We all have had in many moments of our life the sensation of boredom, when you don’t have anything to do, when you wait in line, when you are at the doctor’s office, when you are in the traffic, at the the school, at your job, at a meeting, at a date, etc ...
Along with that “negative” emotion as has been labeled before comes the sensation of desperation, anxiousness, maybe sadness, maybe anger. Why have we been programmed to feel that when apparently “nothing” is happening?
The simplest answer that comes to my mind is because we have been trained and programmed to think that doing “nothing” is bad, is evil, is a source of problems or worst is the source of aggression.
However there’s another perspective of this feeling which is the space that you can have to know yourself, a space that to breath slowly, to be at peace with your own thoughts, to be in touch with nature in stillness.
I can’t imagine that a caterpillar inside its cocoon is wondering “What an awful time I’m having..” or a flower that is “still” just receiving the wind, the rain, sunlight and bees to pollinate other flowers is thinking “Oh my God ..this life sucks”.
Nature is the best teacher for everyone of us giving examples of how “boredom” or stillness is needed through many stages of your life in order to renew yourself, to be more grounded, to allow space for creation, to generate creative thoughts and to be able to move from anxiety to peace.
It is not the same the concept of mind wandering than the boredom, mind wandering is more a default mode of our mind to get distracted or think in anything different from what you’re doing, this state has certainly been proven and associated with negative effects in attention and also prone to generate depression or anxiety issues. As stated below and with enough data to prove mind wandering and its consequences has to be distinguished from boredom.
Unlike other animals, human beings spend a lot of time thinking about what is not going on around them, contemplating events that happened in the past, might happen in the future, or will never happen at all. Indeed, “stimulus-independent thought” or “mind wandering” appears to be the brain’s default mode of operation. Although this ability is a re-markable evolutionary achievement that allows people to learn, reason, and plan, it may have an emotional cost. Many philosophical and religious traditions teach that happiness is to be found by living in the moment, and practitioners are trained to resist mind wandering and “to be here now.” These traditions suggest that a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Are they right? (1).
In this large study using an Iphone app with an unusually large database of real-time reports of thoughts, feelings, and actions of a broad range of people as they went about their daily activities. The application contacts participants through their iPhones at random moments during their waking hours, presents them with questions, and records their answers to a database at www. trackyourhappiness.org. (1).
To find out how often people’s minds wander, what topics they wander to, and how those wanderings affect their happiness, we analyzed samples from 2250 adults (58.8% male, 73.9% residing in the United States, mean age of 34 years) who were randomly assigned to answer a happiness question (“How are you feeling right now?”) answered on a continuous sliding scale from very bad (0) to very good (100), an activity question (“What are you doing right now?”) answered by endorsing one or more of 22 activities adapted from the day reconstruction method and a mind-wandering question (“Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?”) answered with one of four options: no; yes, something pleas- ant; yes, something neutral; or yes, something un- pleasant. Our analyses revealed three facts. (1).
First, people’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of what they were doing. Mind wandering occurred in 46.9% of the samples and in at least 30% of the samples taken during every activity except making love.
Second, multilevel regression revealed that people were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not and this was true during all activities including the least enjoyable. Although people’s minds were more likely to wander to pleasant topics (42.5% of samples) than to unpleasant topics (26.5% of samples) or neutral topics (31% of samples), people were no happier when thinking about pleasant topics than about their current activity and were considerably unhappier when thinking about neutral topics or unpleasant topics than about their current activity.
Third, what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.
In conclusion, a human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind. The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost (1).
“In the classic story Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice chases a white rabbit down a well and then begins a long fall. While falling, Alice’s attention shifts frequently. Alice begins by considering what is beneath her (the outcome of her fall). Next, she notices the cupboards surrounding her, and even interacts with them. She then considers how she will relate this fall to other everyday falls, and eventually simulates the conversations she will have with the people she meets on the other side of the Earth. Alice does not remain afraid and focused on the outcome of her fall (what is beneath her). While this example is fictional and caricatured, it reflects a truth about every day emotional experience—the intensity of all emotions fades over time and attention shifts to novel stimuli.” (2)
What motivates people to seek out new goals as previous experiences fade?
It has been proposed that as the intensity of an emotional experience diminishes, the emotional state of boredom will encourage people to pursue alternate goals and experiences, including experiences likely to elicit negative emotions.
