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Does Boredom Really Exist?
Is there such a thing as boredom, or is it an all-encompassing term for a variety of root causes like apathy, frustration, or depression?
Eleven times every week I teach yoga and fitness classes in Los Angeles. Both formats feature varying levels of intensity, though the last few minutes in each are dedicated to shifting into parasympathetic mode to calm the flood of hormones and neurochemicals keeping students’ nervous systems prepared for action. No matter how challenged they are during class, this stretch of time proves to be the hardest for many.
Humans are wired for movement; you can say we evolved as animals in part thanks to our genetic thrust to keep seeking. During the end of class so much movement is already happening: the slow elongation of muscles, the deeply gratifying opportunity to observe your breathing, the gentle drift into active recovery and relaxation. Yet this is when unnecessary fidgeting and staring around the room occurs. Inevitably the darkened room lights up with blue screens mere seconds after class commences, so necessary is that dopamine fix provided by screen stimulation.
Are people simply that bored? A recent article out of Harvard challenges the notion. Researchers noticed children grow increasingly less engaged as the years from kindergarten to high school progress. One Gallup poll reveals that only 2 percent of eleventh graders are “never bored.” There are many educational arguments as to why this is, but what if boredom doesn’t even exist? The writer frames it this way:
What we call “boredom” might be just a “grab bag of a term” that covers “frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy.” Todd Rose, Ed.M.’01, Ed.D.’07, a lecturer at the Ed School and director of the Mind, Brain, and Education Program, says the American education system treats boredom as a “character flaw. We say, ‘If you’re bored in school, there’s something wrong with you.’”
These potential root causes certainly warrant consideration, though I’d add an important one in adults: inattention, or rather a cognitive inability to develop attentional skills. Our habits shape then define us. If we have difficulty concentrating on the task at hand that’s going to translate across all of our duties and even into downtime. The less we’re able to focus, the worse this trend becomes.
Our brain is in either one state or another at all times: default mode, which is daydreaming, or central executive, focusing on a task or idea. It’s impossible to be in both states simultaneously. Either we’re engaged or not.
Both of these states have evolutionary value. The ability to concentrate is critical in acquiring skills, learning languages and motor patterns, basically any sort of career. Letting loose and daydreaming is also valuable, especially in problem solving and emotional regulation. Benefits accrue when we’re in the right state at the right time.
The problem is suffering from the inability to toggle between the two. The quick dopamine fix we get every time we surf social media exploits neural systems designed for deep attention. We’re unable to concentrate for a sustained period of time when we constantly itch for the next neurochemical jolt.
Yet this doesn’t mean we’ve slipped into a healthy default mode either. There’s a stark emotional difference between lying back and letting your mind loose and scrolling through an Instagram feed, especially whenever you pull up to a red light. Anxiety mounting from the insistent need for distraction affects both networks, creating an emotional and cognitive dependency not unlike a host of controlled substances.
Of course we’re frustrated and depressed when we can no longer successfully surf our own brain’s two modes. Like any dependency, the chemical rush of a social media feed eventually wanes. You keep returning for stimulation even though the reward is not as great. An addiction is created. Moments removed from that cheap source of pleasure create the lethargic mental state we call boredom.
A sense of purpose is one antidote to boredom—or the many frustrations and anxieties that result in what we mean by that word. This is why I suspect a lot of religious followers are generally happier with their lives: they believe their toil is worth something in the end. A goal is a valuable ally. The emotional comfort one receives from belief keeps their mind engaged and focused.
Goals are not the only prescription, however. The simple practice of mindfulness—simple to understand, not always to implement—is another means for acquiring the skill of navigating brain states. Various schools of meditation teach differing styles, but at root mindfulness is observing your mind at this very moment. It could be done in meditation, but it can also be accomplished while doing anything. Paying cognitive and emotional attention to what’s in front of you is extremely valuable in an age of distraction.
We love distractions, though, which will keep boredom in rotation for some time. Imagine scrolling through a Smart TV with a thousand channels and near infinite variety of content and thinking, there’s nothing to watch. This world is so vast and dynamic that one can spend an entire lifetime exploring its incredible diversity and still only learn a tiny percent of available knowledge. Boredom does exist, but it’s a mask for deeper frustrations. Being mindful of what those are is the first step in engaging life fully. To begin that practice, stop and observe.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Got $55 million lying around? If so, you might be able to score a spot aboard the International Space Station starting 2024.
