When summer officially arrived, my three step-sons had been out of school for about five weeks already for their summer break—just long enough for all three of them to have grown bored.
Despite multiple gaming systems, laptops, a Netflix subscription, and a membership to the pool; regardless of the numerous trips to local movie theaters, a week spent volunteering at our church’s Vacation Bible School, and a week of camp for the older two; not to mention two vacations, weekend road trips, and a planned visit to an amusement park, our kids feel dissatisfied, distracted, and disenchanted by their options.
And they aren’t alone.
Most days, despite a never-ending to-do list and nonstop schedule that leaves me nodding off if I even try to sit down to watch an episode of Cedar Cove on Netflix, ennui smolders within me, too. On one particularly boring day, I was reminded of a recent Guardian article I’d read: “Why are we so bored?” “We live in a world of constant entertainment—but is too much stimulation boring?” the author asks.
“Up to half of us are ‘often bored’ at home or at school, while more than two-thirds of us are chronically bored at work. We are bored by paperwork, by the commute and by dull meetings. TV is boring, as is Facebook and other social media. We spend our weekends at dull parties, watching tedious films or listening to our spouses drone on about their day. Our kids are bored—bored of school, of homework and even of school holidays.
All of this adds up to a big problem, writes Sandi Mann, author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good: “We are overstimulated.” The more we are entertained, the more we want to be entertained. And the more we want to be entertained, the more it takes to entertain us. Our attention spans have shrunk to less than goldfish proportion (8 seconds). And our screen time has burgeoned: we spend an average of six to seven hours in front of our phone, tablet, computer, and TV screens every day. As a writer, my average is more like 8-10 hours.
“Instead of performing varied activities that engage different neural systems (sport, knitting, painting, cooking, etc.) to relieve our tedium, we fall back on the same screen-tapping schema for much of our day,” Mann writes. “The irony is that while our mobile devices should allow us to fill every moment, our means of obtaining that entertainment has become so repetitive and routine that it’s a source of boredom in itself.”
This is where things really get interesting.
According to Andreas Elpidorou, an assistant professor in philosophy at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, boredom “arises as the result of the perception of a mismatch: a gap between the need for stimulation and its availability. We want something that simply is not there.” Not only is boredom the result of “our awareness of that absence,” it’s also our cue “to pursue a different situation, one that seems more meaningful or interesting, just as a sharp pain motivates us not to put pins into our bodies.”
But when we attempt to satisfy that cue with the same kinds of activities that created the boredom, we lose our appetite for “activities that seem congruent with our wishes” or for what truly will stimulate us, entertain us, or fulfill our desire for meaning.
Elpidorou suggests that the best way to quell the ennui is by responding in a way that initially might feel counterintuitive: by choosing a less stimulating activity. “So, the next time boredom overcomes you, it might be best not to ignore it. It might be best not to cover it up with your smartphone. Boredom might be trying to tell you something.”
In my life, I can think of at least two activities that would likely be a better response to boredom than more screen time. First, sleep. Though I rarely get a good night’s sleep and often complain that the sleep I get is fitful and restless, I continue to ignore the growing body of research suggesting screens are the enemy of melatonin and go ahead and shine the bright blue light of my iPhone directly into my eyes while I’m lying in bed. I check email, I scan Facebook, I watch Netflix. While reading would be the better solution to my nocturnal boredom, and I could do it with a very low lamp beside the bed, “I’m too tired to read,” I tell myself. Too bored might be more like it.
“Bed is boring compared to the internet,” writes Lauren Bravo in a LifeHacker article about a sleep experiment she did. “At first, getting into bed at 10pm doesn’t feel like a treat; it feels like a punishment. I miss my usual evening wind-down activities–a bath, a book, a little light Netflix, and especially my favourite pre-bedtime hobby: dicking around on the internet.” Over the two weeks she forced herself to get to bed earlier, however, Bravo trained herself to relish the quiet time, and better sleep eventually became her habit again.
According to Ariana Huffington, sleep itself can be an antidote for boredom in our lives. In a recent HuffPost article, she talks about the way sleep “allows us, once we return from our night’s journey, to see the world anew, with fresh eyes and a reinvigorated spirit, to step out of time and come back to our lives restored.”
This leads to another of life’s appetites that slips away when we are overstimulated: art, which Susan Sontag famously wrote is essentially boring itself. “We should not expect art to entertain or divert any more. At least, not high art,” she writes in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.
Though I may feign contempt when my teenage stepsons get bored at an art museum, I, too, have a limited attention span for walking through galleries or listening to a symphony. I subscribe to literary journals, but rarely read them cover to cover, in favor of reading a popular novel or even watching more Netflix shows. Art can be, and often is, boring.
But maybe that’s the point, contends Alva Noë, a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley. Noë writes:
“Works of art, in all their variety, it seems to me, afford us the opportunity for boredom—and they do so when everything in our lives mitigates against boredom. Maybe this is one of art’s gifts? Could it be that the power to bore us to tears is a clue to what art is and why it is so important?
How does art bore us? Noë offers several suggestions: through its lack of a bottom line or “nugget of truth”; through its power to interrupt our normal standards of utility or practicality; through its ability to force us out of our comfort zone. But art also alleviates our boredom if we allow it to do its work in us.
“When it comes to art, and philosophy, there isn’t even anything that rises to the level of an encounter until you experience the fact that it is not the work—not the picture, or play, or dance, or song, or installation—that is opening itself up. But you, yourself, and all of us together.
I want to open myself up to art in that way, which is why I allow for boredom when I engage art in its various forms. For instance, my husband and I are members of the Indianapolis Art Museum in part to support the arts, but mostly for the free admission so that we don’t feel bad about paying full admission price just for an hour or two visit. I also try to spend more time with individual works of art rather than speeding through and “entertaining” myself with the volume and diversity of the many galleries. Also, rather than entertain questions such as “Is that really art?” as I walk through the museum, I try to answer the question “Why is this considered art?”
Other strategies also keep me engaged with art, despite my boredom. I assume a book of essays will take me much longer to read than the latest chick lit book I picked up off the sale table at Barnes & Noble. So I make myself read at least one essay at each sitting before I switch over to the easier material. I listen to classical music, but I do so as a background track to my workday. I could give it more attention by listening to it in the car, but I prefer to sing along to the latest pop songs when I drive. And I try to read a poem a day, sometimes a couple a day, even if I might not understand them all. Keeping art in my life in small doses helps develop my appetite for it. So when I do have the opportunity to attend a gallery tour or an orchestral recital or a lecture on architecture, I am willing to work through the boredom to find meaning and fulfillment.
Interestingly, the more I fight my way through the boredom of art, and sleep, the more energy and creativity and interest I have in the rest of my life. Somehow, the boredom of art makes life less boring.
According to the boys’ school calendar, we’ve got several more weeks of summer boredom to endure. But that also means we’ve got plenty of time to slow down, unplug, and de-stimulate ourselves. In fact, our middle son asked about visiting the art museum again this summer—what a perfectly boring idea.