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Fixing the plumbing on a toilet is far from exciting. But Chris didn’t mind…
But that’s probably because he was in outer space.
It’s not a stretch to assume common household chores take on another level of interestingness when you’re on a space station. And so Chris Hadfield, the first Canadian to ever walk in space, was not bored. But that’s not necessarily true for everybody…
In 1982 Valentin Lebedev was on the Space Station Salyut 7 and he was bored out of his skull. Ground Control gave him stuff to do and it just all felt like busywork. Only a week into the mission he said the “drab routine has begun.”
Both men were in extraordinary circumstances, doing the most ordinary of chores, but the two had very different reactions and…
Hold on a second. Gotta pause the story.
Am I boring you? (Writing about boredom can make you a bit paranoid.) Maybe that’s because boredom is a mystery. We know we don’t like it but we don’t really know that much else about it. Unlike spaceflight, coping with boredom isn’t rocket science… it’s a lot harder.
You blow past the exit for Interesting on the turnpike, end up in Tedious County and before you know it, you’re so far into the city of Ennui that not even Google Maps can save you.
Boredom is weird. An awkward mix of low mood with a shaking urgency to do something. A nervous itch in your bones as your soul makes a noise like a deflating tire. Researchers found it’s the fourth most common negative feeling, just behind exhaustion, frustration and indifference.
And these days it’s gotten so bad we actually fear boredom. And we’re not crazy. The negatives of boredom are worse than you think and I have the receipts to prove it. As you may have guessed, the more bored you are in a given day, the more calories you consume. Studies also show boredom increases risky decision making. It makes you more likely to drink and smoke. It also has a connection to more socially carcinogenic habits like vandalism, delinquency and outright criminal behavior. (Yes, “killing time” may lead to “doing time.”)
Researchers have even found a connection between boredom and heart disease. So the old cliché may be true – maybe you can be “bored to death”.
A very serious problem indeed. But there’s a twist: boredom can actually be a good thing. Yes, really. Diving into the research I found that boredom is, well, kinda fascinating.
We often blame the world for creating our boredom but, as we’ll find, it’s much more about the choices we make and how we respond to life. The upside is there are things we can do to address this problem — and we can learn a lot about the human condition in the process.
So, you and me, we’ve got some existential troubleshooting to do here. Let’s learn the secrets of boredom. We’ll get some help from experts on the subject. James Danckert is a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo and John Eastwood is a clinical psychologist at York University. Their book is “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.”
Let’s get to it…
What the heck is boredom? Danckert and Eastwood say the most agreed upon definition is: “the uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but being unable to, engage in satisfying activity.” But why would our brains do this to us?
Boredom is a signal like pain or hunger. It’s your brain saying there is something that needs to be addressed. Boredom is valuable because it tries to guide you toward a better life. To spend your time in more fulfilling ways. To realize your potential. Just like pain and hunger, boredom is a motivator.
People who have a strong drive for self-determination and competence experience less boredom. On the flip side, those who lack of self-control, are more sensation-seeking, or have weak attention skills are more prone to boredom. But if you’re in the latter category that doesn’t mean you are terminally doomed and haunted. Boredom is a signal and so it’s about the choices we make in response to it that matter.
Boredom doesn’t address itself any more than pain or hunger do. It’s just the fire alarm, not the fire extinguisher. And in our efforts to resolve it, we can make some pretty bad choices, the equivalent of loading up on Tylenol instead of taking your hand off the stove.
Unsurprisingly, the often-bad choice du jour is the internet. We treat our phones like a boredom EpiPen. University of Toledo research found that boredom does not just predict smartphone use, it predicts unhealthy smartphone use. It often just delivers a digital ride on Satan’s Merry Go Round, occupying us but not satisfying us. (Yes, this blog post is on the internet but it doesn’t count. Clearly.)
The solution is to make better choices in how we respond to boredom. It has something to tell us. To look inward and to not be passive, waiting for the world to fix our problems. Boredom is a call to action. A reminder to assert our agency and be the authors of the lives we want to live.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, our brains are parched and chafing. We gotta fix this. So what most often causes boredom? Danckert and Eastwood found that The Four Horsemen of the Boredom Apocalypse are: monotony, lack of purpose, constraint, and a mismatch between skills and challenges.
And you and I are gonna take them down, one by one…
What’s that? “Monotonous tasks are boring because they demand our attention but at the same time fail to fully occupy our mental resources.”
