I can still remember that warm, sunny day in June. The breeze was refreshing, the birds were softly chirping, and I was grounded. Yes, grounded. I had just finished the third grade, and all I wanted was the ability to run around outside, even though there was a lack of children to play with on my street. Instead, I was contained in my 12 x 12 bedroom, with the windows cracked open and the ceiling fan spinning slowly overhead. It was the first and only time I had been grounded in my life, and I had nothing to occupy my time except attempting to peel the impossibly firm orange I had been given as a snack. With nothing to fill my time, I could not stop thinking about what I had done to deserve such an agonizing punishment. My mother had made homemade brownies for dessert earlier that evening, and I, having an inconceivably large addiction to chocolate, had snuck into the kitchen to sneak a taste. I allowed myself one pinch of brownie, one from the corner where it would not be noticed. However, I continued to do this until almost a quarter of the pan was gone before I ran back outside. Within a few minutes, my mother had returned to the kitchen, and an angry scream startled me to the point of almost falling off of my swing. As a sat on my bed, thinking about my failed attempt at stealth, I realized I felt a sense of guilt. The guilt was not a result of getting caught, but a result of me realizing that what I had done was wrong. Thinking about all of the time my mother had put into making those brownies, I felt terrible and was upset that she was so disappointed in me. Needless to say, after three hours in solitary confinement, I did not attempt to steal brownies again.
Often, parents will utter the classic “Go to your room” when children do something wrong. However, the purpose is less about depriving children of the outside world and more about coaxing them to think about what they have done. When a child is placed in a room for a long period of time, that child often becomes bored. In an attempt to escape this boredom, the child usually begins to daydream, eventually thinking about what they had done to deserve their punishment. Soon, their thoughts, emotions, and reflections on life all become evident whether it is intentional or not. In fact, boredom is what forces people to get in touch with their inner selves.
“Gatsby? What Gatsby?”
Although boredom may serve well to get children to think about their poor actions, its ability to allow people to get in touch with their emotions or desires extends beyond childhood punishments. For instance, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby displays this phenomenon in the form of Daisy Buchanan. At the beginning of the novel, she is depicted as a shallow, elegant woman without a care in the world. However, within her first private conversation with Nick Carraway, she explains how unhappy and bored she is with her married life. Her day-to-day routine mainly included lounging on the white sofa and attempting to ignore her husband’s various affairs with other women. Nevertheless, it was her sense of boredom with her own life that gave Daisy nothing to do except acknowledge her inner thoughts, emotions, and desires. This daily boredom, and the thoughts that arose as a result, drove Daisy to realize that she wanted to leave her unfaithful husband and run away with the love of her life, Jay Gatsby. Without boredom causing these realizations, Daisy would have never realized that she wanted to be with Gatsby, and the classic novel would have lacked plot and purpose. Boredom forces the individual to acknowledge components of the inner self that might be ignored when one is occupied.
In the hustle and bustle of day-to-day life, we often find our minds racing in a dozen different directions. We have no time to think about whether or not we are truly happy with our lives when we are rushing to get to work or class on time, organizing time slots for various personal commitments, and trying to find time to eat semi-regular meals in-between. If people are finding difficulty to allot time to eat or sleep with such busy schedules, they certainly do not have time to regularly think about their inner thoughts. Maybe those moments of boredom, however rare they may be, serve as a purpose to allow individuals to ignore their external problems and focus on their true desires for a change. Benedict Carey’s article, “You’re Bored, but Your Brain Is Tuned In,” appeared in the New York Times in 2008 and touches on this very subject. Carey states that boredom is a temporary slice of time that allows people to sort their own thoughts. It allows people to focus less on the external environment and more on the internal. In fact, boredom is referred to as being “an increasingly sensitive spam filter” (Carey). Also, it is those times of boredom that force us to be more creative in order to occupy our time. Boredom, in this case, gives people an organizational period of time to collect their thoughts that otherwise would not exist.
The pictures above were a creation of October Jones, a frequent commuter on the city metro and avid animator. On his daily subway rides, Jones would often find himself plagued by boredom. However, after weeks of dealing with monotonous travel, he decided to draw sketches of animated characters on Post-it notes, holding them up to passengers’ heads so that it appeared that the characters were riding the train. His new creations were posted on Twitter along with various blog websites, amazing the public with how the cartoon heads seem to blend seamlessly with the bodies of the passengers riding the train. Though these pictures bring undeniable laughter to those who view them, it is important to note that Jones would never have thought to draw them unless he had been bored. Once again, boredom allowed Jones the time to get in touch with his creative side, inspiring him to turn a regular passenger into Batman riding the city metro.
