Last weekend, I was assigned to watch my two youngest grandchildren while my wife Diane and our daughter went shopping.
This has become a more or less a routine procedure, intended to weed out the especially cranky and whiny members of our party. I’m sorry, but too much shopping hurts my knees and makes me crabby.
I did my level best to entertain the little nippers, including a lengthy cartoon quiz and discussion session regarding the relative merits of Spongebob Squarepants as compared to Patrick and Squidward, innumerable games of Stupid Zombies on my cellphone and watching most of an old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie on YouTube.
Despite these desperate measures, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, 4-year-old Rosie turned to me and said dismally, “I’m bored.” Surprised that she knew what that meant, I was forced to agree, saying, “Yeah, me too.”
With two older sisters, I’m sure Rosie’s heard that phrase quite often.
I have always thought that being able to tolerate a boring situation with patience and equanimity was a sign of maturity. Since such circumstances are inevitable, it is an important life skill that children are seldom taught.
Of course, with today’s frenetic and overstimulating technology, entertaining yourself has become considerably easier, although some may argue that these same digital advances have resulted in shorter attention spans, aggravating instead of ameliorating the problem.
The first recorded use of the English word “boredom” was, appropriately enough, in Charles Dickens’ exceedingly boring novel “Bleak House” back in 1852. Psychologists believe that there are three basic types of boredom stemming from: 1. Being prevented from engaging in some desired activity; 2. Being forced to engage in some undesired activity; and 3. For no apparent reason, being unable to remain engaged in any activity. All of these are related to problems in focusing attention.
Boredom is usually described as an unpleasant emotional state, experienced when an individual has nothing in particular to do and lacks interest in their surroundings. It is generally seen as the opposite of arousal and may occur when all immediate challenges are either incomprehensible, or conversely, too simple or monotonous. Additionally, boredom has been found to appear at times when all perceived needs have been fully met and overall motivation is low.
Relativity may also be a factor in boredom, as people who have just returned from a very exhilarating or stimulating environment may find their usual surrounding dull and boring in comparison. Veterans who return from combat, for example, may have difficulty at times adjusting to the calmer environment of civilian life. Inveterate thrill-seekers who engaged in highly exciting recreational activities (such as skydiving) or occupations (such as firefighting) may also start to find everyday activities exceptionally mundane and boring.
Boredom also seems to be related to the fatigue that stems from engaging in repetitive activity. A 1926 study in Britain demonstrated individual differences in the amount of boredom reported by workers assigned to perform the same repetitive and monotonous task. When we are bored, we generally experience a lack of interest, poor concentration and temporal distortion, as time seems to crawl along.
In 1986, Richard Farmer, from the Oregon Research Institute, and Norman D. Sundberg, from the University of Oregon, developed the Boredom Proneness Scale to measure how likely people are to feel bored. Subsequent research has shown that boredom proneness is related to depression, hopelessness, perceptions of increased effort, loneliness and poor motivation. Other studies have found it to be a significant factor in depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse (especially as professed by teenagers), pathological gambling, as well as eating disorders. Individuals who are easily bored also have reportedly more hostility, anger, less career success and poorer social skills than people not prone to boredom.
I’m afraid that I fall into that high boredom prone category. When I’m in a situation that I find boring where there is little activity going on, my mind is like a computer that automatically shifts into sleep mode. I find that I have these attention lapses especially at continuing education seminars.
I used to embarrass Diane by bringing along a big stack of paperwork to do during these workshops to keep myself occupied. Now it’s even worse with laptops and smart phones. I’m afraid that I’ve turned into one of those insufferable people who sit near the wall so they can plug in and pretend they are taking notes when they are really reading their e-mail, watching YouTube, checking their bank balance or making grocery lists.
I suppose my worst attention lapse took place a few years ago at a department store. There were a lot of bargains and sales that day and Diane and I had been shopping for quite a while. After an exhausting search, Diane had found several items of clothing that she wanted to buy. I was tasked with watching over her intended purchases while she tried on some other things.
I found an empty chair and put the clothing on the chair next to me. With nothing to do, except to sit there, my attention started to wander. Eventually, the lack of activity caused my internal screensaver to kick in; I shut down, and must have nodded off. When I was roused by a rude shake, I discovered, to my horror, that all the clothes had disappeared. Some overzealous clerk had taken the entire pile of clothing and hung them back up on the racks, literally under my nose. Suffice it to say that Diane was less than pleased with my dedication that day.
According to educational researcher Ulrike E. Nett from The University of Konstanz in Germany there are three psychological strategies that people typically use to cope with boredom: 1. They reappraise the situation and try to increase the relative importance of the boring situation or activity; 2. They actively make changes to the situation to make it less boring; and 3. They evade the boring situation by seeking out a more interesting activity or diversion.
Generally, boredom is seen as a negative force in people’s lives. However, like any situation that causes discomfort, it also can serve as an impetus for positive change by increasing our motivation to act. For example, an individual with a very boring job may use the boredom as a catalyst to seek out a more challenging and ultimately rewarding position.
Finally, existential philosophers have viewed boredom, which they have called “a muffling fog,” as a fundamental dimension of human existence. In situations lacking any stimulation, the individual must confront “nothingness.”
Directly experiencing this lack of meaning creates existential anxiety. Using “waiting at the railway station” as an example, philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote more than 100 pages on the topic of boredom, which, either ironically or perhaps fittingly, are themselves incredibly boring to read.
I had no idea Rosie could be so profound in her observations about spending time with me. I’m just afraid she might agree with Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard, who once famously wrote “… there is a sense that any immediate moment of life may be fundamentally tedious [especially when spent with grandpa].”
— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com