Small Thoughts for a Quiet World.

In Defense of Boredom

I've been thinking about the overstimulation of our reward centers. Not in those words exactly, but considering how we behave these days, as a species.

It's very easy to be entertained or distracted at all times. In older days, a term for a person who was addicted to substances was “Dissipated,” and I think it's very accurate. When we allow our attention to be taken at all times like this, we allow ourselves, our energy to be spread too thin, to be quite literally dissipated across all our interests. When water is dissipated, it has less ability to exert force. A focused stream can cut metal, a slowly seeping puddle takes much longer to effect any change.

And some of it comes of people just doing their jobs. TV shows are meant to be interesting, the fact that we are in a society where we have normalized “binge watching” isn't exactly their fault. They have gotten better at making shows and we have accepted them. We share part of the blame.

So back to boredom. I don't really understand neurobiology, so this is all in generalities. Our brains adapt to what we give them. If we live at a certain level of stimulation at all times, it becomes the new baseline. One example:

I spent two years in the Philippines. When I got there it felt to me like all their food was unconscionably bland. After a few months I acclimated to the flavor palette and found quite a number of dishes I liked. Then one day, roughly six months after I arrived, my family sent me a package with some American candy in it.

That level of sugar hit me like a buzzsaw. I felt like I was bouncing off the walls. Even more fun (if possibly slightly unethical) was giving American super-sugar candy to Filipino kids.

The point is not that sugar is bad, the point is that we accept a baseline of what we experience. The more we raise that “normal” level, the less willing or able we are to accept any lower level. If we experience a certain level of caffeine we can experience withdrawal-like symptoms if we reduce it. If we experience a certain level of entertainment...might we not behave the same way? It would be a change, and it's possible our own neurochemistry would respond in a negative way to that change.

So what I want to do is see if I can re-integrate two things:

  1. Actual boredom
  2. What I call “slow-reward” activities

And I want to talk about the second one first.

“Slow Reward” Activities

There are many names for this concept, Delayed gratification, work before reward, reap what you sow, etc. It's not a new concept of course. There are so few of those. But The way I'm trying to internalize it at the moment is the concept that there are some activities that have quick, nearly instant rewards. TV shows and video games are designed to dole out a certain amount of gratification nearly constantly.

But the reward is neurochemical only. Finishing a game does not grant you any benefits outside of that game. It might have had a good story or good writing that will stick with you and modify how you think, and that's great! But the sense of accomplishment is an illusion. (Unless you're making money as a streamer or in eSports...)

There are other activities that take longer to “pay out” but present us with actual rewards. They're often called “work”. Creating, writing, building relationships, studying, planting and growing food, building a career, these are all slow reward activities. They take time to come to fruition. There's a lot of boring part before the good part. Sometimes they fail on us entirely, and all that effort is wasted. The quick reward activities are safer.

But when they do pay out, these slow reward activities pay out in real-world benefits to our lives. A writer who finally finishes the effort needed to get a book published now has something they have put out into the world, and might even get some royalties from it. But they also gained an actual skill that can increase their ability to create another book, and have built their talent that many steps further.

Actual Boredom

That can't be a good thing, right? Being bored is a negative feeling, a sense of emptiness and aimlessness can't be productive, can it?

I'm not so sure. I think we dismiss it too quickly. Boredom is a state where our mind isn't actively engaged on any specific task or topic. Where we are at loose ends, but not at rest per se. This seems like a difficult place to be.

And yet... a number of child-rearing books suggest that boredom is actually quite healthy for children. Boredom allows them to enter a fugue state in which parts of their brain that are normally ignored are allowed to start making connections.

So maybe it's good for adults as well? Maybe we channel our mental energy too tightly too much of the time? What if we all spent a little time deliberately doing nothing? What if we just gave our thoughts a space in which they are allowed to appear, and we don't immediately act on them, we simply acknowledge their presence and move on?

Ah ha, we have found a “sanctioned” word for boredom in adults: meditation. Granted it's not exactly the same thing, but it's darn close.

Whatever you choose to call it, wouldn't we benefit from building some time into our schedule that allows us to listen to ourselves, to find out what those neglected parts of our mind are working on?

Thoughts? Tell me about them!
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