- NASA awarded a contract to startup Axiom Space to attach a "habitable commercial module" to the International Space Station.
- The project will also include a research and manufacturing module.
- The move is a major step in NASA's years-long push to privatize.
Image: Axiom Space<p>But first, space-tourist-hopefuls would have to pass through physical and medical exams, and 15 weeks of expert training. After that, the trip sounds pretty comfy:</p><p>"There will be wifi," Suffredini <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/09/style/axiom-space-travel.html" target="_blank">told the New York Times</a> last year. "Everybody will be online. They can make phone calls, sleep, look out the window. [...] The few folks that have gone to orbit as tourists, it wasn't really a luxurious experience, it was kind of like camping. [...] Pretty soon we're going to be flying a butler with every crew."</p>
A render of the ISS tourist experience.
Image: Axiom Space<p>In a blog post, NASA wrote:</p><p>"Developing commercial destinations in low-Earth orbit is one of <a href="https://www.nasa.gov/press-release/nasa-opens-international-space-station-to-new-commercial-opportunities-private" target="_blank">five elements</a> of NASA's plan to open the International Space Station to new commercial and marketing opportunities. The other elements of the five-point plan include efforts to make station and crew resources available for commercial use through a new commercial use and pricing policy; enable private astronaut missions to the station; seek out and pursue opportunities to stimulate long-term, sustainable demand for these services; and quantify NASA's long-term demand for activities in low-Earth orbit."</p>
NASA's push to privatize the ISS<p>When a Russian rocket launched the first module of the ISS into space in 1998, NASA expected the space station to operate for about 15 years. But the agency has extended the life of the ISS twice, with funding currently set to expire in 2024. NASA spends between $3 and $4 billion per year operating and shuttling astronauts to and from the station. That's a decent chunk of the agency's $22.6 annual budget. What's more, the "major structural elements" of the ISS are certified only through 2028.</p><p>Meanwhile, NASA has been eyeing other projects, namely: putting humans back on the moon in 2024 and establishing a lunar presence. So, to save and redirect money, the agency has been starting to hand over the aging space station to the private sector, which could use it for commercial research and space tourism.</p><p>But some have questioned the move to privatize the ISS, including NASA's own inspector general, Paul K. Martin.</p><p>"An obvious alternative to privatization is to extend current ISS operations," Martin wrote in a <a href="https://oig.nasa.gov/docs/CT-18-001.pdf" target="_blank">2018 report</a>. "An extension to 2028 or beyond would enable NASA to continue critical on-orbit research into human health risks and to demonstrate the technologies that will be required for future missions to the Moon or Mars."</p>
Image: Axiom Space<p>Martin noted that "research into 2 other human health risks and 17 additional technology gaps is not scheduled to be completed until sometime in 2024," meaning that any slip-ups in the process would mean such research might go uncompleted. He also wrote that it's "questionable" whether the private sector could turn a profit on the ISS without "significant" government funding. The Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded research and development center, <a href="https://docs.house.gov/meetings/SY/SY00/20180517/108302/HHRG-115-SY00-Wstate-LalB-20180517.pdf" target="_blank">also found</a> that it "is unlikely that a commercially owned and operated space station will be economically viable by 2025."</p><p>The implication is that, if the ISS is handed over to the private sector, taxpayers could end up indirectly supporting space tourism for the ultra-rich. Whether that's worth any of the research benefits that might come from the ISS post-2024 is anybody's guess.</p><p>As the ISS enters its final years, China <a href="http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-10/17/c_138479514.htm" target="_blank">plans</a> to complete construction of a manned space station in 2022.</p>
The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.
- Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
- New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
- Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Paul Krugman on the Virtues of Selfishness<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7ZtAkm6C" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="828936bf6953080e9018307354c0c02b"> <div id="botr_7ZtAkm6C_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7ZtAkm6C-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7ZtAkm6C-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> The Nobel Prize-winning economist on the virtues of selfishness.
Evolution Is Moving Us Away from Selfishness. But Where Is It Taking ...<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cyeqmYCb" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="6c5efecb56456e9acc25cf36935b1826"> <div id="botr_cyeqmYCb_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cyeqmYCb-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cyeqmYCb-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Exploring Morality and Selfishness in Modern Times<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="02eX1Cag" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="45cc6180db791f32683988fb52faff26"> <div id="botr_02eX1Cag_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/02eX1Cag-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/02eX1Cag-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> Philosopher Peter Singer discusses the state of global ethics.
Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.
Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?