‘This is boring!’ The standard battle cry of the restless teenager. My classroom response is ‘No, you’re just bored. The difference is subtle, but important. Should I explain it?’
Usually they choose no. Let me explain anyway, because I think it’s important. In many ways boredom is like hunger, a signal that the body, or mind, craves something more. In an environment not dripping with excess calories and cognitive stimulants, the signal is a healthy one. Time to turn your attention to the getting a little more of what you need. But as the environment changes, so too does the healthy response.
‘I’m hungry,’ says the child. ‘Dinner will be soon,’ replies the parent. It’s a sensible, instinctive reply. Hang on to that hunger a little while longer, and the meal will taste all the better. What’s more, you’ll have an appetite for some of the things you need, like nutrition, rather than filling up on what you’d prefer right now, which is junk. Occasional hunger, in other words, is healthy.
And it’s the same, I would argue, with boredom. The difference is that educators and parents are perhaps not as quick to recognise this. The bored, restless child gains ready access to our guilt response. Poor dear, we’ve failed to provide them with sufficient stimulation. But boredom, in moderation, provides many benefits. Here are four of them:
Boredom is the window through we escape into the world of the imagination. The child who is lucky enough to learn the art of daydreaming, has a wonderful head start when it comes to creativity. It is only when we are able to turn away from the demands of instant stimulation that the untethered mind can be given its full range. The child in the back seat of the car, facing down the long journey to the beach, has the opportunity to create worlds inside their head. I still love doing that. A big tick then, for boredom.
Opportunity number two comes when we consider another cause of boredom, which is not so much a lack of stimulation as a lack of engagement. Often, in order to engage, some groundwork is necessary. It’s much harder to enjoy watching a sport if we haven’t fully grasped the rules. Many great films and novels take a while to get going. First, before we are swept away by the plot, we must get to know and understand the characters, that the later twists and turns will have sufficient emotional heft. If we learn to always throw the book to the floor, or flick through the channels looking for a car chase or explosion, we deprive ourselves of a much richer level of engagement. If we see boredom as a thing to work through, in order to reach rewards, rather than a thing to avoid at any cost, then the rewards, ultimately, are greater.
There is a social element here, too. One of the great causes of boredom is a heavy level of self involvement. If there are eight people in the room having a discussion, then you probably are going to have to spend more time listening that speaking. And if the only voice you find interesting is your own, then you’re going to be very bored. One solution is to treat boredom as the enemy and seek only social gatherings where the opportunity for monologues is high. The other, is to develop the social grace to feign interest in those around you. In time, as you train to listen attentively, the interest will become real, and you will have escaped the lonely fate of the social cretin. Again, the instinct to avoid boredom is an unhelpful one.
And finally, boredom is training for life. A lot of the things we are asked to do will be mind numbing and repetitive. Mowing the lawn, slogging up a mountainside, rocking a grumpy baby to sleep in the small hours, working the entry level job because you hope it will lead to better things. So, you know, get used to it. Stop your whingeing, suck it up, the world doesn’t owe you a distraction. Sure, you can choose instead to be an unemployed, loveless wreck who never gets to see the views, but I don’t recommend it.
None of this is to argue that we should strive to be bored all the time, any more than we should strive to experience hunger to the point of starvation. But more and more the modern world is designed to provide constant, low level, semi engaged distraction. I read recently that Hollywood producers now want to see the ‘inciting incident’ (yes, a stupid phrase, are you surprised?), the big narrative kick off point, in the first few pages, whereas not so long ago page thirty was okay. Modern audiences, it seems, can’t wait that long.
The domestic environment is increasingly designed to deaden our engagement with the world through a kind of saturation. The kids are a little restless? No trouble. Turn on the tv, fire up the latest bells and whistles ipad app, give them that toy with flashing lights that seems to mesmerise them so, and you know, prepare them for the modern age, get them on the internet with its boredom-slaying combo of pop ups, multiple windows, notifications, links and half arsed summaries. None of these things are bad, per se, any more than chocolate bars or coca cola are bad (and what a hypocrite I would be to suggest otherwise). But I do think there is something to be said for, at least occasionally, giving our children the gift of boredom.