The joy of boredom
Perhaps understandably, boredom has never caught the attention of the psychological world. Emotions like anxiety, fear, or anger have been subjected to a much more thorough examination than merely feeling drab, according to Richard Ralley, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England.
“What’s gone wrong with the psychology of emotion is that the ones that are easy to do are the ones that have been researched: fear, threat, fear, threat, again and again and again,” Ralley said. “A lot of other emotions that really make us human — pride, for instance, we kind of avoid.”
So, Ralley set out to examine boredom more closely, with the idea that the feeling must have a purpose. Just looking around, it was evident that children quell boredom quite naturally, with creativity — even to the point of taking the packaging around a gift and playing with it for hours. But as people get older, anxious parents and cranky children demand more and more specific stimuli, whether it is a video game or a hot new phone.
As Ralley studied boredom, it came to make a kind of sense: If people are slogging away at an activity with little reward, they get annoyed and find themselves feeling bored. If something more engaging comes along, they move on. If nothing does, they may be motivated enough to think of something new themselves. The most creative people, he said, are known to have the greatest toleration for long periods of uncertainty and boredom.
Boredom at school
I taught for thirty years in some of the worst schools in Manhattan, and in some of the best, and during that time I became an expert in boredom. Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn’t seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren’t interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.
Boredom is the common condition of schoolteachers, and anyone who has spent time in a teachers’ lounge can vouch for the low energy, the whining, the dispirited attitudes, to be found there. When asked why they feel bored, the teachers tend to blame the kids, as you might expect. Who wouldn’t get bored teaching students who are rude and interested only in grades? If even that. Of course, teachers are themselves products of the same twelve-year compulsory school programs that so thoroughly bore their students, and as school personnel they are trapped inside structures even more rigid than those imposed upon the children. Who, then, is to blame?
We all are. My grandfather taught me that. One afternoon when I was seven I complained to him of boredom, and he batted me hard on the head. He told me that I was never to use that term in his presence again, that if I was bored it was my fault and no one else’s. The obligation to amuse and instruct myself was entirely my own, and people who didn’t know that were childish people, to be avoided if possible. Certainty not to be trusted. That episode cured me of boredom forever, and here and there over the years I was able to pass on the lesson to some remarkable student. For the most part, however, I found it futile to challenge the official notion that boredom and childishness were the natural state of affairs in the classroom. Often I had to defy custom, and even bend the law, to help kids break out of this trap.