This is what Lebedev faced when he said the “drab routine has begun.” But Hadfield didn’t feel this way about his interstellar chores. What was his magic secret?
Lebedev was more emotionally reactive to his situation. He got absorbed in his negative emotions but not with the activity. But Hadfield didn’t focus on his feelings. He became engaged in the job. He committed to action. Basically, this is mindfulness. Stepping back from your emotions and becoming immersed in what you’re doing.
From Out of My Skull:
Mindfulness, a form of meditation, fosters the ability to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judgment, and it is linked to lower levels of boredom… In part, being mindful keeps boredom at bay by making us less emotionally reactive to a boring situation…
The point is to redirect your attention from the thoughts and feelings about the activity and get closer to the activity itself. How do we do that? Curiosity. Go deeper into the activity versus getting lost in your thoughts. We get passive and expect the world to make us curious. Sorry, that’s your job. Because when you’re curious, you pretty much can’t be bored.
From Out of My Skull:
Researchers have yet to explore the relationship between curiosity and boredom in great detail, but there are some indications that the two are negatively correlated.
Sound a bit too unrealistic or difficult? It’s not. You’ve done this before, but not deliberately. Sometimes the TV stops working and you want to throw a shoe at it. But other times you go, “Hmm.” Suddenly you’re Sherlock Holmes solving a mystery. “How interesting, Watson. The device is behaving in a most inexplicable fashion. Come! We have a puzzle to solve!”
Machines are great because they have no capacity for boredom. That’s their strength. Ours is finding the new in situations where there seems to be none.
(To learn the #1 ritual you need to do every day, click here.)
Sustaining curiosity can be hard, especially in the modern era where we all have the attention spans of variety show chimpanzees. So let’s hit boredom from another angle. Horsemen number two is “purpose.” And this gives us a big picture way to combat the dull and the drab…
Lebedev missed his family. He, quite understandably, felt disconnected from what was meaningful to him. That’s relatable. And researchers at King’s College London found “boredom was uniquely associated with feelings of meaninglessness.”
Want to know how likely you are to feel bored in the future? The research says all you have to do is ask yourself how meaningful your life feels right now.
We need to feel like we’re on a mission. Famed psychologist Viktor Frankl felt meaning was central to human lives. When we don’t have it “the existential vacuum manifests itself mainly in a state of boredom.” So when we’re bored we usually turn to deep purposeful action, right?
Wrong, we turn to our phones – and that rarely works. Why? We trick ourselves into thinking that mere engagement equals meaning. We want to use our skills and accomplish something we can take pride in, but the internet is often empty calories. Taking yet another ride on the unspirational hamster wheel of novelty doesn’t provide the bedrock of purpose. The internet is a combover for your life problems, death by 1,000 notifications.
And this has longer term consequences. It atrophies our meaning-making muscles. We become passive containers waiting to be filled, rather than bold creators of meaning. We forget what we’re passionate about because we expect the world to hand purpose to us. As Frankl wrote, “When a person can’t find a deep sense of meaning, they distract themselves with pleasure.”
The solution? It’s simple: think of a good reason why you’re doing what you’re doing. This doesn’t make everything as exciting as a concert, I’ll grant you that, but it prevents a fall into the existential pit of ennui.
From Out of My Skull:
More recent studies indicate it can be as simple as convincing people that the task they are doing is good for their health or will lead to improved performance on tests and enhanced job prospects later in life.
Fixing space toilets isn’t a blast but Hadfield knew it served a purpose for himself and other crewmembers. Toilets are important, especially in a place where poop has wings.
And you can take it to the next level by making sure you see the results of your efforts. Marathons are often boring but some people enthusiastically do them just for the feeling of accomplishment that will stick around long after the pain ends.
(To learn how to be happier without really trying, click here.)
Some things we have to do aren’t inherently boring but they’re made boring by circumstance. You know what that circumstance is?
Well, you have to keep reading to find out. Yes, you have to. I’m not asking you to keep reading; I’m ordering you to keep reading. You have no choice.
I’m kidding, of course. But that’s the answer right there. Un-boring stuff can be made boring when we’re forced to do it…
Lebedev looked at all the supercool, cutting-edge technology surrounding him and what was his reaction? “Instead of being masters of the equipment, we are its slaves.” (Kinda hard to dump your responsibilities on a co-worker when you’re not on their planet.)
