Everyday Matters:Are we there yet? — An ode to boredom

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 19, 2020 - October 25, 2020.
Everyday Matters:Are we there yet? — An ode to boredom
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Do you get bored easily and daydream? Einstein was one for both and one day, while bored, he daydreamed: imagining that he was travelling on a ray of light towards the sun. That was how he formulated the Law of Relativity.

Newton did too, and an apple fell beside him. That, as they tell you, was how the Law of Gravity was discovered. So don’t go dissing boredom and daydreaming. They may lead you to discover something life-changing.

I am loath to write this next sentence, but here goes: Being bored is good (but being boring is bad). That’s the new norm and I am gradually seeing the strange light.

I previously defined boredom as a space I didn’t know how to fill. To me then, it was a bad word, a state to be avoided. I often perceived boredom as a vacant and dulling spell of time that I needed to escape from by any means necessary. That was yesterday. Today, I celebrate the state of boredom.

Like many people, I am always searching for the dopamine release I have become addicted to. My brain craves novelty and stimulation, and I am caught in a loop of compulsive neediness. I reach for my smartphone, scroll through photos and read random updates.

It seems as if all the entertainment diversions that the internet delivers feel like fulfilment. But really, the flickers of photos and headlines tend not to nourish my soul or spark my imagination. Instead, they actually steal something precious from me: boredom.

Wait a minute, boredom … precious? Yes, you read it right.

There are many vital things that have gone extinct in the last few centuries, but perhaps one of the most underappreciated is the scarcity of true boredom in our lives. Think about it: When was the last time you experienced a moment of emptiness and allowed your mind to luxuriate in it without twitching to grab your smartphone or a remote control?

If you are like me, it must have been quite some time ago. We are so addicted to distractions that we make excuses to dart away from the deep thinking we normally do to search for something — anything — on the internet. That, my friends, is actually quite damaging. In fact, MRI studies have shown similar brain patterns when we compare compulsive internet users with drug addicts.

Our brains are busier than ever, but not in a deep reflective way. Our absorption in our devices make us oblivious to the impulses of our spirit.

If you are waiting for brilliance to strike, the Academy of Management Discoveries journal suggests that we try getting bored first. That’s the takeaway from a study published recently that found that boredom can spark individual productivity and creativity.

In the study, people who had gone through a boredom-inducing task — methodically sorting beans in a bowl, one by one by colour — later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity. (The task: to come up with excuses for being late that would not make someone look bad.) The bored folks outperformed the artists both in terms of idea quantity and quality, as ranked by objective outsiders who assigned uniqueness scores to each one.

Boredom is a creator’s friend, though because our mind naturally resists many moments of stasis and seeks stimulation. Before our era of hyper-connectivity, boredom was an occasion of observation, a wonderful juncture of daydreaming, a time when one might conjure up a new story idea while milking a cow or building a fire. That was how Einstein and Newton discovered their life-changing theories.

Those findings are likely no surprise to Sandi Mann of the University of Central Lancashire. Mann is the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good and a proponent of embracing the emotion, negative connotations and all.

Here’s why being bored can be a good thing for our mind, imagination and productivity, and how to do it right.

At its core, boredom is “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied”, says Mann. “If we can’t find that, our mind will create it.” As demonstrated by the new study and plenty others before it, boredom can enable creativity and problem-solving by allowing the mind to wander and daydream. “There’s no other way of getting that stimulation, so you have to go into your head.”

To tap into true boredom, Mann suggests picking an activity that requires little or no concentration — like walking a familiar route, swimming laps or even just sitting with your eyes closed — and simply letting your mind wander, without music or stimulation to guide it. You will be surprised at what the mind can creatively concoct.

The Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky once said that boredom “is our window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open”.

I love this image of a wide-open window. It reminds me that boredom can be a fresh, expansive place, an invitation to new ideas, insights and observations that would have been inaccessible had I continued to focus on being neither bored nor boring.

I am not advocating seeking out boredom, or pulling back from doing, moving, thinking and engaging robustly and positively in life. My suggestion is to simply imagine throwing that infinite window open to the invitation that is just on the other side the next time boredom finds you.

On a final note, a recent research in Ireland has led professors there to believe that boredom can lead us to do altruistic things. In their studies, they found that when we are bored, we lack perceived meaning in our activities and circumstances. This, they say, triggers us to search elsewhere to re-establish our self-meaning.

The researchers found that boredom made people more likely to engage in pro-social behaviours such as donating to charity and signing up for a blood donation to help re-establish feelings of self-meaning.

So, the next time you find yourself in line at the grocery store, in a tedious meeting or killing time in a waiting room, resist the urge to scroll. You are bound to get bored — and your brain, mood and work performance just might improve.

Zakie Shariff is a director of Universiti Malaysia Pahang

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