It won’t be the bugs that’ll get us, it’ll be the boredom. 

In a recently circulated excel spreadsheet of what one needs to make it through Covid, there’s a column that tackles the sore throat, a column for the fever, a column for aches and a much longer column for ways to cope with the boredom.

As all sage mavens have told us since forever: “Only boring people get bored”, so why would boredom get to all of us when we’re holed up with the lurgy?

A comprehensive investigation into boredom has thrown up some findings, which, while not exactly scintillating, certainly border on vaguely interesting. Critical analysis of this plethora of academic research gives insights into why it’s paradoxical to say only the boring are bored. 

None of us is immune. There’s no real way to protect ourselves against it. The best we can do is prepare ourselves – mind/body/soul – to meet boredom face on. By seeing boredom for what it is, perhaps we can become stronger, wiser and healthier because of boredom, not in spite of it.

What we see, what we hear, our environment, our situation, all these we could call ‘boring’, but there’s more at play here.

Officially, the most boring colour is Pantone 448 C. You aesthetes will know what that is. For the philistines, it’s “drab dark brown”. Being so boring, it’s the colour selected for use on tobacco and cigarette packaging. Boring here therefore means something that’s ugly and unattractive, at the extreme end repulsive, at best uninviting. To keep us safe our brain tells us that something is boring when it wants us to keep away from it.

The most boring fact ever is this: From 1977 to 2011, the national flag of Libya was green. It’s boring because unless you are Libyan or a viridiphile then it really has no connection to you; it has no context. Things we call boring aren’t any of our business. Brain thinks boring when Brain knows to move on to something it clicks with.

When my kids tell me they are bored, I hit back with one of those genius retorts mothers have been scripting and delivering since Moses had a mum: “I wish I was bored. I’d love to be bored. If I was bored right now I bet I could think up lots of things to make myself unbored.” Or better still, “If you’re bored, I know a fun game you can play, it’s called Doing The Dishes.”

Children feel bored for lots of reasons. Mostly it’s a feeling of being a bit lost, having no connection to the activities, people or environment around them, a need to relate to something or someone.

“Bored” comes about when we lose interest in things, and that can be because of ennui, fatigue or that “can’t be faffed” feeling. Weltschmertz is the very best word for this: world weariness. One expert in these things (thanks Google) explains: “The word ‘boredom’ could be interpreted as ‘I need to be with someone who loves me’.”

That feeling is an important rubicon in the quest for creativity. Pushing beyond the boredom barrier takes us to the real goodies. It’s in that necessary stretch that we tap into inventiveness. Our brain gets so bored with being bored it goes looking for things to do and if there’s nothing it creates stuff. Shoving a device at a child who tells you they’re “bored” suffocates the genius about to be unleashed. Actually, the same applies to grown-ups. Fuel your boredom with endless Facebook scrolling and that book you thought you’d write before you turned 50? Forget about it.

The most boring book ever written is the one I’m currently reading: Thoreau’s Walden, 115,000 words about a guy living by a pond. Nothing happens. He takes five pages to explain the hooting loon is a metaphor for “(nature’s) divine laughter at human endeavors”. Walden is boring because of its simplicity. That’s also why it’s beautiful, satisfying, reassuring. It’s a panacea to the busy-ness of Now. Boredom, then, is your brain shutting down, as it moans “Stop, it’s too much”.

At its most excessive and all-consuming, boredom is a symptom of an arsenal of angst. A feeling of boredom is a documented characteristic of ADHD, Borderline Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder and drug withdrawal. So too are “Exciteability” and “Risk Taking”, interestingly enough. So boredom’s bed-fellows are crazy party people who freak out their friends.

A list of Most Boring Songs gives a hint too at what boring really means. “Boring” songs include descriptors like ‘repetitive’, ‘endless’, ‘monotone’, ‘dull’, ‘formulaic’, ‘tedious’, ‘cliched’. Through music we see that boredom comes about when things are too familiar, when the brain has nothing to latch on to.

As we ride this rocky road that insists we pivot and adjust, be resilient, innovate, we must find moments to relax into the boring bits when they crop up. It’s our brain telling us to chill, simplify, connect, find a routine, stay safe and just be for a bit. 


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1 Comment

  1. Max Richter’s ‘Sleep’. The 8.5 hour musical composition is so repetitive, mathematical, boring, entrancing, that it can play all night, registering only as the waves of sleep lift towards consciousness, a nighttime companion and a bringer of gentle joy and reassurance

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