“So how do you feel about that?”
In truth, boredom provokes thought. In the scholarly article, “A desire for desires: Boredom and its relation to alexithymia,” the authors state that boredom is, in fact, related to internal issues. Alexithymia, as stated in the article, is characterized by the inability to articulate one’s emotions and internal states of being (Eastwood). In order to participate in the study, 204 undergraduate college students were given questionnaires in which they had to identify their internal emotions or thoughts under certain described situations. Then, they were given ten forced-choice items for long periods of time and were observed while they handled the objects. Specifically, researchers noted if they remained bored with the objects, or were able to creatively find a way to make the objects seem more interesting. Factors such as how prone a person was to boredom, how the person coped with boredom, how well the person was able to articulate his or her emotions, and the person’s mood were all measured and observed. By the end of the study, researchers found that those who could not articulate their emotions and internal states were less able to cope with boredom and find amusement with the objects than those who adequately described their emotions. In other words, the more aware people were of their internal emotions and desires, the less prone they were to boredom. However, the study arrived at an enlightening conclusion.
Boredom is not a detriment, but a benefit. In fact, boredom is a necessity.
Looking at boredom from the study’s perspective, boredom came more easily to people who could not describe their emotions. Therefore, boredom could have arisen as a necessity, giving those individuals an organizational period of time in which they could ignore the external environment and articulate these thoughts (Eastwood). Those who were not as prone to boredom could already identify the components of their inner self, and boredom was no longer a necessity. Instead, boredom allowed them to access their creativity and find a way to see mundane objects as amusing. Boredom, in this case, allows some to organize their thoughts while prompting others to express them through creative means.
Bring Back Boredom
While I’m sure the notion of bringing back boredom might make most people cringe in horrified disgust, the idea really is not as bad as it sounds. Genevieve Bell, Intel lab director and named one of the 50 most creative people in Business, gave a TED talk on boredom in Sydney, Australia. Although the entire video is doubtlessly worth watching, I’d like to draw attention to the segment from 5:57 to 7:17. Here, Bell discusses how individuals in modern times are less bored because of the constant stimulus of everyday stress, along with the vast expanse of technology present in our society. However, she also discusses how many experts believe that boredom is a way to “reset your mind” as a way to recover from this intense bombardment of stimuli. One point that was particularly potent touched on how society typically sees boredom as a negative aspect of life, something people try to avoid or will not admit to experiencing. It seems that sometimes society associates boredom with a sense of stupidity. The actual case is quite the opposite. In fact, Bell states that studies show brain activity being just as engaging when a person is bored as it is when they are occupied. The difference is that we are accessing different parts of the brain when we are bored that we are not able to access when engrossed in activity. During the TED talk, Bell stated “It turns out from both the psychological and a physical perspective, being bored is actually a moment when your brain gets to reset itself, and where, to take [another expert’s] point, your consciousness gets to reset itself too.” Her speech brings to light the notion that maybe boredom can be positive, a way to allow us to decompress and access thoughts that might simply be glossed over in a hectic society.
A Doodle is Worth A Thousand Words
Whether we choose to accept it or not, boredom exists and is even relevant to daily life. Though some may dread the idea, seeing boredom as invasive or oppressive, it is important to realize that boredom is not nearly as bad as it appears. Even the casual notebook doodle in a college history class is worth a thousand words, a reflection of the thoughts and creativity of the mind when people are forced to examine themselves. Boredom provokes the thoughts that are not obvious, the ones that could be glossed over without careful examination. In a world based on speed and multitasking, boredom is a gift. It allows us to take the time to clear our heads, organize our thoughts, and focus on what we truly want in life. Perhaps, society should make more time to be bored. Only then will we have the time to realize our desires, wants, dreams, emotions, and hidden thoughts. In retrospect, maybe boredom does not mean that a person is unintelligent, unengaged, or unsatisfied.
Maybe, boredom is life’s way of sending us back to our rooms and getting us to think about what we’ve done.
Bell, Genevieve. The Value of Boredom. 2011. Video. TEDx, Sydney. 6 Apr 2014. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ps_YUElM2EQ>.
Carey , Benedict. “You’re Bored, but Your Brain is Tuned In.” New York Times. 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/05/health/research/05mind.html?_r=2&>.
Eastwood, John D., Carolina Cavaliere, Shelly A. Fahlman, and Adrienne E. Eastwood. “A Desire for Desires: Boredom and its Relation to Alexithymia.” Elsevier. 42. (2006): 1035-1045.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Scribner, 1925.
Jones, October. 2014. Graphic. Huffington Post. 7 Apr 2014. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/02/07/october-jones-train-drawings_n_4748062.html>.