COVID-19 affects us all. Many people are fighting for their lives. Feelings of uncertainty and fear are dominating daily life. We find ourselves locked up in our houses, waiting for an undetermined future to arrive. While staring into the void, restlessly killing time and preparing for a new world to present itself.
The virus is terrible and has major consequences worldwide. It covers everything, it's like a blanket on top of the world. A blanket that slows down. A blanket that makes the invisible visible. A blanket that makes time pass at another pace. A blanket that covers and reveals.
What is there to find under this blanket?
Among the collective experiences we face these days, boredom is a common one. The psychological limbo of the pandemic seems to be a breeding ground for this state of being.
Most of us know the unpleasant, overwhelming and restless feeling of being bored from our childhood. Where there is nothing to do, everything seems grey. Possibilities and ideas about how to get out of this mood are invisible and there seems to be an unpleasant relationship with everlasting time.
Boredom is something that is part of human life. However, it is extremely difficult to give a full description of the phenomenon. It is not a defined concept and besides that, it is connected to many other situations and developments. Different (social) circumstances, times, cultures and beliefs influence the way in which people relate to boredom.
There are varieties of boredom that probably have been around for as long as there have been humans (or maybe even before that, since animals can most likely experience boredom as well). One does find intimations of boredom long before Western modernity. The Romans spoke about the ‘taedium vitae’ (a mood akin to nausea), in which restlessness and aversion to existence marked boredom. Medieval monks were prone to something called ‘acedia’. This required lots of free time – which the monks had. Acedia was for the few and was considered a particularly grievous sin, because in acedia, the love of God has been renounced. In the Renaissance, the concept of acedia was superseded by that of melancholy. Acedia differed from melancholy by being linked to the soul, whereas melancholy was mostly linked to the body. Before Romanticism, boredom seems to have been a marginal phenomenon, reserved for monks and the nobility, but from the Enlightenment period (±1750), the phenomenon has reached a broader public. With the advent of Romanticism, boredom became democratized and found more forms of expression and enjoyed more linguistic attention. The emergence of these words shows that they had a new role to fill.
In the past couple of decades, a whole field of boredom studies has flourished, complete with conferences, seminars, symposiums, workshops, books and papers. Several typologies of boredom have been discovered by different studies. In theoretical research the phenomenon can come across as ‘passive boredom’, ‘active boredom’, ‘rebellious boredom’, ‘situative boredom’, ‘satiety boredom’, ‘creative boredom’, ‘common boredom’, ‘modern boredom’, ‘sloth boredom’ and ‘existential boredom’. There are distinctions, as well as overlaps.
A recent description by Sandi Mann describes the phenomenon as following:
“Being bored is a state of dissatisfaction with the neural stimulations you’re getting. You’re searching for more neural stimulation. If you can’t find that externally, you will find it internally, because our minds are always active.”
We can imagine that a certain lack of external stimuli can cause people to get bored. Hours of waiting for a train without a book is an example of this. However, under-stimulation or lack of external stimuli can also take other forms, such as being stuck in a prison cell for a long time. Astronauts in space are also isolated from most external stimuli from the Earth. Under-stimulation can cause boredom, but over-stimulation can also be a trigger in certain situations. If external stimuli are too much, it can make distinctions disappear. Imagine hearing ten different songs at the same time, so you can’t separate them. These stimuli will eventually come to a lesser extent – or not at all –and what remains is an empty, boring blur. You could compare this to the situation in which modern humans find themselves: a world with an overload of external stimuli.
BOREDOM AVOIDANCE SOCIETY
A report from psychologists at the University of Virginia and Harvard University, published in 2014, shows research on why most of us find it so hard to do nothing. In 11 studies, they found that participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think. They also found that the participants enjoyed doing mundane, external activities over doing nothing, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves to being left alone with their thoughts. Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative. Timothy Wilson, who led the research, said the findings were not necessarily a reflection of the pace of modern life or the spread of mobile devices and social media. Instead, those things might be popular because of our constant urge to do something rather than nothing. (Wilson et al., 2014)
We cannot, on the evidence of hard facts, tell whether the rate of boredom is decreasing, increasing or stable among the population. It is not verifiable, but nevertheless plausible, to say that Western people are living in a society in which they collectively avoid boredom. We can probably all recognise it: We don’t like to be bored and we would rather tend to flee from it. This creates a society in which we tend to eliminate boredom. Let’s zoom in into some parts of this ‘boredom avoidance society’.
Since the Industrial Revolution, machines have begun to take over human activities. By increasing profits from production in modern industry, it has been possible to shorten working hours and prolong leisure. From that moment on, we have had more free time which we have to relate to. It created a ‘possession’ of time. One could say that in the boredom avoidance society time presents itself as a problem. It’s something that has to be done away with, something that needs to be ‘killed’. And many of us have gradually become terribly proficient at getting rid of time by filling it up completely.
