sarah Ruddy, “How Easily Bored Are You? Take This Quiz to Find Out,” New York, The Cut, September 27, 2016, https://www.thecut.com/2016/09/how-easily-bored-are-you-take-this-quiz-to-find-out.html, accessed 1/21/19.
  2. Hamer, Dean and Peter Copeland, Living with Our Genes: Why They Matter More Than You Think, New York: Doubleday, 1998, 31-32.
  3. Toohey, Peter. Boredom: A Lively History, Yale University Press, 2011, 24.
  4. From Koerth-Baker, Maggie, “Why Boredom Is Anything But Boring,” Scientific American, January 18, 2016, https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-boredom-is-anything-but-boring/, accessed 1/21/19.

Photo by meredith hunter on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.