Blogger and journalist Eric Barker decided to tell us about the four “horsemen of the boredom apocalypse” and how to deal with them.
I want to start telling you about boredom with one story.
Repairing a toilet is not a very exciting thing to do. But Chris was ready for it… probably because he was in space. It’s not hard to assume that normal household chores are perceived very differently when you’re on a space station. So Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to go to space, didn’t get bored. But not everyone is so lucky…
In 1982 Valentin Lebedev was on Salyut-7, bored to tears. He was sent tasks from Earth, and it all felt like hard work. Only a week after the mission began, he said, “the boring routine had set in”.
What is the difference between these people? Both were in extraordinary circumstances, doing the most routine work, but they had very different reactions and…
Let’s pause for a second.
Our boredom is a mystery, is an unsolved enigma. We know we don’t like it, but we don’t really understand much about it. Coping with boredom is not rocket science – it’s much more complicated than that.
On the highway, you fly past the “Interesting” exit, hit tedious County, and before you know it, you’re so far into the yet another boring town that even Google Maps can’t save you.
Boredom is a strange thing. An awkward mixture of bad moods and a terrific need to do something. A nervous itch in the bones and a sound in the shower like a flat tire. Researchers have found that this is the fourth most common negative feeling after exhaustion, frustration and indifference.
It’s no fun to be bored. Our lives seem to go to waste. Today the situation has worsened so much that we are even afraid of being bored. And we’re not crazy. The negative effects of boredom are worse than you think, and I have proof.
As you have already guessed, the more bored you are during the day, the more calories you consume. Studies also show that boredom makes you more likely to make risky decisions (like drinking and smoking). Boredom is also associated with more socially destructive habits, such as vandalism, delinquency and outright criminal behavior (Yes, “killing time” can lead to “doing time”).
Researchers have even found a link between boredom and heart disease. So the old cliché about “mortal boredom” may not be far from the truth.
Having a boring life is indeed a very serious problem. But there is one nuance: boredom can be useful. Yes, yes, in fact. After immersing myself in research, I discovered that boredom is generally fascinating.
We often blame the world for being bored, but as we’ll see next, it has more to do with our own choices and reactions to life. The upside here is that we can do something about this problem-and learn a lot about the human condition in the process.
So, we have some existential problems to solve. Let’s learn the secrets of boredom. We’re going to get some help from experts in the field:
- James Danckert, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo;
- and John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University.
Their book is called Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom. Let’s take a closer look at the main points made in it.
Why are we getting bored?
To begin with, we need to determine: What is underneath the term boredom? Danckert and Eastwood say the most appropriate definition is “an unpleasant feeling of wanting but not being able to engage in satisfying activities”. But why does the brain arrange this for us?
Boredom is as much a signal as pain or hunger. It’s the brain’s way of telling us that there’s some problem that needs to be solved. Boredom is valuable because it tries to steer you toward a better life. To spend your time more fully. To realize your potential. Just like pain and hunger, boredom serves as a motivator.
People who have a strong desire for self-determination and competence are less bored. On the other hand, those who lack self-control, seek sensations more, or have poor concentration skills are more prone to boredom. But if you fall into the second category, that doesn’t mean you’re doomed. Boredom is a signal, so it matters what we do in response to it.
Boredom doesn’t go away by itself, like pain or hunger. It’s just a fire alarm, not a fire extinguisher. And in an attempt to solve this problem, we can make some pretty bad choices – like drinking painkillers instead of just taking our hand off the hot stove.
Not surprisingly, this bad choice is often the Internet. We think of phones as a cure for boredom.
A University of Toledo study found that boredom predicts not just smartphone use, but unhealthy use. It’s the kind of ride on a freaking merry-go-round – fun, but no satisfaction. (Yes, this blog post is also posted online, but that doesn’t count. It’s obvious).
And you have to be more careful in deciding how to deal with boredom. It’s trying to tell us something. It is asking us to look inside ourselves and not to be passive, waiting for the world to solve our problems.
Boredom is a call to action. A reminder to claim free will and become the author of the life you want to live.
So what causes boredom most often? Danckert and Eastwood found that these “four horsemen of the boredom apocalypse”:
- Lack of meaning;
- Mismatch between skills and problems.
And you and I will destroy them one by one…
Alas, the most human activities are monotonous. This is a fact. But it is these boring and monotonous tasks that gradually lead us to our goal. Do, they constantly demand our attention, but at the same time do not fully occupy our mental resources.
