"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," Blaise Pascal, French philosopher
I was thinking about this serious emotional problem today. The world situation around violence, polarization, and aggression added to my consternation.
Can you guess what emotional state some psychologists think is largely contributing to the anger, depression, anxiety, impulsivity, risk-taking, incivility, outrageous stories, and over-the-top drama that we are seeing personally and collectively these days?
Let me give you a hint. Some believe this emotion affects us even worse than loneliness and alienation. Adults try to push it away or may not even recognize it. Teachers hear their students complain about this state of mind constantly. Parents and grandparents hear similar laments. You guessed it yet? Hear those little voices?
“I’m so bored.”
I have never thought of myself as a person who gets bored easily until I started thinking back over my life today. When my husband and I moved to the Valley, it meant a huge change for me.
Within a few years, we had small children. Every day John left for work. I had no job outside the home. I did make some friends which was very rewarding. I did have housework to do and children to attend to, but I was not doing great and really did not know it.
Now I know what was going on with me back then. I know it by what I was doing. I moved the furniture. Chairs from the dining room into the living room. Tables from here to there. Even had a buffet balanced on my chest one time.
I couldn’t wait until everyone went to sleep. I snuck out of the bed and moved stuff around. I made up reasons for the kids and John to go out so I could move furniture.
I didn’t realize that I was going nuts. I was keeping myself in check by trying to do something creative, something novel to occupy my mind. Yes, it distressed my family. Yes, I tried to hide it. But moving furniture around...that was my somewhat unusual addiction, my dopamine hit.
Today, I still get a kick out of seeing furniture arranged different ways, but I haven’t had a good furniture moving spree for years. What was the cure?
I went back to school. Eventually became a teacher.
We don’t fully understand what is going on with boredom. These days, most researchers seem to think of it as an emotion on an equal par with sadness, fear, guilt, shame, grief, and so on.
And, unlike children, as I mentioned, adults try to hide being bored. It's shameful. We may even be largely unconscious of what’s going on inside us.
I can tell if I’m bored (even when I don't go so far as to move furniture). I eat more. I drink more. I eat a lot of chocolate. (My husband channel surfs or goes to sleep).
Boredom affects some people so badly that they would rather be shocked than left alone in a room for fifteen minutes with nothing to do. When researchers tested this out, one man shocked himself 75 times!
People like psychiatrist, Anna Lemke, who is an addiction specialist at Stanford, also knows personally about dopamine cravings. Her drug of choice was romantic novels.
At home, Lemke was not actually listening to her family. At work, she wasn’t listening to her patients either. She was just craving a hit… dying to get home to read her romantic novels.
Boredom in small spurts can be helpful. It can give us time to integrate our experiences and learning.
Boredom, experienced over long periods of time, is trouble. Life has no meaning. We have no energy. Nothing feels interesting. Usually, we blame our boredom on others, on our environment.
Boredom is still being studied, but it can come when what we are required to do is too hard or too easy. Or we’re bored because what we are tasked to do feels irrelevant to our larger life aims.
This is probably the case for some students. But it is also true for adults. We know some things we can do for those situations.
We can try to adjust the level of difficulty. We can connect certain subjects to our larger interests and goals.
People who deal with problems with attention and need to move their bodies a lot are more subject to boredom too. We can help, then, by taking breaks - letting people move their bodies. We can also pause if we are talking to others and ask a question which can help them bring their attention back.
The bigger problem is when we just don’t find life meaningful. Nothing we do matters. It’s all boring. That’s when we need to watch out for being attracted to drugs, gambling, risk-taking sorts of activities.
What to do instead? First of all, we can become more aware of what’s going on. Work with ourselves to find some way to bring meaning to our lives. Like go back to school. Find a new hobby.
The main thing I am learning is to be more compassionate with boredom. To not be afraid of boredom. To allow myself a little discomfort without grabbing my phone. Be understanding and kind to myself instead of shaming myself.
Especially I have learned how to make others more interesting. I look for their strengths. Find out their interests. Tap into my curiosity. That is what Dr. Anna Lemke learned to do with her patients and her family.
It used to amaze me that people could find bird-watching interesting. It seems that we become more engaged when we have certain attributes to look or listen for.
We can become more observant about ourselves. When are we engaged? Interested?
The idea is to work with ourselves to bring meaning, interest, engagement to our lives so that we aren’t listless, tired, apathetic, and looking for action in all the wrong places.
One of my favorite stories is about a guy who was a toll taker years ago in New Jersey. He made the job interesting by trying to remember the names of people. Can you image that?
Then there’s the story of Johnny the bagger. He found bagging groceries rather uninteresting, boring, until he decided to craft a thought for the day to put in people’s bags.
In the early days when we were hunter-gatherers no one suffered from ennui. We were too busy looking for food and trying to stay alive. Same is true for some third world countries today.
My son's Chinese mother-in-law, waipo, is full of energy. She has visited the United States for lengthy periods of time. She doesn't speak English. She does not read or write. What does she do and how is she so full of energy?
Here is what I have observed. Waipo does whatever she can to be helpful. She's washing dishes. She's cleaning and scrubbing. She's meeting kids at the door with a glass of water and a smile.
Somehow waipo gets it - that life is interesting, worthwhile, meaningful when she figures out a way to be useful. She has even helped John and me take down a trampoline without any words being spoken. She just watches. Jumps in where she can.
The waipo approach is one I have been using lately when I notice myself being bored. I ask myself this question. "What can I do right now to help others? I can't do everything, but there is always something I can do, what is it?"
Researchers tell us that doing something for others is not only a good path to meaning, a way out of boredom, depression, and risky behavior, but also a nice path to a contented life.
How might we journey to The Good Life by understanding more about boredom and how to deal with it?
(Hello subscribers, I have received some interesting stories from you lately as well as some great introductions, please feel free to do that! I will be sharing some of your stories. Thank you for helping me write a book about humans journeying together toward the good life, toward being better humans, by following the way of compassion, love, June)