In capitalist society, people are used to the idea that growth, time and money are (inextricably) linked. When economic growth is the focus, the combination of work, money and time creates pressure and the need to always spend time productively and efficiently. In the boredom avoidance society, a busy life and a full agenda functions almost like a status symbol. There’s a social pressure to be in a state of constant fulfilment, to be in a state which is the opposite of boredom. When time and work are connected, we can say that time has turned against us. It’s hard to respect boredom in a capitalist society in which time and (financial) growth are connected. The emptiness of time in boredom is at odds with efficiency and productivity. Boredom seems to be connected with the idea of ‘wasted time’, a time in which nothing happens that is relevant to support the capitalist mentality.
In this “boredom avoidance society”, we are used to making many choices every day. Being able to make these choices seems like a way of maximizing our welfare by maximizing our individual freedom. We believe that freedom is, in and of itself, good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare and no one has to decide on our behalf. We are used to the idea that the way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choices people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have. In his book The Paradox of Choices, Barry Schwartz describes the other side of this:
“With so many options to choose from, people find it very difficult to choose at all (….) And if they make a choice, they end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. It’s easy to imagine that you could have made a different choice that would have been better. This imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision.”
A choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all failures. In the long run, this can lead to decision-making paralysis.
Being surrounded with news and opportunities for transgression seems to be a perfect situation for combating boredom. But the more choices there are, the harder it seems to choose. The options seem to fade and merge. If you want to eat something new every day, you will taste less and less difference. The difference becomes the standard, meaning that the new disappears. Rational decision presupposes preferences, and preferences presuppose differences. This lack of difference creates a flatness where everything is leveled and boring.
Technology and boredom are connected, and they seem to strengthen each other. Most current technological developments make the gap between people and technology smaller and technology is becoming less and less external to ourselves. Modern technology dominates a large part of our relationship to the world. We relate to ourselves and the world through technical objects and services. In a way you could say that we experience the world through technology, and these technologies decide more and more what kind of world we see. They function like a window to reality.
Developments such as the mobile phone have ensured that we can be continuously connected to the rest of the world. We can follow the world news, video chat with someone on the other side of the world, see where our partner is going, receive millions of likes, follow online lectures and shop in foreign stores. The rise of the internet has meant that we can have constant access to whatever we want.
In the “boredom avoidance society” we’re used to being constantly entertained. Our phones with continuous internet connection ensure us that we can always flee and we are never left alone with only our thoughts to amuse us. Through applications such as Whatsapp and Facebook, the input that comes to us daily has radically increased. The same goes for the latest news and advertisements. Empty moments can be filled up quickly. With the pleasure center of the brain constantly stimulated, we try to eliminate boredom.
We’re receiving a large amount of information daily, accurately selected by smart, designed algorithms, used in for example social media and advertising. Often so smart that we are not even aware of their presence, and often so smart that they can direct and change our behavior. Our attention is needed in order to influence our online behavior. That’s important in our capitalist society, because it seems to be the way to make people buy products and spend their money. Our attention is valuable and companies invest heavily to get and keep this attention. Companies are doing extensive research on this. In every possible way our attention is ‘guided’ to the right place, and design is used to reach this goal. Tristan Harris, previously employed at Google, explains how color studies can influence our click behavior and what happens in the brain. Beeps from a new message make us happy, and for a short period of time make us feel good about ourselves. (Harris, 2017)
Technological design influences our attention and our behavior and makes us addicted to the information flows. Our brains just want more information (and more distraction) which is why we (sub)consciously continue to click. Screen addiction is the inevitable addiction of our time. These smart companies, channels and algorithms are an important factor in the boredom avoidance society. The continuous access to information seems to be the way to flee from boredom. All empty moments can be filled immediately. Surrounded by possibilities to connect and with a phone in your pocket, you will never be bored. Time can always be killed, accelerated or forgotten. And in case a person wants to be bored, the large amount of stimuli that the person is surrounded by, makes this a quite difficult task. Moreover, capitalism earns nothing from a bored person immersed in an empty moment.
It seems clear that we live in a society in which we collectively avoid boredom. At the same time, we seem to be increasingly surrounded by it. Boredom seems to be the ‘privilege’ of modern man.
There was a time in which boredom couldn’t count on much (philosophical) enthusiasm. Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard considered boredom a particular scourge of modern life.
“The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom,” according to Schopenhauer. “Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself,” Kierkegaard adds.
