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What Might College Protestors, Middle Schoolers, Addicts, Risk-Takers, Evil Actors, and Isaac Newton Have in Common?

Updated: May 3

"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone." Blaise Pascal, French inventor and physicist

“I’m a big believer in boredom. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything.” Steve Jobs, inventor, co-founder of Apple Inc.

Back in the old days, sailors encountered pirates, scurvy, mutinies, capsizing. What really made them half-crazy though was…the dreaded doldrums.

That’s how we got the word “doldrums”; it was from the maritime world – from those sailors stranded for days in calm winds and stagnant waters.  It happened often in a region near the equator.  And it was monotonous. They were trapped, time seemed to drag on endlessly.

I know how they feel I’ve been fishing with my husband. In the beginning I had to work hard to do something with my mind.  Look for whales and other wildlife, watch the tip of the rod, stand up, sit down, think about jigs and lures and try to decipher other fish talk. And, of course, there’s always the competition of finding more fish and bigger fish and rarer fish and finding them faster than others.  I’m making a little fun here, but do consider the lengths we will go to save ourselves…so that we don’t fall into that scary state of boredom.

Some people are more prone to boredom than others and experience boredom more intensely.  For example, people diagnosed with attention disorders and low dopamine levels and…especially men.  I’m not making this up about men.

A study conducted by the University of Virginia in 2014 placed both men and women in an unadorned room by themselves for 15 minutes.  Sixty-seven percent of the men chose to administer mild electric shocks to themselves rather than sit in solitude with their thoughts. About twenty-five percent of the women chose to shock themselves. This inclination towards self-stimulation highlights the discomfort that boredom can evoke, driving individuals to seek any form of stimulation, even if it's unpleasant.

I was thinking about this particularly lately.  One because of what I’m seeing in the news about college campuses right now. Sure, there are probably some idealogues among them - some who actually care.

But I taught middle school for a while.  I know what havoc boredom can wield if not used constructively. John and I are especially watching what’s happening at Columbia University since one of our son’s attended there.  Unable to restore order, Columbia has shifted to hybrid learning for the rest of the school year. Keep in mind that these families are paying 89k annually for tuition.

The news is covering the chants of “Death to America” and are, of course, concerned about antisemitism (and don't get me wrong, I appreciate the right to free speech and am concerned about the people in Gaza), but why is no one asking, “Don’t these students have any studying or work to do?!” (I know they may not all be students)

Supposedly American youth are spending 70% less time in person with friends today than twenty years ago. Students are working less – only 40% worked full time according to the National Center for Education Statistics. There are a bunch of young people with a lot of time on their hands. Especially at these expensive Ivy League schools.  (Not so with our community colleges where the students are likely to be older, have kids and jobs where the campuses are quiet).

What really brought on my concern about boredom, however, was a conversation I heard between a group of middle schoolers I was having dinner with. They were basically talking about how their lives at home sucked.  They complained about lack of interest from parents (because their parents spent all their time on their computers and phones), but mostly about how borrring home life was. School borrring too.  What interested them were some school dramas, outrageous YouTube content and playing video games.

How this all hooks up for me is around the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, dopamine. When we engage in stimulating activities, dopamine is released, reinforcing the behavior and creating a sense of pleasure.

In moments of boredom, the brain's dopamine levels drop, leaving us feeling unfulfilled and restless. This deficiency can lead to seeking out quick fixes like social media scrolling, binge-watching, sexual forays, or substance abuse to alleviate the discomfort. I've read of people doing shockingly "evil" actions like throwing a person off a balcony or stabbing a stranger. Why? Boredom!

Despite the negative effects of boredom on some people, boredom can also serve as a catalyst for creativity and self-discovery. When faced with a lack of external stimulation, the mind is forced to wander, exploring new ideas and perspectives. Many breakthroughs in science, art, and literature have emerged from moments of boredom, where individuals allowed their thoughts to roam freely.

Take, for instance, Isaac Newton who famously developed his theory of gravity while sitting idle under an apple tree. Or consider J.K. Rowling, who conceived the idea for Harry Potter during a long train ride fraught with boredom. These individuals didn't shy away from boredom; instead, they used it as a springboard for creativity and innovation.

Seems like a multitude of issues and a multitude of possibilities which all revolve around how we deal with boredom as individuals, educators, parents, and society.  We are doers and problem-solvers, built to produce and create and explore. That's to be embraced. Somehow.

When John and I have bundled up our gkids and taken them to our rustic family cabin free of electronic devices, we watch what they do. Will they get out and explore? Will they muster up spats and fights? Binge on chocolate and marshmallows. 

In the summer, we have grand camp. The gkids plan everything.  They decide on the meals, buy the groceries, decide who has cooking or cleaning duty at what times.  There’s some art, some reading and storytelling, some scavenger hunts, some hiking, some scavenger hunts, some kayaking, some swimming.  Some checkers. Some just “hanging out.”  They take joy in modest pleasures.

Those grand camps might be dopamine craving re-balancers.  What some have suggested is that we get dopamine crazed…wanting more and more dopamine highs.  We need campus riots and drama and drugs for stimulation. (Maybe even wars. A nephew of my husband's is a hockey player. I remember him shaking his head when he heard about skirmishes around the globe. His solution? Can't we all just play hockey?)

I have read a couple of books by journalists and even one psychiatrist about how boredom fueled their addictions and depression.  Some have made YouTube videos about their dealing with the doldrums and dopamine “detoxes" or dopamine fasts of thirty days. I guess it's been a big thing in Silicon Valley...seeing if one can suffer through high stimulation withdrawal.

I’m going to go in a different direction.  I’m going to think of myself as one of those sailors stuck in the doldrums and climb to the crow’s nest for a better view (metaphorically).  Consider what triggers boredom for me and what makes it go away. I’m going to think about my first experiences of being bored…especially those times I could barely stand it. And I’m going to ask myself some other questions like – What does boredom really feel like for me physically? What’s most challenging about it? What impulses do I have when I’m feeling bored? What (healthy thoughts, actions, attitudes) makes boredom feel better for me?

The truth is, I’m judgmental about people saying they are bored. And I do zealously admire those who know how to constructively deal with their boredom. But I’m going to take a different tack... work on being more compassionate, more curious, do more of that crawling up to the crow’s nest for a better view of the whole situation. And I’m going to give Blaise Pascal more gratitude for alerting us to the situation four hundred years ago.  Really, those University of Virginia researchers probably got their whole idea for putting people alone in a room and seeing what they would do from good ole Blaise. And thank you, Isaac Newton and Steve Jobs for helping us see that boredom can be put to good use.

And when looking for a healthy dopamine hit, consider this. According to Stanford Psychiatrist, Dr. Anna Lembke and author of Dopamine Nation, "intimacy is an incredibly valuable and potent source of dopamine." That's what Lembke learned after dealing with her own dopamine issues, she stopped being bored by her patients and instead began vulnerably, and radically honestly, connecting with them. Imagine what might happen if we put down our cell phones and authentically shared of ourselves with each other. Maybe even those college protestors and even those middle schoolers might relish it, experience a natural euphoria...actually accomplish something, and live the good life.

How might we journey together to the Good Life by understanding more about boredom?


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