This is what Lebedev confronted when he said that “boring routine has gone”. But Hadfield had a different take on his interstellar duties. What was his magical secret?
Lebedev reacted more emotionally to the situation. He was filled with negative emotions, not activity. And Hadfield didn’t dwell on his feelings. He was immersed in his work. He got ready to act. The foundation of this was mindfulness. Stepping back from your emotions and immersing yourself in what you’re doing.
Here are some quotes from the book “Outside My Skull”:
Mindfulness, as a form of meditation, develops the ability to pay attention to thoughts and feelings without judgment, and it is associated with lower levels of boredom… Part of the reason mindfulness curbs boredom is to help one react less emotionally to a boring situation…
The point is to take your attention away from the thoughts and feelings associated with the activity and get closer to the activity itself. How do you do this? Through curiosity. Immerse yourself more deeply in the activity rather than getting lost in thought. We become passive and wait for the world to pique our interest. I’m sorry, but that’s your job. Because when you’re curious, it’s almost impossible to get bored.
Researchers have yet to study in detail the relationship between curiosity and boredom, but there are some indications that the two concepts are negatively correlated.
Does that sound too unrealistic or complicated? It’s not. You’ve done it before, but not on purpose. Sometimes the TV stops working, and it makes you want to throw a shoe at it. And sometimes you say: “Hmm”. Suddenly you’re Sherlock Holmes solving a riddle: “How interesting, Watson. The device behaves in an inexplicable way. Right! We must solve the puzzle!”.
Robots and machines are wonderful workers because they can’t get bored. That’s their strength. The power of human beings is to find new things in situations where they don’t seem to exist.
Maintaining curiosity isn’t easy, especially in the modern age when people have the attention span of a chimpanzee in a variety show. So let’s hit boredom from the other side. Rider number two is “meaning”. And it gives us a massive way to combat boredom and discouragement…
Lack of meaning
Lebedev missed his family. Understandably, he felt disconnected from what mattered to him. Researchers at King’s College London found that “boredom is unequivocally associated with feelings of meaninglessness”.
Want to know how likely you are to become bored in the future? All you have to do is ask yourself how meaningful your life feels right now.
People always need a mission. According to the famous psychologist Viktor Frankl, meaning is central to human life. When it is absent “the existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom”.
So when we’re bored, we try to do something meaningful, right?
No, we grab the phone and that rarely works. Why? We fool ourselves into believing that mere participation equates to meaningfulness. We need to apply our skills and achieve something we can be proud of, but the internet is just “empty calories”. Another lap of squirrels in a wheel brings no meaning. The Internet is a fig leaf for your life problems and death by thousands of notifications.
All of this has longer-term consequences. If we don’t strive for purpose, our meaning muscles atrophy. We become passive containers waiting to be filled rather than bold creators of meaning. We forget what we are passionate about and wait for the world to give us meaning.
As Frankl wrote:
“When person cannot find deep meaning, he is happy to be distracted”.
So what do you do if you find yourself in this situation? The solution is simple: think of a good reason why you do what you do.
Take as an example the situation described in this book. Repairing space toilets is not such a difficult task, but Hadfield knew that it made a certain amount of sense to himself and the other crew members. Toilets are important, especially where “poop has wings”.
And if you see the results of your efforts, you can take it to the next level. Marathons are often boring, but some people participate enthusiastically just because of a sense of accomplishment that will remain long after the pain has subsided. Some of the things we have to do are not inherently boring, but become so because of circumstances. Do you know what those circumstances are?
Well, you’ll have to keep reading to find out. Yes, you will have to. I’m not asking you to keep reading, I’m ordering you. You have no choice.
Just kidding, of course. But here’s the answer right here. Non-boring things can become boring when we’re forced to do them…
Lebedev looked at all the super cool, cutting-edge technology around him, and what was his reaction?
“We live in a technological age. However, instead of being masters of the equipment, we have become slaves to it.” (It’s pretty hard to shift your responsibilities to a colleague when you’re on different planets).
New technology forces us to work more productively and intensively than before. Because of this, we often get stressed out. When we feel like we have no control over our lives, it rarely leads to good things (no one wants to be a non-playing character in the game of life). But just because we have to do something doesn’t mean we can’t achieve some autonomy within the task.
