Befriending boredom -- let your mind wander freely
Let's all be honest. Boredom is here to stay no matter how hard we try to rid it of our lives. In today's global economy and technologically advanced world we have many more things to see, do, use and consume than ever before. Yet there are countless articles and websites dedicated to cure boredom.
Boredom seems to be on the rise in the Western world. We've become reliant on machines to do our work efficiently thus producing a comfortable lifestyle allowing us free time on our hands. Not to mention better health and life expectancy. It should be a dream come true. But ironically we feel guilty for our idleness. This negative connotation probably goes farther back than the popular proverb "An idle mind is the devil's workshop."
Various troubles are associated with boredom. If you do a dictionary search, a few synonyms you'll find for boredom are "doldrum", "weariness" and "lethargy" -- these are words descriptive of a medical condition.
A common belief is that teen boredom can lead to destructive behavior, here's an example:
Young people ages 12 to 17 who are frequently bored are 50 percent likelier than those not often bored to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs, said the study by the university's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse.
Another: "The propensity to experience boredom is believed to be a predisposing factor for problem gambling." According to one study : "Results suggest individuals gamble in order to increase arousal, rather than to avoid the negative affect associated with boredom. Moreover, results also suggest that boredom is distinctly related to gambling problems, above and beyond its overlap with sensitivity to reward."
Many of us adults get into a rut when we feel unaccomplished, and understandably so. Yet we tend to panic when we get in this mode. We can't cut ourselves some slack.
To borrow a quote from another article: "Fear of boredom is what drives us to be always doing, regardless of whether or not the activity is meaningful."
By the way, the irrational fear of boredom or being idle is called Thaasophobia.
I'm not suggesting that we all have to become more Zen-like to deal with boredom. Think of boredom as unscheduled downtime. The human mind is a peculiar entity, impossible to control. When we are bored, our mind wanders. Thus the brain signals that it needs this time for observation, reflection and assimilation of experience.
As corny as it may sound, the state of boredom can teach us something. A little vacation for the mind can give us a different perspective. And sometimes we can have an 'aha' moment if we allow ourselves a moment to be idle.
Another way of looking at boredom is daydreaming. Scientists have found that the brain has a kind of mind-wandering "screensaver" that automatically kicks in when it is idle and put on stand-by.
Malia Mason and her research team at Dartmouth College have found that:
- Mind-wandering constitutes a psychological baseline that emerges when the brain is otherwise unoccupied.
- It was not entirely clear why we day-dream, but it may be that it allows people's brain to still to remain sufficiently alert to carry out mundane tasks proficiently.
- It could be that it give us "spontaneous mental time travel" by lending a sense of coherence to the past, present and future experiences.
- It may be that our brains evolved to be able to divide attention so we can multitask and day-dreaming is just a manifestation of that.
- Based on the fact it seems to be the 'default setting' of the brain at rest, Dr Mason said it may not have any particular function at all. "Although the thoughts the mind produces when wandering are at times useful, such instances do not prove that the mind wanders because these thoughts are adaptive - on the contrary, the mind may wander simply because it can," she said.
But if boredom can enhance our creativity and be a signal for change, why is it such a corrosive problem for some individuals?
People who have suffered extreme trauma are more likely to report boredom than those who have had a less eventful time. The theory is that they shut down emotionally and find it harder to work out what they need. They may be left with free-floating desire, without knowing what to pin it on. This lack of emotional awareness is known as alexithymia and can affect anyone.
Frustrated dreamers who haven't realised their goals can expend all their emotional energy on hating themselves or the world, and find they have no attention left for anything else. Bungee jumpers and thrill-seekers may also be particularly susceptible to boredom, as they feel the world isn't moving fast enough for them. They constantly need to top up their high levels of arousal and are always searching for stimulation from their environment.
"Boredom isn't a nice feeling, so we have an urge to eradicate it and cope with it in a counterproductive way," says Eastwood. This may be what drives people to destructive behaviours such as gambling, overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, he says, though research is needed to tease out whether there's a direct causal link.
"The problem is we've become passive recipients of stimulation," says Eastwood. "We say, 'I'm bored, so I'll put on the TV or go to a loud movie.' But boredom is like quicksand: the more we thrash around, the quicker we'll sink."
Our fear of boredom suggests that our understanding of the human mind is still a mystery and requires further investigation. But until then, we need to learn to accept boredom instead of treating it like a problem. The mind is much stronger than our will. We end up causing more damage when we continue to suppress or fight it.
So friends if you are bored, learn to embrace it.
- Can Boredom Be Good for Children? - The Alberta Teachers’ Association
- Harness the Power of Your Daydreams - PsychCentral
- Discovering the Virtues of a Wandering Mind - The New York Times
- 'Busy Trap' Writer Tim Kreider Talks New Book, Resigning Himself To Ambition - The Huffington Post
- Why we should stop worrying about our wandering minds - BBC.com
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