I babysit Jamie, my mischievous 5-year-old nephew. We reach his favorite part of the day: iPad time. He’s allowed one hour to do whatever he wants — within reason, of course — and he quickly hunkers down on the sofa, as I prepare for a rare hour of peace and quiet.
But I’m wrong about the quiet. Jamie fires up Minecraft, only to find it’s not as fun without his big brother or sister. So he watches episodes of cartoons on Netflix — but he’s seen them all before. Next, he plays Angry Birds and Dungeon Defenders, but when he tries to play new games, his limited reading ability hampers any progress. After half an hour, he begins to squirm.
“What’s wrong?” I ask him.
He plops the iPad down in frustration. “I’m bored,” he replies.
“But you’ve begged to play with the iPad all day,” I say. He has games, movies and music, among all sorts of time-killers. How can he possibly be bored? Isn’t the iPad and iPhone supposed to banish boredom, not just for kids but for adults, too?
“There’s nothing to do,” he whines.
I’m tempted to let him find his way out of the restlessness. But then, I realize he actually has no idea what else to do. As a member of the iPad generation, he isn’t used to an open expanse of time that isn’t filled with stimulation. He isn’t used to boredom.
Of course, kids aren’t the only ones to find boredom a trial to cope with. We all pick up our phones to fill the gap with a swipe of a touchscreen — but we may be short-circuiting our creativity and insight in the process.
At some point, we all become bored. Maybe it’s through a droning class. Maybe it’s a wait for the workday to end, Maybe it’s in line at the post office, or in the darkness, waiting for a movie to begin — everyday occasions where we experience boredom.
Before, we suffered through it — we bought a book or magazine to read or started a random conversation. Now, though, we pick up the phone. Look around: chances are people are all on the phone, indulging in e-mail, playing games, sending messages on the go. Boredom is now replaced by creativity, productivity and entertainment, all accessible in the palm of the hand.
Nearly half of all smartphone users admit they use phones to entertain themselves when bored, according to Pew Internet and American Life.
As we lean on gadgets to kill otherwise wasted time, how we live and work is subtly being reshaped. Take, for instance, a wait in line at the store. Retailers once counted on us to flip through trashy tabloids or buy gum or candy to fill up that pocket of time.
But these incidental buys are declining, according to Bloomberg. Impulse single-copy sales of magazines have been in decline since 2011, falling just over eight percent, while gum sales declined five percent, which experts correlate with fewer impulse checkout sales.
Publishers blame phones, among other factors, for distracting consumers away from checkout displays. Instead of killing time reading about the latest Kardashian exploits in InTouch or buying up breath mints, we’re playing Clash of Clans or reading e-mail.
You might think spending time on our phones is a better way to fight off boredom and kill time than buying useless items. After all, with our hyper-connected, always-on ethos, what’s worse than wasting time and being bored, especially when constant entertainment and productivity is a possibility? Turns out, boredom has its benefits — and we’re losing these advantages as our urge to pick up our phones at all opportunities becomes our automatic response to almost any situation.
Considering how common it is to everyday human experience, psychologists rarely study boredom. “Given the high frequency of boredom in various situations encountered in daily life and the variety of detrimental experiences to which boredom is related, it is rather surprising that to date there has been little research conducted on this specific emotion,” German researchers of a pioneering study on boredom told the Los Angeles Times.
Yet studying boredom isn’t boring at all — especially considering the ways boredom can be downright dangerous. If teens are bored, for example, they’re more likely to engage in reckless dangerous behaviors like smoking, drinking and drugs, according to USA Today.
Boredom is also related to stress and other conditions that can lead to serious health hazards, according to the Los Angeles Times. Boredom can cause traffic accidents on a highway drive or an airplane runway; it’s also responsible for a significant amount of work accidents, as well. When we’re bored, we lack attention and focus, our minds wander and very often our judgment and mental sharpness suffer as a result.
Many assume boredom is a modern condition, the result of having more leisure time as a result of the Industrial Revolution. But the ancient Greeks philosophized about boredom, and ancient graffiti in Pompeii even referred to being bored, according to Peter Toohey, a professor of Greek and Roman studies and author of the book “Boredom: A Lively History.” Even when we know we have something to do — crops to rotate, cities to conquer, fields to harvest — people have always been bored.