Yes, you have to write a boring report. But you don’t have detailed instructions. So think about doing it your way. Take an example from actors:
Actors aren’t just robots who read lines of a script. They do it consciously, creatively, with soul. There are a million ways to say a line. Good actors live the performance in their own way. That’s why performing in front of an audience is always more enjoyable than solo performing.
So here’s the thing: In order not to get bored, whatever the task before you, find a way to make it unique!
But what if you are bored at home? There, too, is the compulsion inherent in boredom-the urgent need to do something stimulating. But there is a simple solution to this affliction: try to relax.
Here’s what the author of the book says on the subject:
If you have people in your family who are prone to boredom, just advise them to relax. In the same moment, they are already starting to get less bored.
Yes, relaxation is not the most productive thing. However, our bodies are designed so that we can’t sit idle forever. After the boredom passes, your family member will get up and start doing something.
Mismatch between skills and problems
Humans are so arranged that when we need to do something and it’s not complicated enough, we get bored. And when it’s too difficult, we feel overwhelmed and we get bored again. We need some kind of balance. So that success seems possible, but not guaranteed. That’s when we feel “flow”. That’s optimal interaction and that’s great.
Be more diligent in what you do. Yes, it seems strange, but believe it or not, that’s exactly what Chris Hadfield did to prevent boredom. When he was working on everyday tasks, he measured how long he could hold his breath. Is he crazy? Maybe. But it made boring work harder.
Just try to do what you do, faster, better, more efficiently, in a certain amount of time. And you’ll notice how a boring and seemingly meaningless task turns into an exciting game.
It’s not about making yourself even more miserable, it’s about turning the process of getting “your Tetris closet in order”. Yes, our chaos of problems and this game are not very different from each other. But instead of asking the world to change, you change your perspective.
Okay, I’m running out of boring jokes. It’s time to take stock…
Here’s how to never be bored again:
- Boredom is a signal, it’s a motivator. It tells you to take the bull by the horns and do something meaningful and exciting;
- Be curious. Stop digging around in your head and dive deeper into what you’re doing;
- Find meaning in the routine. Ask yourself: why you do what you do? An activity becomes less boring if we do it to help a friend, and then there’s no pesky “Why?” question;
- Do your chores by your way. You may have to follow a script, but you can still achieve a uniquely impressive result;
- Don’t stand still. Look for new activities, hobbies, and passions. You’ll never get bored with them.
A small meditation bonus
Above we already mentioned the Japanese and their way of combating boredom – the state of “Flow”. If this is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend reading this article: 10 Principles of Ikigai.
The Japanese are also very good at meditation. How does this help with boredom? Imagine a Japanese garden. Draw it in your head. Green bushes, a babbling brook, a bridge in front. Can you see it all?
No, you can’t. And it’s not the fault of your imagination, it’s done on purpose. Japanese gardens are designed according to the principle of miegakure, which translates to “hide and find”. The path is built so that there is not a single point on it from which you can see the entire garden. You have to walk farther and farther to see new things. You hear the sound of water, but you don’t see it until you turn the corner. You smell the flowers, but you don’t see them until you pass the trees.
It’s designed to evoke anticipation. To encourage you to wander and pay attention and be curious, because there’s always more. It’s cool, right?
Guess what? It’s the same in life. There’s always more to it if you’re curious and keep looking.
Next stop on our journey through Japan: sakura trees. This is one of the coolest things in Japan. But the offer is limited in time. They only bloom for a week and then all that beauty is gone. This is another Japanese concept that translates to “pathos of things”. It’s the soft melancholic feeling we get when we realize how impermanent things are. Nothing is eternal.
You may be bored at the moment, but time will pass. It is fleeting, like everything else. We think we want to rewind time forward, but that means we get to the end sooner (and not just the end of the boring moment, but also the end of life). That’s why “killing time” is dangerous in the long run.
The next time you get bored, remember these two ideas (even if you can’t pronounce them). When you think you’ve seen it all before, be curious. If you look, there is always something to be found in the garden of life.
And don’t let time slip away. It is as ephemeral as a cherry blossom. Don’t dream of speeding it up. Don’t rush to the end. Appreciate what is here and now.
Boredom is so hard to deal with because we think the problem is in the world around us, when the problem is in us. If you wait for the world to change, you might spend your whole life waiting.
Do not oversleep your life. Don’t waste your time.