Have you been feeling blue, blah, bored? Dreary, dull, or down? Flat, fatigued, in a funk? Inactive, indifferent, inert? I could work through the whole alphabet with all the words for the state many of us have recently been finding ourselves. And none of them sound like what we believe we should be feeling.
From a young age, we are encouraged to be creative and curious, inspired and inventive, resourceful, and resilient. Only boring people are ever bored, I was taught. Being bored means you are incurious, lazy even. “Perhaps the world’s second-worst crime is boredom,” proclaimed the philosopher Jean Baudrillard, “The first is being a bore.” If like me, you’ve been beating yourself up for occasionally surrendering to feelings of lethargy, tedium, and dullness, I would like to offer up a different way of seeing things.
Churning in neutral|
Being bored is like being in neutral in a car. It won’t propel you forwards or back, and it won’t even keep you stationary. In neutral, the pedal won’t route power to the wheels, but you’ll still be able to turn direction with the steering wheel.
The automotive expert Aaron Widmar advises: “the neutral gear helps the automatic transmission gears transition more smoothly from being in the drive position to the opposite reverse position. And in the dire situation where your car’s brakes aren’t working, putting your car in neutral can help it gradually slow down (unless you’re on a hill).”
Sometimes, putting a car in neutral is the best way to avoid an accident. It’s certainly the only way to start a manual car.
The terrifying void of nothingness
So, why are we mostly afraid of boredom? To extend the neutral-gear metaphor, perhaps we’re terrified that boredom and nothingness will allow us to roll backwards into despondency, depression, and despair. In the current climate in which bereavement, isolation, loss of income, and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones, all too often I have found myself reaching for my kindle, my i-phone, or the remote, rather than facing the terrifying void of nothingness.
In a 2014 study by the University of Virginia, participants were given a choice between doing nothing and electric shock. Despite having stated that they would pay money to avoid being shocked with electricity when faced with sitting in silence 67% of men and 25% of women chose to inflict electric shock on themselves. Perhaps, like Saul Bellow, these students believed that “boredom is the conviction that you can’t change…the shriek of unused capacities.”
Being bored leads to breakthroughs and creative thinking
Original thinkers understand that doing nothing is essential if you want to think more creatively. Huge breakthroughs in science, technology, and the arts have come to people who were in the bath (Archimedes) or on a walk (Tesla.) It makes sense. When you recall the last time you had a flash of insight, was your brow furrowed in concentration, or were you, in fact, busy doing nothing in particular? New thoughts emerge when we don’t focus on them. It takes periods of uninterrupted, freely associated thought for personal growth, insight, and creativity to emerge.
It has been proven that our brain’s capacity for generation increases exponentially when our pre-frontal cortex is relaxed. The latest cranial imaging backs this up, supporting the validity of “Eureka” moments, associated with bursts of high-frequency activity in the brain’s right temporal lobe. And here’s the important part: These bursts are preceded by a “brain blink” which signifies that the individual has been less aware of the environment around them.
In other words, the moment right before Albert Einstein discovered the theory of relativity on a streetcar in Berne, the moment right before Bob Weinberg discovered the cancer gene on a bridge in Boston, it is very likely they were feeling mind-numbingly bored.
There are many reasons why neutral (bored) is not the ideal gear position for the whole of life’s journey. At some point, you need to move forward or reverse. But while you’re figuring out how to position the wheels, there is no better gear to be in. Instead of trying to bypass boredom on your digital device, spare a thought for the man who invented the i-phone. “I’m a big believer in boredom,” said Steve Jobs, “Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, and out of curiosity comes everything.”