Boredom is a gateway to addictive behaviour, from compulsive cellphone use, to TV binging, to possibly even substance abuse. And when you are or have been addicted in some way to one or more of these things, boredom is almost always a trigger. It’s best to fill your life with positive things, because during a boring lull (this is not the same as relaxation), less desirable behaviours will often creep in.
Boredom is depressing. Boredom is depression. If you’re depressed, you’re probably bored. If you’re not depressed, and you get bored, it can be depressing (i.e., boredom can be a symptom of depression or it can trigger it). Boredom is a general lack of interest in your current environment; it’s the lack of everything that makes life worth living! For such an innocent-sounding phrase, “I’m bored” is actually quite dark when you think about its meaning.
Boredom is giving up. If you declare boredom, it means you’ve given up on finding something to engage with. You’ve scanned the environment, considered your options, and surrendered to a state of disinterest. It’s not a good look for a strong, resilient, and interesting person like yourself.
What Causes Boredom?
Boredom seems like something we could conceivably control or decide to avoid, so why does it happen anyway? Like most things, it’s typically lack of preparation. If you don’t swim, you’ll go where the current takes you, and sometimes life’s default current is boring! I’ve found that if you want a great life, you’ve got to actively chase it.
Being active is clearly a step in the right direction, but boredom usually elicits the opposite response! When people think of “treating” a case of boredom, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
- I’ll watch a show (passive)
- I’ll check Facebook (passive)
- I’ll eat chips (passive)
The first instinct for most people when bored is to passively entertain themselves in some way. This is a poor treatment choice, but the societal and habitual connection of passively consuming when bored is so strong that we rarely think of other options. You’re bored? Then entertain yourself! Duh!
Passive consumption is fun and does temporarily work, but it doesn’t treat the underlying cause of boredom.
Boredom Defense: Ditch The Obvious “Solutions”
Boredom can be prevented and treated by having a boredom defense list. This list should not contain traditional, cheap boredom fixes. We don’t only want to combat boredom right now, we also want to build our general resistance to it. The boredom defense list contains things that progress our lives—they will continue to give satisfaction and benefits even after they’re completed.
Let’s explore the difference between the two types of boredom solutions with an example.
Watching TV Benefits (quick burn)
- Now: Very engaging, entertaining, and funny/intense/interesting/thrilling (depends on genre)
- Later: Reference the show with your friends, possible conversation piece with others
Exercising Benefits (slow burn)
- Now: Endorphins are released for better mood and stress relief, sense of satisfaction
- Later: Sense of satisfaction, you look sexy in the mirror, healthier mind and body, increased strength and endurance, and you’re a real asset when your friend moves
Both activities have benefits now and later, but exercise is different in that the later benefits are far more significant than its immediate benefits. Watching TV has pretty excellent “now” benefits, which is why it’s extremely popular, but it has almost no benefits after the show is over.
For something to offer benefits after it is completed, it must somehow progress the person’s life.
Here’s how that translates to a human life: Let’s say one person exercises when they’re bored while another watches TV when they’re bored. After a while, the exerciser has used that time to permanently improve his life. He can (better) do fun-but-physical things like rock climbing and sports. He can look at his body in the mirror and smile, thinking about how much better he looks now. He can boast about his “perfect score” on his latest blood test (this would make him lame, but he’s free to try it). He can feel good about the body of work he’s put in at the gym. The TV watcher, however, only has ideas and memories from the shows he’s seen. The exerciser became a better version of himself while the TV-watcher stayed the same.
The Boredom Cure Is Hidden Within Candy Crush!
Most video games are completely based on progression—levels, experience points, etc.—to keep the player interested. An emphasis on progression isn’t unique to games.
Character development is one of the fundamental aspects of storytelling. The audience will be disappointed if the characters end the movie in the same way they started it. It prompts the thought, “So what was the point of all that?” One of my favorite types of movie or show is the “coming of age” story because progression is the focal point (two of my favorites are Big Fish and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World).
Why do you think we find these games, movies, and shows so engaging? They mimic the real thing!
