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What is boredom really?

29 January 2016, 12:34Lili Radloff

I am a person who gets bored very easily. This means that I usually do more than one thing at once and that I get distracted really easily. If I watch television I have to make dinner at the same time. I read while I vacuum. I answer emails when I’m in the gym. And so on.

I used to tell myself this was because I’m so very bright and that my clever brain needed constant stimulation.

Because these are the type of lies I comfort myself with.

Unfortunately most psychologists, researchers and mindfulness gurus (ugh) would disagree with me. Because you see, while certain things are undeniably boring (repetitive tasks, things we’re just not interested in) a lot of boredom is actually rooted in laziness, fear and loneliness.  

In a very not boring podcast brought to us by the effortlessly interesting folk from Freakonomics, these topics are explored in more detail. If you don’t have 40 minutes to listen to the episode (interestingly people are less bored when listening than they are when watching), you can read the transcript.

Research seems to suggest that children have an innate sense of weighing things up according to the cost and the benefit of what they’re learning. So if they’re not learning stuff they care about, they don’t bother to focus, which in turn will make them feel bored.

Unfortunately, we can’t just learn things we’re interested in. And the more things we’re interested in, the more interesting we are. Which is why they’ve found that people with less education tend to get bored more easily.

Damn it, I knew I should have gotten that master’s degree…

But I kid, of course. Because the secondary part of boredom is what I would like to classify as plain old laziness. Which is why inquisitive people are never bored when left to their own devices. If you immerse yourself in something it becomes interesting. You might think geophysics or American politics boring, until you learn more about it.

But sadly a lot of us are just too lazy to take the plunge into new fields of interest.

The third part of boredom ties in with the fear of uncomfortable thoughts. We all have thoughts that cause anxiety or discomfort. We all feel worried about a million different things and when these thoughts pop into our heads we’d rather do anything else than explore them. So we flit around on the surface of our consciousness and instead reach for a cigarette or a glass of wine or check what’s in the fridge.

Meditation really helps with this. If you just sit quietly and allow your thoughts to come and go without judgment, you will find they aren’t as scary as they seem and might actually be worth exploring.

And finally we get loneliness. In the podcast they speak to a recovering alcoholic. He says he used to think he drank because he was bored. He only realised later it was because he was lonely. Research seems to support this as married people are less bored than unmarried folk.

That said, many married couples are desperately lonely.

So perhaps it’s not the presence of another person, but how deeply you commit to that person. As with new subjects, tasks and jobs maybe the level of immersion is the key here. If you’re going to make inconsequential small talk with people it’s probably going to be boring. The same way it will be boring if you’re only going to skim the surface of your partner’s heart and mind.

- Woman24


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