My 6 year old came to me this morning and uttered the words that no parent wants to hear during the endless summer vacation: “Daddy, I’m booored!” Shit, what do I do now? How do I keep him occupied and off my back so I can get back to scrolling through Reddit? Wait a second… Something’s wrong with this picture. What’s going on here? And what is boredom anyway?
The simplest way to understand boredom is to think about its opposite – excitement. Bordem then is just the lack of excitement (or insufficient stimulus to be more precise). For my kid, most excitement comes from the outside. If the game he’s playing poses just the right amount of challenge, reward and sense of progress, he’s happy to play. If it doesn’t, he’s bored. But boredom comes from the inside. He’s bored when he’s sad and feeling lonely, he’s bored when he’s scared the Minecraft monsters are going to kill him, he’s bored because he doesn’t know what to build with his Legos and he’s bored because the reading app is way too hard for him. Bordem in other words, often hides a bunch of other emotions that he can’t see.
Now back to us, grownups. We get bored too. We get bored while sitting on the toilet, we get bored while eating, we get bored in the evening after work, we get bored if we’re with a group of friends and the conversation either isn’t stimulating enough or way too stimulating (e.g. a heated debate about politics). And we have the perfect response to bordem – we pull our phones out with our trusty Reddit or Twitter or Instragram feeds to infinitely scroll through and provide just the right kind of mindless stimulus to keep the bordem at bay. But as we saw with my kid, bordem is rarely just a lack of stimulus. It is often an indication of some deeper unwanted emotion trying to push through the surface that we don’t want to feel.
If you manage to notice the thought “I’m bored,” and instead of running towards the next distraction close your eyes and stay with that boredom for just a few seconds, you’ll notice how much resistance there is to just be bored without reacting. If you stay with that for a little while longer, you might notice some emotions bubbling up. It might be a sense of worthlessness or self-judgmenet, it might be anxiety, it might be a sense of overwhelm or just some garden variety tension you can’t really pinpoint. If you stay with those feelings even longer and allow the train of thoughts to gently flow through your mind, you might see what’s actually going on, what your bordem is covering up.
There’s typically one thing on your plate that is both terrifying and extremely valuable. One thing that would change the course of your life if you did it. One thing that causes so much anxiety that you’d rather forget it even exists. You know what I’m talking about. And now back to scrolling.