Leo Tolstoy once said, “All our education should be directed to the accumulation of the cultural heritage of our ancestors, the best thinkers of the world.”
Considering that we’ve stopped making Einsteins, perhaps our ancestors – the best thinkers of the world – had some special sauce that we don’t. Perhaps they had resources we can’t access today (like Louisa May Alcott growing up around minds like Emerson and Thoreau) or or exclusive underground clubs that no longer exist (like the Republic of Letters).
But with Google, we can digest the lives of geniuses from start to finish in minutes. With AI, we can summarize someone’s life’s work in milliseconds. With YouTube, we can decide on a whim that we want to learn astrophysics or environmental economics or the nature of existence – and hear Stephen Hawking and Carl Sagan lecture about it (really).
What could our ancestors possibly have that we don’t?
They possessed the one thing that an age of information abundance cannot provide: our ancestors were creative thinkers because they were bored.
Boredom and meaning
In a collection of essays titled “On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life,” psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes:
Every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: A state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.
Boredom is that overwhelming gut feeling that something is missing; that there is more waiting on just the other side of a locked door. And in the throes of wishing for a desire, a choice is required of us: unlock the door, or continue wallowing in the deep, unsettling feeling of hope not pursued.
Today’s information-abundance culture cultivates a wild discomfort with boredom. We have smartphones, notifications, apps, and Netflix to entertain ourselves to death. We spend hours scrolling social media and damaging our mental health just to escape boredom.
“We are less bored than our ancestors were,” philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote, “but we are more afraid of boredom.”
Studies show that symptoms of bored minds (such as risk-taking and impulsiveness) are directly correlated to feelings of meaninglessness. That’s why we’re so terrified of boredom. In wishing for a desire, unsure of how to infuse a moment with purpose, boredom feels like an absence of meaning. But, it can become a practice of how to find it.
Boredom and mental health
In “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” leading psychologists James Danckert and John Eastwood surgically dissect the nature of boredom.
Their conclusion is that boredom is not a problem in itself (just another inevitable facet of the human condition) and the real problem lies in a lack of self-control and a compulsive desire to escape the shackles of meaninglessness in the easiest way possible.
I characterize boredom as a deficiency in self-regulation. It’s a difficulty of engaging with tasks in your environment. The more self-control you have, the less likely you are to be bored.
The inability to self-regulate manifests itself in our desire for perpetual entertainment and stimulation. We want what we want and we want it now. Such is the curse of instant gratification, defined as:
the temptation, and resulting tendency, to forego a future benefit in order to obtain a less rewarding but more immediate benefit.
Instant gratification feels like a solution to boredom but it has the same effect on our brains as drugs. When indulged, it leads to addiction. It deters us from reaching our goals. It negatively affects our ability to say no to things that don’t serve us in the long-run.
Essentially, the inability to self-regulate in the face of boredom leads to long-term damages to our mental health.
While adults know how to self-regulate (even if we choose not to), kids have no idea how to tell themselves no.
A bored little boy, for example, will wander into the pantry and reach for the PopTarts automatically, the promise of a sugary dopamine spike already making his mouth water. Instant stimulation. Boredom cured. He doesn’t consider that PopTarts will spike his blood sugar, hurt his stomach, or, over time, lead to more serious repercussions like diabetes or obesity. All he knows is that PopTarts are delicious and he wants one right now.
This is why boredom is the leading cause of binge-eating. A deficiency in self-regulation spurs us towards shallow stimulation to distract us from the suspended discomfort of the moment.
Boredom may not be directly bad for mental health, but the dissociation that often comes with boredom can be harmful to our wellbeing.
In fact, psychologist Timothy Wilson led a study that proved many people would rather experience physical pain than be alone with their thoughts. He concluded this was a byproduct of the disengaged mind.
There are lots of times in our daily lives, when we have a little bit of time out, or are stuck in traffic or trying to get to sleep. Having this [self-regulation] as a tool in our mental toolbox as a way to retreat or reduce stress would be a useful thing to do.
Rather than wallowing in our own meaninglessness, Wilson explains boredom is a tool to refuse instant gratification and instead, shift the disengaged mind into engagement.
Boredom and creativity
In 1816, amidst a torrentially rainy weekend in Geneva, Switzerland, three writers were forced to stay indoors: Mary Shelley, Percy Bysse Shelley, and Lord Byron.
Bored in the house, they struck up a challenge. Who could write the best ghost story?
That weekend, 20-year-old Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein.
Boredom does not directly enhance creativity like lifting weights directly builds muscle. It’s more like driving your car to the gym, and once you’re in the parking lot, you have a choice: go work out, or go to Wendy’s.