When we feel we have no control over our lives, the results are rarely good. Nobody wants to be an NPC in the game of life. But just because we have to do something doesn’t mean we can’t carve out some autonomy within the task.
Yes, you need to write a boring report. But every single bit of how you do it is not spelled out. So think about how you can make it yours. Actors aren’t just automatons that read lines in a script. They make choices. There are a million ways to deliver a line. Good actors make the performance theirs. That’s why performing is fun.
So whatever the task, make it yours. Do what you have to do but within those limits, find a way to make it your own.
But what if you’re bored at home? Constraints are still there, inherent in boredom — that pressing need to do something stimulating. But there’s an easy fix for this malaise: relax.
From Out of My Skull:
…simply telling highly boredom-prone people to relax works to decrease their feelings of in-the-moment boredom.
Resting is low-energy like boredom, but it’s pleasant. Boredom is restless. Even has the word in there: “rest-less.” Instead of forcing yourself to do something, give your limbic system a hug and let yourself just chill.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
You might still be waiting for a magical fix. A solution that transmogrifies the spiritless ho-hum into a caffeinated surge of bliss. So how do we turn boring into fun?
Lebedev blamed his boredom on context. All that busywork from Ground Control. As if his attitude had nothing to do with it. Believe that and you probably believe disco is going to make a comeback.
When we have something to do but it’s not challenging enough, we get bored. And when it’s too challenging, we feel overwhelmed and get bored. What we want is that balance where an activity is testing us. Where success feels possible but not guaranteed. That’s when we experience “flow.” That’s optimal engagement – and it feels great.
We need to find that balance. “The Goldilocks Zone” of matching our skills to the challenge. The sweet spot. Which leads to a counterintuitive suggestion…
Make whatever you’re doing harder. Yes, it may sound nuts but, believe it or not, this is what Chris Hadfield did to prevent boredom. When working on mundane tasks, he’d see how long he could hold his breath. Crazy? Maybe. But it made a dull job more challenging.
Or try to accomplish whatever you’re doing within a time limit. Now the spiritless task can become a spirited game. The point isn’t to make yourself even more miserable, it’s to turn organizing your closet into Tetris. They’re not that different. But instead of asking the world to change, you’re changing your perspective.
(To learn how to make emotionally intelligent friendships, click here.)
Okay, I’m running out of boredom jokes. Time to round this up — and then we’re going to take a quick trip to Japan…
Here’s how to never be bored again:
Okay, time for our vacation to Japan. First stop is a Japanese garden. See it in your head. The green bushes, the babbling brook, the little bridge ahead of you. Can you see all of it?
No, you can’t. That’s not a fault of your imagination, that’s by design. Japanese gardens are fashioned using a principle called miegakure. That translates as “hide and reveal.” The path is structured so there’s no single point from which you can see the entire garden. You have to keep walking to reveal new stuff. You can hear the water running but you can’t see it until you turn the corner. You smell the flowers but they’re not visible until you get past the trees.
It’s designed to build anticipation. To encourage you to wander, to pay attention, and to be curious because there’s always more to it then you can see immediately. Cool, huh?
Guess what? That’s true of life too. There’s always more there if you get curious and keep looking.
Next stop on our Japan trip: cherry blossom trees. These are a big deal in Japan. But they’re a limited time offer. They only blossom for a week and then all that beauty is gone. This is another Japanese concept: mono no aware. It translates as “the pathos of things.” It’s a gentle melancholy feeling we get when we realize how impermanent things are. Nothing lasts forever.
You might feel bored in the moment but time will pass. It’s transient just like everything is transient. We think we want to fast forward time but that just means we get to the end sooner — the end of the boring moment, but also the end of life. “Killing time” is dangerous over the long haul.
Next time you get bored, remember these two ideas (even if you can’t pronounce them). When you think you have seen it all, get curious. There’s always more waiting for you in the garden of life if you look for it.
And don’t let time slip away. It’s ephemeral, like those cherry blossoms. Don’t wish to fast forward. You don’t want to sprint to the end. You want to be better at appreciating the here and now.
Boredom is so hard to deal with because we think it’s a problem with the world when the difficulty lies in us. Wait for the world to change and you can spend your whole life waiting.
Don’t yawn at life. Don’t kill time.
Carpe the hell out of the diem.
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