Part of the problem in studying boredom is defining what it is. According to researchers at the University of Konstanz in Germany, we can suffer through five types of boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, apathetic and reactant. These vary according to the degree of intensity and the level of action we take to relieve it.
Indifferent boredom is a relaxed, slightly positive state where we’re not engaged with the world around us and perhaps become more inclined to daydream. During calibrating boredom, our thoughts wander and look for alternative ways to occupy us. Searching boredom is characterized by restlessness, and we actively look for ways to relieve it, while reactant boredom actually sees us leave the scene and avoid the circumstances we blame for our boredom.
The worst kind of boredom, according to these researchers, was apathetic boredom, where we’re so dulled by our circumstances that we lack the energy to change or search or something different.
Most boredom, according to Psychology Today, is actually a misalignment of circumstances with our energy. When we’re restless mentally, we actually do have energy and attention — we just don’t have a satisfying place to put it. When we’re bored at work or in class, we actually do want to engage with something, but our current surroundings don’t fulfill that desire for engagement. The restlessness we feel is actually a search for something we’re not getting in that moment: meaning, purpose, engagement.
My nephew Jamie is a perfect example of this definition of boredom. As he gets more bored, he becomes more physically restless — he squirms in his seat, gets up, sits down and then stands on the sofa. I know it’s just a matter of time before he finds some real trouble to get into — he is a mischievous kid, after all, who decided it was a good idea to draw on his bed sheets during one particular spate of boredom.
When we — or the child we babysit — have a reservoir of pent-up mental energy and nowhere to put it, a gadget seems just about perfect: it’s portable, tailored often to our preferences and interests, and highly convenient. But whipping out that phone in a boring situation is often detrimental if we rely on it too much to ease the pain of boredom.
Boredom can feel physically uncomfortable, but constant stimulation enabled by mobile gadgets taxes our brains in different ways. Engaging with technology constantly requires that we constantly make decisions. Do we check that e-mail? Should we click on that link? Do I like this picture? Do I send out my minions on Clash of Clans? These seemingly small, easy decisions add up, taxing the brain and eating up its neural resources, according to Mother Jones, creating what some experts call “decision fatigue.”
“Neurons are living cells with a metabolism,” Daniel Levitin, author of the book The Organized Mind, told Mother Jones. “They need glucose in order to function. Glucose is the fuel of the brain just like gasoline is the fuel of your car.”
The issue comes when we burn the brain’s glucose for non-essential tasks, leaving nothing for the more important tasks that require focus, attention and creative engagement.
By feeding our boredom with smartphones, we’re also perpetuating the cycle of boredom and rewiring our brain. Constant gadget use actually can train our brains to become bored more easily, according to Inc. Smartphones slice and dice our focus, and as a result, we need constant stimulation to keep our minds engaged. But this creates a self-defeating cycle in which we constantly seek out increasingly intense stimulation.
In fact, this cycle may be changing the definition and experience of boredom. Research believes boredom is actually the result of this inability to focus and not inadequate environments, according to the Utne Reader. We dose our brains with so much intense stimulation via technology that we’re unable to devote attention to subtler stimulation. As a result, we can’t focus and become more easily bored.
Banishing boredom with bits of smartphone-fed media, entertainment and information, has other costs beyond decision fatigue and inadequate focus. Boredom can actually play a role in our self-knowledge and creativity, especially if we give it some room to breathe instead of relieving it with instant stimulation. By killing off boredom with smartphones, we’re depriving ourselves of these subtle benefits.
Boredom is often a sign to probe and question further. Being constantly bored, for example, is a sign that you’ve lost touch with your internal emotional states. According to the Guardian, if we’re overly prone to boredom, we might lack emotional awareness. Instead, we blame our discomfort or restlessness on the world or environment or people around us.
Smartphones use can also masks a deeper lack of purpose, depression or other problems. We say we’re bored in class, for example, but we don’t immediately realize we’re studying the wrong subject. Or we say we’re bored with our spouse, and are blind to the ways we’ve helped create the atmosphere of coldness and mistrust.
Instead of addressing those deeper issues, however, we slake our internal restlessness with quick fixes of information, stimulation and entertainment. We may play a quick game on our phone during a lecture, or message an ex on Facebook in a quick moment. It’s a Band-Aid solution, a temporary palliative that prevents us from really grappling with the larger issue at the root of your seeming boredom.
