This Is the Weirdest Thing I've Done While Bored
What does it mean to be truly bored? I will now present to you a case of boredom so extreme it edges on the inhuman.
A couple of weekends ago, I sat in bed, turned on Netflix, and dove into a reality show 50 episodes long. The show was Japanese, so watching it meant I had to put on reading glasses and stare at subtitles with laser focus.
Who was I? Where had the afternoon gone? Was I still fully a person?
At first, this show enthralled me, but TV consumed in dangerous quantities can have a hypnotic effect. Suddenly three hours had passed. My neck was stiff from tilting my head to look at the screen, my eyes were glassy. I felt physically disoriented and emotionally dull.
Who was I? Where had the afternoon gone? Was I still fully a person? Could I remember my own name? What year was it? It was as if, during the elapsed time for which I could not account, my interior had been scooped out and replaced with half-remembered lines and a blurry impression of a Tokyo skyline.
I panicked. But instead of turning off the show, I simply pivoted slightly on the bed, opened my laptop, and began playing The Sims 4. Netflix ran in the background as I created Sim after Sim, and every couple of minutes I looked up from my computer screen to read a few subtitled phrases on the TV. My attention was divided, and poorly so; no Sim family could keep my interest, and I slowly lost track of what was happening in the show conducted in a language I don't even speak.
This Is What It Means to Be Bored
The stupor of that day bears all the hallmark traits of being bored: mindless consumption of content, a prison of screens, a temporary yet profound loss of self.
Is it OK to experience boredom as long as that boredom inspires personal growth?
Of course, everyone feels bored, but does everyone feel that bored? And if so, how do we turn these moments of paralyzing idleness into experiences that are still fulfilling, without feeling like we're working? In other words, is it OK to experience boredom as long as that boredom inspires personal growth?
"It is no wonder that shifting among several media is called 'snacking.' As with snacking of a more literal kind, it can leave you feeling both bloated and unfilled." —Eva Hoffman
To help answer this, I picked up How to Be Bored, a slim, nearly pocket-sized book by writer and academic Eva Hoffman. As Hoffman seems to understand it, boredom exists in this sweet spot between hyperactivity, packed schedules, and a lethargy brought on by too much stimuli.
"It is no wonder that shifting among several media, or using them simultaneously, is called 'snacking,'" Hoffman writes. "As with snacking of a more literal kind, it can leave you feeling both bloated and unfilled."
This is what had happened to me that weekend. I'd snacked on reality TV and The Sims until I was so full I couldn't even think.
At its most simplified, Hoffman's solution to this particular problem seems to be the same one posed by everyone from those generations that never knew a world without the internet: unplug. Hoffman references Romantic poet Samuel Coleridge and his propensity for epic walks, sometimes covering up to 50 miles a day.
It's a good idea, in theory. Intense solitary outdoor experiences forced Coleridge to be highly aware, both of his immediate environment and of himself. "Observing what is around us and registering errant impressions," explains Hoffman, "is a state not so much of passive inaction as of alert receptivity."
This Is What Boredom Looks Like in Space (Sort of)
What happens when one doesn't have the option of fully unplugging and escaping, not just from one's devices, but from the tedium of one's schedule and work?
On a rocky, Mars-like stretch of Hawaii's Mauna Loa volcano, at about 8,200 feet above sea level, rotating six-person crews (made up of engineers, biologists, architects, geologists, geographers, and other science enthusiasts) have spent several months on a simulated planetary exploration mission. HI-SEAS (Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation) is a long-term experiment that allows researchers to study how future Mars explorers can successfully cohabitate in isolation.
"More than anything else, being an astronaut means that you are science." —Dr. Sheyna Gifford
The fourth HI-SEAS mission, however, was a year long. Living in the habitat from 2015 to 2016, the crew set the U.S. record for longest space simulation. Dr. Sheyna Gifford served as the Health and Safety Officer and the crew's journalist. She and the other HI-SEAS crew members lived in a two-story dome that contained a kitchen, lab, dining area, and exercise and common spaces on the ground floor, with six tiny bedrooms on the second.
"I am one of those people who always wanted to go to space," Gifford says. "More than anything else, being an astronaut means that you are science. People in space wake up when they're told, eat when they're told, exercise when they're told, run the experiments they're told to run. They're given free time when they're told. They're an experiment within a very large experiment. That truly is what it is to be an astronaut. For me, this was as close to being an astronaut as I may ever get."
Exciting, of course. But there was still a certain amount of tedium that accompanied life in the habitat. While every member of the crew was able to conduct their own research projects, there was other research they each had to take on that was mandated by HI-SEAS. "It's kind of like the classes in school that you find engaging or challenging, versus the classes in school where you really don't understand why you're there," Gifford explains. "Those were the most tedious times."
"There's work and there's meaningful work. It's about work that you can imbue with meaning." —Gifford
Gifford says she and her crewmates had to learn to stave off boredom. To that end, when the crew were able to grab moments of downtime, they read, wrote, exercised, or even studied new languages—activities Gifford admits do not seem inherently relaxing. But, she says, "There's work and there's meaningful work. It's about work that you can imbue with meaning."
"I'm not sure that downtime really exists in space," Gifford continues. "Downtime may be an earth thing, because how do you take downtime when you have to basically keep the ship going? I'm not sure downtime is a thing in space, and that's a problem."
This Is How You Solve Boredom
Of course, downtime exists on earth, and Coleridge didn't have 50 episodes of this TV show to watch. Being bored then, being the good kind of bored, isn't just about filling in hours with emotional and intellectual bloat.
Instead of filling every already unfilled hour with what it is you think you're supposed to be doing, pursue knowledge that you simply want to have.
"[Leisure] allows for the cultivation not only of self-knowledge," writes Hoffman in How to Be Bored, "but of what might be called non-instrumental knowledge and non-productive aspects of the self: a disinterested curiosity, the capacity for aesthetic appreciation, the need for wonder."
Be "disinterested," but inquisitive. Learn skills that are "non-instrumental" to your daily life.
There's no way to really solve boredom. In fact, being bored might be great for you, if you allow that boredom to come from a place of "non-productive" curiosity, as Hoffman says. Instead of filling every already unfilled hour with what it is you think you're supposed to be doing, pursue knowledge that you simply want to have. Be "disinterested," but inquisitive. Learn skills that are "non-instrumental" to your daily life. This is the best time to be idle.
How to Be Bored, by Eva Hoffman, $16, us.macmillan.com.