Blaise Pascal talked about boredom as “Man’s misery without God” and Dante called the bored ones disastrous people who were never alive, and “whose blind life was so despicable that we no longer speak of them.” And then there was Robert Burton, who in The Anatomy of Melancholy goes to war against this disease that “dries out the mind, blocks the imagination and causes sadness, dullness and melancholy”. (Burton, 2019) He even went so far as to recommend a diet to combat this pernicious disease.
You could say that the general attitude to boredom has changed throughout history. More recent studies suggest that boredom can also have positive outcomes. A recent literature study by Lars Svendsen shows us a new approach to boredom: a belief in the reflection and meaning it can bring. (Svendsen, 2005) A social experiment by Sandi Mann & Rebekah Cadman shows that boredom can activate creativity.(Mann & Cadman, 2012) In The Science Behind How Boredom Benefits Creative Thought8 Vivian Giang describes the importance of boredom in relation to creativity. This shows a shift in the way we think about boredom. It shines a light on the valuable potential it includes when we surrender to it. (Giang, 2015)
What can it do for us?
With the absence of any stimuli, a mind can go wandering. We often experience this search for neural stimulation as daydreaming. This state is similar to when we are actually dreaming, as we’re able to access our subconsciousness and make connections between things. These new connections can lead to new ideas. That boredom can lead to creativity is confirmed in various scientific studies. In a recent study, researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire tested the creative boosting power of boredom. In this projectt, two experiments were carried out; the first involved 80 participants taking part in either a boring writing activity or not (control group), followed by a creative task. The second study involved 90 participants who varied in the type of boring activity they undertook (either a boring written activity, a boring reading activity, or a control) and the type of creative task that followed. Results suggested that boring activities resulted in increased creativity and that boring reading activities lead to more creativity in some circumstances (such as convergent tasks) than boring written activities. The researchers note:
“The writing task might hinder the daydreaming thought to be necessary for creativity to be enhanced, due to it interfering with the propensity for attention to wander. For example, doodling when bored improved cognitive performance for students and it is thought this was due to it interfering with daydreaming.”
For a modern person with a full agenda, boredom is perhaps the only place to experience an unfilled time and to actually come closer to oneself. Boredom can work as a mirror, asking important (existential) questions to those who look into it. In boredom, one can get rid of old beliefs and opinions about oneself and the world, and come to a new insight. Boredom can pull things out of their usual context. It can open ways for a new configuration of things, and therefore also for new meaning.
Other than a place for creativity and reflection, boredom can also be a place for speculative imagination. Boredom basically tells you that the (external/internal) situation you’re in is not a satisfying one and invites you to imagine a better, more meaningful situation in the future. Waiting, searching and reflecting point to our desires and hopes for the future. A better, more meaningful future.
So is this really where we are? Anxiously waiting for the uncertain future to arrive, while killing time and feeling overwhelmed by emptiness?
An inevitable liminal space has dedicated itself to us through COVID-19. It stands in the way of escaping boredom. What would happen if we would allow ourselves to surrender, to be submerged, to inhale and swim through it? If we embrace the emptiness, feel the distance and enter the void?
This is a call. A call to sit still and be silent. A call to be brave and vulnerable. To rely on purity and the trust in other human beings. A call to move through the liminal space and search for the right direction. A call to question how the global blanket can unite instead of separate. What kind of world do we want to face?
I ask designers in particular to stand up. Especially right now, the world needs creative people. It's worth emphasizing the power of imagination. When people think about a (better) future, design can serve as a tool to present it. We can outline it, shape it. Having the opportunity to imagine this future will make it more accessible to relate to in a desired way. In this way, the visualization of the future can be a key to the present.
We are needed and we have a responsibility.
Mann, S. (2016). The Science of Boredom: The upside (and downside) of downtime, London, UK: Little Brown Publishing
Wilson, T. D., Reinhard, D. A., Westgate, E. C., Gilbert, D. T., Ellerbeck, N., Hahn, C., Brown, C. L., & Shaked, A. (2014). Social psychology. Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind. Science. New York, USA, 345(6192), P. 75–77. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1250830
Schwartz, B. (2016). The Paradox of Choice, New York, USA: Harper Perennial
Harris, T. (2017). How a handful of tech companies control billions of minds every day, TED conferences [video] Available at: https://www.ted.com/talks/tristan_harris_how_a_handful_of_tech_companies_control_billions_of_minds_every_day
Burton, R. (2019). The Anatomy of Melancholy, London, UK: Penguin Books
Svendsen, L. (2005) A Philosophy of Boredom, Bath, UK: Bath Press
Mann, S., Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal. Taylor & Francis Online.[online]Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10400419.2014.901073 [accessed 12.03.2020]
Giang, V. (2015). The Science Behind How Boredom Benefits Creative Thought, Fast Company [online]Available at: https://www.fastcompany.com/3042046/thescience-behind-how-boredom-benefits-creative-thought [accessed 12.03.2020]