If you’re feeling bored, perk up your ears. Boredom, if you turn toward it, can be anything but boring.
Many luminary thinkers have described boredom’s underlying feature as masking an urgent message: Tolstoy described boredom as a “a desire for desires,” theologian Paul Tillich as “Boredom is rage spread thin,” and novelist G.K. Chesterton noted “A yawn is a silent shout.”
Boredom’s true gift is to make us acutely aware of our need for purpose and meaning. It forces us to ask what matters most to us.
The hostility that Tillich notes is an aggression toward our current circumstances; a feeling that the world has disappointed us, is not enough. But deep down, boredom’s anger is much more personal—the pervading sense that it’s us that’s not enough. And to find the answer, we need to nourish ourselves from within, rather than expecting the world to do it for us.
What is boredom?
Boredom indicates we are unable to feel engaged with the world in a meaningful way. It strips us of our agency. We become victim to our listlessness, powerless to find a way through. But boredom has layers, the first of which is the unsatisfying search for stimulation. But what comes next is what matters most.
Boredom researchers say that the central question in boredom studies is the fork in the road that appears when boredom sets in. One option is to commit to lethargy—binge watching shows, constant snacking, endless social media scrolling, overdoing alcohol. In other words, you attempt to fill up your emptiness with outside stimulation.
If you can take the other fork and use boredom as a steppingstone to meaning, you will have an entirely different experience. The healthier response to boredom involves allowing yourself to feel bored, even for just a short time, in order to actually hear what your boredom is trying to tell you.
Listen to your boredom to get clues on how to follow your bliss. For example, scratch boredom’s surface layer and break through into something that truly does engage you. Many studies show that by allowing the mind to wander, boredom can enable creativity and problem-solving. When the brain is bored, it enters the magical zone, finding connections, devising ideas, making plans.
Boredom and your health
Long before the pandemic, boredom research showed that people prone to boredom are more at risk for abusing alcohol and drugs, gambling and obsessively using smartphones. Boredom is also associated with overeating, depression and anxiety, diminished sex life, aggravated physical ailments and an increased risk of making mistakes.
If you feel yourself on the wrong side of boredom’s fork in the road, it’s not too late to switch over to its bright side—the trove of creativity that boredom induces. You may not be able to pursue all the meaningful ideas you come up with, but spending time contemplating what matters most is never a bad thing.
Channel boredom into a conversation you hold with yourself about what makes you feel most alive. Then you can get to decide how to apply what you’ve learned: whether its baking some cookies or taking an online class. What matters is that you claim your power to act, making boredom a choice, not an inevitable consequence of confinement.
Here are five tips for going from boredom to breakthrough.
How to fight boredom
Be with it
If your boredom could talk, what would it tell you? You’ll have to minimize distractions to be able to hear what it has to say. Try to listen for just one thing that boredom might be communicating. Is it telling you to take a hike, to get close to nature, to pick up a paintbrush or pen or an instrument? See if you can follow the promptings of your own inner self.
Dream into it
Use boredom as a steppingstone to daydreaming. If you are standing in a line at a grocery store, for example, resist the urge to pull out your phone. Instead imagine the future, visualize which of your gifts you most want to share with the world, or reflect on the past events that brought you to where you are today.
Get creative with it
After you’ve listened to your boredom, it’s time to apply what you’ve learned. What medium are you drawn to? If you are not sure, try different art disciplines. Get some clay, or macramé, or watercolors. There are plenty of online classes you can take to learn the ropes. You need put the inspiration to work or you will end up feeling paralyzed by inaction.
Move with it
If you want to explore more of the natural world where you live, get some maps and start hiking. Or put on some music that lights your fire and host your own private dance party. Sometimes boredom communicates through the body, not the mind, so you have to have all your senses available. And simple, repetitive movements, such as walking, can turn on the default mode of the mind where ideas can more easily percolate though.
Play with it
Games can be a fun way to work through lingering malaise or anxiety. Stretch yourself to go beyond the old standbys: If you love word games, explore a puzzle. If card games are your thing, teach yourself chess. Games can help you bond with your family in real-time, instead of looking at a screen or individual screens. They can also help you connect virtually with friends or family from afar.
If you are feeling bored, look at is a gift instead of a punishment. Invite in the boredom as a welcome guest and challenge yourself to discover what its needs are.