The state of boredom simply allows the space and freedom for other things to happen: creative things, beautiful things, amazing things that would not exist unless they were prompted by a gaping absence of meaning.
If it had not rained that weekend in Geneva, Mary Shelley would have been busy socializing, hiking, going out to dinner – she would not have had time to be bored enough to discover her genius.
The same is true for many geniuses. Exceptional people like Mozart, the Bronte sisters, and Blaise Pascal attribute the best parts of their childhood to the unstructured parts. Boredom is a spark plug for play; and play begets genius.
But when this unstructured freedom does not exist; when kids are constantly distracted, stimulated, entertained; they cannot develop the self-regulating mindset necessary to shift disengagement into engagement and infuse their lives with meaningful play.
Kids swap writing for YouTube; puzzles for binge-watching; capture-the-flag for video games. They become creatures of consumption and entertainment, rather than creation and exploration.
In “Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind,” Patricia Meyer Spark writes that boredom is a “trivial emotion that can trivialize the world.”
The inability to turn boredom into something meaningful can lead to a life of trivial entertainment, perpetual dissatisfaction, and a lackluster inability to infuse your life with purpose, fostering what is known as ennui: a feeling of intense weariness and dissatisfaction with life itself, rooted deep in our souls.
Boredom’s cry for meaning is a call-to-action for humans – kids especially – to create meaning themselves. It is a primer for genius. It is an invitation to infuse our days with creativity and play however they desire.
But to do so, kids must first learn how to stare into the abyss of boredom.
Staring into the abyss of boredom
Think of that one family in the restaurant: the one with the perfectly behaved little girl.
While families around them are struggling to console wailing children, mop up spilled drinks, and desperately explain that “I’m sorry honey, but your iPad is dead, you’re going to have to just sit here and do nothing for a little while,” there’s that little girl sitting quietly in the booth with her parents, causing no trouble and wreaking no havoc.
How do they do it? the other parents wonder. How does she just sit there?
Clearly, these parents exercised self-regulation with their kid by refusing to hand her the keys to instant gratification whenever she wanted it. They didn’t entertain her to death. They simply let her be bored. And boredom is a practice and a skill. It is a muscle that must be used, or it will atrophy.
Behind closed doors (and surely in public, too), this was probably really ugly. Plenty of wailing, spilled drinks, and temper tantrums to last a lifetime. But these parents were willing to handle the immediate discomfort of refusing their daughter an iPad or a PopTart because they were playing the long game. They were thinking weeks, months, years down the road, to when their kid would need a strong sense of self-regulation and an ability to understand that they are not entitled to everything they want exactly when they want it.
And just like a having hard conversation with a spouse, training a puppy, or going to therapy, there will be moments of discomfort. You will be tempted to scrap the future payoff and give your kid whatever they want just so you can have some peace. But, ironically enough, teaching kids to refuse instant gratification means we must refuse it as well.
We have to stare into the abyss just as much as kids do. The difference is that we refuse to blink. We stand our ground. And if we’re willing to get uncomfortable, the payoff will be much greater than the instant gratification.
Becoming “the best thinkers of the world” through boredom
Somewhere along the way, we’ve lost touch with the part of ourselves that surfaces during boredom: the playful, childlike part of us that writes novels for fun or teaches ourselves math or digs into the dirt with our bare hands to discover all the different bugs that come wriggling out.
In many ways, boredom connects us to the world. It nudges us to engage; to pay attention; to tap into our inner genius. At the same time, it is a habit, a skill, a coping mechanism to becoming the best version of ourselves.
Boredom is a funnel. Kids must first understand that they’re in a moment that needs meaning; next, they must develop the self-regulation to choose engagement over disengagement; then, their engagement in the moment leads to creativity, play, and genius.
But we cannot complete this process for kids. We cannot solve the puzzle of boredom by providing infinite PopTarts and iPads and play dates. Attempting to save them from boredom is only harming them.
Instead, kids must learn how to navigate this process themselves.
Those small pockets of the day when you brush shoulders with boredom – encourage your kids to explore that. To exist fully and unapologetically in that space.
It will give birth to amazing things; but it will also raise them to be tolerant adults.
If we can stop micromanaging our kids’ time (through schedules, play dates, afterschool activities) and stop constantly giving into their instant gratification needs (through PopTarts, iPads, TV) kids will learn to self-regulate.
They will learn to identify their own intrinsic interests; their passions; their genius. They will learn about the world and themselves through play. They will learn how to create meaning in their own life in the face of meaninglessness.
An age of information abundance is a beautiful thing. But let’s not forget what it feels like to be human. Let’s let kids feel this feeling. Let’s let kids be self-directed thinkers, learners, players. Let’s let kids be bored.