One morning during my commute, I found myself without my usual literary distractions. Instead, I had the rare opportunity to observe my fellow New Yorkers in their most natural and probably most frequented habitat: the subway. A 40-minute ride revealed that approximately 90 percent of them were locked into vigorous mobile games of Candy Crush or Words with Friends, or engulfed in print or digital reading materials. They were doing everything they could to avoid being present with the drudgery of a long subway ride.
As digital technologies have enabled constant engagement, it can seem like we as a society have entered a battle with boredom (either actual or anticipated), and that any moment without distraction or entertainment signifies a “loss” in the duel.
But as it turns out, we might be thinking about boredom all wrong. Research suggests that, rather than a feeling to be avoided, boredom (in moderation) should be embraced. The happy balance between chronic boredom and constant engagement can prove beneficial for our minds and even our careers.
What It Means to Be Bored
Though boredom may seem like a phenomenon of the 21st century—an unfortunate consequence of briefly unplugging after being plugged in all the time—it’s actually been recorded for centuries. The doldrums that are familiar to us were illustrated in Pompeian graffiti, described in Roman philosophy as a kind of nausea, and documented in Christian tradition as a “noonday demon.” Virtually everyone— from Socrates to the kid on the subway—gets bored.
While the concept of boredom is as old as time, scientists are just chipping away at what exactly it means and how it occurs. The most widely accepted definition is described in terms of attention: boredom is the frustrating experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity, meaning a bored person cannot engage the internal (thoughts or feelings) or external (environment) factors necessary to produce a satisfying activity.
For instance, if you’re sitting in your room watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians (but the fact that Kim is picking out her 100th Gucci onesie is not interesting) while checking Instagram (but the photos of your friends’ lunches or engagement rings are not stimulating), you might end up feeling bored because you can’t find something that adequately captures your attention at the moment. Once an engaging activity is found (say, you start planning the healthy meals you’re going to bring to the work potluck), the sense of boredom seems to disappear.