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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?

Is this the look of boredom, or is it something else?

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.

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