When I was 22, I spent an unemployed summer living with family in Croydon, a suburban outpost of London where rows of brown-brick Victorian townhouses seemed powered entirely by the glow of evening TV. Given that commuting into the city required the logistical nous of a maths whiz, hours disappeared clocking squirrels scampering around the garden or watching Antiques Roadshow re-runs with my great-uncle, breaking during commercials to enjoy a Tesco ready meal. Soon, life would become crowded with plans and obligations. But right then, I took a strange sense of comfort in giving in to boredom; I welcomed the fear of having nothing to do and nowhere to be.
“’I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say,” Louise CK tells his four-year-old daughter on season two of Louie – and 10 years on, I tend to agree. Like everyone else from the generation that graduated into a world where things like steady careers and affordable housing were dissolving like quicksand, nonstop productivity has always felt less like a trait to be lambasted in high-flying CEOs and women who wear shoulder pads, and more like a secret to long-term survival.
There’s a lot of social pressure to be busy all the time – it’s gloated about in conversations and on social media – so when we do experience boredom or idleness, we are convinced there must be something wrong with us.
Of course, when we’re not measuring our sleep patterns and syncing our Wunderlists, we’re staying in rather than going out — although staying in usually means UberEats and Netflix rather than doing nothing at all. In an age that tells us to treat time as our biggest commodity and fold our days into tiny pieces — as if our lives are origami — boredom, the dark shadow of busyness, is more than just a state to be avoided; it’s become the gravest sin.
Madeleine Dore, the founder and editor of Extraordinary Routines, a blog that unearths the daily routines of Australian creatives, links our fear of boredom to the terror of facing up to ourselves.
“There’s a lot of social pressure to be busy all the time – it’s gloated about in conversations and on social media – so when we do experience boredom or idleness, we are convinced there must be something wrong with us,” Dore says. “In 1982, Larry Dossey described this as “time-sickness” – busying ourselves to avoid confronting our own unhappiness. Often by avoiding boredom, we avoid inspecting our own emotions, wants and thoughts.”
And as social media turns our lives into miniature works of performance art, external validation has become the readymade indicator of our self-worth. “I think our unease with doing nothing comes from equating being bored with being boring when the two are distinctly different,” Dore explains.
Mary Mann, a writer and researcher whose new book Yawn: Adventures in Boredom comes out this May, believes that boredom — under the right conditions — can work as creative fuel.
“Boredom is an annoying feeling, and in that sense it's useful for getting us to do things we might not otherwise do,” she says. “I read a lot as a kid to stave off boredom, and I'm very grateful to the authors, who staved off their own boredom by writing. I don't think doing nothing is quite the same as being bored, but I do think it's valuable to be able to withstand a certain amount of boredom if you want to make something.”
According to a May 2014 study by Pennsylvania State University, bored participants beat those who were relaxed, excited or unhappy on creativity tests. But reframing our relationship with boredom is only possible once we shed its association with isolation.
“One thing I notice during the holidays is that there’s always a spike in Craigslist personals with headlines like ‘boredom strikes - want to hang out?’ Boredom and loneliness are closely related,” Mann points out.
“Boredom is an annoying feeling, and in that sense it's useful for getting us to do things we might not otherwise do."
Personally, I can’t get past the way the culture we live in — which is still, let’s face it, a white, late capitalist patriarchy — uses boredom to separate the worthy from the unworthy and tie our value as humans to what we engage with, consume or produce. Historically, the trope of the “bored housewife” has said more about our contempt for the labour of care than it does about the thrill factor of washing dishes. The “model minority myth” insists that immigrants be relentlessly productive. And newspapers blame boredom for everything from gang violence to unemployment.
As I’ve fought the urge to fill in empty expanses of time these holidays, I’ve realised that it’s all too easy to use boredom as a scapegoat for a broken system and pathologise inactivity as a moral failure, when it’s simply proof that we’re human beings. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to enjoy an afternoon free of plans and obligations. Try it sometime, too, if you get the chance.