In the narrative of a human life, progression is absolutely imperative for engagement, and engagement for happiness.
It’s easy to trick ourselves into thinking that these simulations are in fact the thing we desire. That’s just the brain’s reward system at work. The brain knows a reward when it comes, but it can’t always decipher the quality and long-term desirability of the reward. Substances like food, drugs, and booze are an even more direct reward to the brain.
Bored? Brain Reward!
We have three levels of rewards that the brain will enjoy when bored:
- Substances/food/chemicals: extremely easy to get, immediately powerful reward (but the reward is gone the instant the substance wears off, requiring another fix later if boredom resurfaces)
- Passive entertainment: easy to get, moderately strong reward (but the reward is significantly diminished after the show ends, requiring another fix later)
- Real life action: harder to get, weakly satisfying reward (but the reward increases exponentially over time, continues to build with each iteration, and stays with you afterward)
The real cure for boredom is to offer the brain plenty of high quality, real-life rewards. One of the best and most accessible real-life rewards is the same thing we like about the cheap fixes—progression. Real life progression is slower than Candy Crush, but it doesn’t become irrelevant when you put your phone down.
What’s the point of life if you stay exactly the same the whole way through and your actions don’t have any sort of impact on yourself or others? Without a sense of progression, we will take the same “what’s the point?” attitude towards ourselves and our experiences. Those who stagnate will frequently feel bored with life.
Reach the Top? Climb Another Mountain
Reaching your wildest dreams in one area temporarily stalls your sense of progression.
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”
~ Jim Carrey
When people “reach the top,” they may expect to find sustained happiness there. But the reason they don’t, and the reason that money can’t buy happiness, is that real progression can only be earned. Progression is limitless in many areas, such as wealth, but importantly, the satisfaction gained from progressing from $86 billion to $87 billion isn’t going to mean nearly as much as the ascent from $10,000 to $100,000. If you’ve achieved a high level of success in one area, you might need to look elsewhere to find that same sense of progression.
The Boredom Defense List
I think everyone should have a boredom defense list. This is basically a list of opportunities for progression. Whenever you’re bored, you can consult your list and pick an area to “level up.” It’s not that you should only do these things, but you’d do well to at least consider these before you resort to cheaper boredom fixes like watching TV or using Facebook. A TV episode can get you through a random bout of boredom and there’s no need to feel guilty if you choose it sometimes, but these will make you less bored in general over time.
To help you generate ideas for your own anti-boredom list, here’s mine:
- Travel: sightseeing, walking, adventures, hiking, culinary exploration
- Read: nonfiction to expand the mind and generate ideas, fiction to see how it’s done (I want to write fiction someday) and to keep the imagination active
- Exercise: for a healthy and attractive body, for mental health, and for discipline
- Socialise: find cool people and hang out with them! Go to events. Don’t isolate unless recharge is truly needed. Do these other activities with others!
- Work: creatively express meaningful things through writing and other mediums. Don’t let it become stale. Look for the unique, creative ideas that set me apart and make me happy. Be funny!
- Observe quality film and TV: this is not a waste of time (unless I overdo it). Watch mindfully at times. Observe the camera work, angles, music, sfx, dialogue realism, humor structure, and timing.
- Learn or practice a skill: piano, writing, humor, basketball, other sports
- Meditate: learn to relax the mind, the cells, and the body. Understand what it means to focus!
- Play games: board games are underrated!
- Brainstorm ideas: ideas can turn into life-changing action. Dream! Think! Be alive! Solve problems! Awaken to the vast possibilities around you! Huzzah!
- Appreciate the environment: every setting has fascinating details. Use your senses.
- Give: find a way to help someone around you, or go out of your way to make someone’s day.
How could I ever be bored with so many interesting things to do? Create your own list and give it a try! I recommend storing it in a note-taking app on your phone (I use Google Keep) so it’s always with you. If you want to get advanced, sort the activities by context (alone, with others, at home, etc).
Down with boredom! Let’s live interesting, interesting lives!
Source: fee.org / Stephen Guise is the author of Mini Habits and the founder of Deep Existence.