Beyond great psychological insight and self-knowledge, boredom can also boost and foster creativity. In fact, we tend to experience a surge in creativity after doing boring, routine, mind-numbing tasks, according to the British Psychological Society. In some way, boredom is the equivalent of mental fallow fields, allowing the brain to rest and regenerate until the next idea or impulse takes root.
“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity,” Sandi Mann, doctor and professor at University of Central Lancashire and one of the study’s authors, said.
“Creative pauses” are in fact necessary to the overall cycle of inspiration, according to productivity and creativity expert Edward de Bono in his book “Serious Creativity.” Creative pauses are periods where we do absolutely nothing. During these breaks, our minds drift and shift, giving them space to make new connections and search out new ways of seeing.
The problem with the smartphone- and media-saturated age, however, is that we rarely have an opportunity to be unstimulated. Even if we don’t have a smartphone, chances are we’re near flashing displays or TVs, or music is being piped over a sound system, all of which are designed to grab our attention. If we need to take a creative pause now, we have to deliberately seek solitude and quiet.
Boredom even plays a healthy role in child development, especially if parents want kids to grow up as creative, engaged, self-directed adults. Boredom in some doses helps children develop powers of observation and imagination. It also helps them assimilate experiences and stimulation into their developing brains. They also have time to learn important skills of self-reflection, and learn to develop their own unique coping strategies, which often involve discovering and developing their talents and hobbies.
According to the BBC, researchers at University of East Anglia surveyed a significant amount of creative thinkers, artists, engineers and others, and discovered that boredom was a common theme among them all, despite differences in disciplines and approach. As children, these creatives — left to their own devices – developed interests in writing, art and science, among other areas, as a way to deal with boredom.
It’s increasingly rare, though, that we allow children to be bored. Instead, parents often ply them with the tablets and apps they clamor for, which may rob them of the ability to develop their creative and imaginative powers.
“When children have nothing to do now, they immediately switch on the TV, the computer, the phone or some kind of screen. The time they spend on these things has increased,” Teresa Belton, doctor and professor of education at University of East Anglia, told the BBC. “But children need to have stand-and-stare time, time imagining and pursuing their own thinking processes or assimilating their experiences through play or just observing the world around them.”
In fact, we might even argue that it’s not just children but adults that need downtime to let the mind wander. We may have to conquer feelings of guilt that we should be doing something with that empty time, or learn to sit with the ache of boredom. Sometimes, however, we simply have to sit through boredom, as during a class or during a slow day at work.
But if we can, experts advise indulging in meditation — both as a way to learn about ourselves and as a way to calm the restless mental energy that gives rise to boredom in the first place. Once we’ve stilled the mind, we can decipher the deeper messages that the discomfort of boredom offers us.
Over time, notice patterns of boredom, like where we feel bored the most or what we daydream about in more relaxed modes of boredom. They offer clues on where we feel least engaged in life, and we can take action to change our circumstances.
Of course, boredom isn’t good for everyone, or all the time. Constant boredom can exacerbate certain conditions. People who suffer from serious mental illness like major depression and anxiety disorders, for example, find boredom especially excruciating. Those who have suffered trauma also report being bored more often, but boredom often is a sign that they’re numb to their emotions and should likely get therapy or help. Drug addicts or others struggling with chemical dependency issues also tend to relapse when faced with protracted periods of boredom, and thrill-seeking adrenaline addicts also tend to engage in even more dangerous activities when bored.
But little Jamie, as far as I know, isn’t depressed or a drug addict – he’s just a restless kindergartner who needed something to do. After a bit of cajoling, I convince him to take advantage of the beautiful Indian summer day to go outside and play.
“Outside?” he scoffs. But still, he pulls on his shoes and heads out.
I expect him to run back inside — to look for something else to do once he’s taxed his attention span. Instead, the change in environment is good for him. When I peek out the window, he has fashioned a makeshift sword out of a fallen tree branch and begins to battle invisible enemies — in the form of falling autumn leaves — in an apparently epic fight of good and evil.
His story is a mishmash of Dungeon Defenders, his favorite cartoons, fairy tales and his own unique take on the world. It’s entertaining, funny and most importantly, it comes when he’s left to his own devices and has to fill time with his own imagination and mental resources.
Jamie is so engaged that I let him play longer than usual before supper. It’s clear he’s more than able to entertain himself without an iPad — he just needs the mental space that boredom gives to do it. ♦