Researchers have defined boredom according to several different outcomes associated with boredom, including arousal, attention, meaning of the current situation, and cognition. Perhaps the most widely used definition of boredom is ―”the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity”.
From these sets of research and additional recent research boredom proneness has been linked to negative activities such as gambling , drug and alcohol abuse, binge eating, dropping out of school and depression and anxiety.
However little experimental work has focused on the effects of the state boredom and If we reflect on the definition and our own experience when we are bored, the sensation that we feel is that the activity or event that we are doing or where we are engaged is not satisfying our purpose, is not fulfilling our desires. These two words are key to the positive mindset on boredom and how it really can make you become a more controlled person in terms of knowing yourself, perceiving your desires, evaluating your purpose as well as becoming aware of the kind of thoughts that you are having.
All our emotions in the end are sensors of what we are feeling and have a function of protection, for instance when you’re sad the signal comes from a loss, a failure, or something that didn’t come as you desired but that in a primitive way of seeing it can be perceived as a threat, therefore the second emotion that comes with sadness is anger, which activates your hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis which elevates your heart rate, elevates adrenaline and in turn prepares your body to fight or flight, as we are focused on a transition between emotions where we are not really talking about any kind of threat we can relate the concept of fight or flight with a state of activation to get out of sadness and start pursuing something that really motivates you, reshape your purpose or even better to start questioning your whole set of desires, disrupting paradigms and eventually leading you to a transformation. Ironically the event of boredom or stillness talked about at the beginning of this article when the caterpillar is inside the cocoon fits perfectly into this human dilemma.
When we learn to accept boredom, to question why we are feeling like that, to reflect on why we lost interest in something or someone, we enter a realm of possibilities and we become an observer of our mind, thoughts and desires.
Psychological research suggests that negative emotions have a distinct potential for high intensity of subjective feeling, a powerful grip on attentional resources, and privileged storage in memory (3).
Artists, poets, writers, musicians, etc anyone related to art can relate negative emotions such as sadness, boredom or even mind wandering with a specific purpose as a tool to create a better performance which is suggested in a research model to be more receptive to art inspiration.
How can the arts adopt the particular powers of negative emotions to secure attention, intense emotional involvement, and high memorability without recipients experiencing the nonhedonic consequences of negative affect?
The model proposes two complementary processing factors.
The First, already fairly well researched group of components (the “Distancing” factor) consists of the cognitive schema of art, representation, and fiction. Situational activation of these schema precedes the online processing and is maintained throughout it keeps negative emotions at some psychological distance, thereby safeguarding the hedonic expectations of art reception against being inevitably compromised by the experience of negative emotions.
The Second group of processing components (the “Embracing” factor) positively integrates, assim- ilates, or adopts the powers of negative emotions in the service of making art reception more emotional, more intense, more interesting, and, in the end, more rewarding.
This factor, which is the prime focus of the present article, consists of five components.
Compositional interplays of positive and negative feelings are hypothesized to render art processing richer in emotional variation and less prone to induce boredom than types of pleasure that involve exclusively positive feelings;
Concomitant mixed emotions are hypothesized to serve as bipolar mediators for incorporating negative emotions into positive enjoyment;
Aesthetic virtues of the artistic representation itself (for instance, the beauty of the wording, musical sound, or painterly execution in terms of color, shape, and abstract patterns) promote dimensions of liking and enjoyment that are based primarily on low-level perceptual processing, thereby creating a (more) positive environment for the processing of concomitant negative emotions;
Processes of (symbolic) meaning construction can redeem negative emotions on the level of higher cognitive processes; and
The emotion regulatory implications of particular acquired genre scripts, such as the power of the normative happy end of (prototypical) fairy tales, allow readers/listeners to go through the preceding dire situations of need and conflict in a less desolate way than could be expected in the absence of an established mental model of a fairy tale (3, 4).
This is not just an art model to appreciate, disrupt and embrace negative emotions. If we digest every component of this model we can see that this fuel to create, to thrive, and to be transformed through the impact of negative emotions.
If we go deeper into the function of boredom as a trigger to experience “negative” emotions then that emotion could easily fit in the model too although the authors discuss that it doesn’t apply to boredom. So let’s be more curious on this particular emotion.
We’ll picture a fictional setting were you are watching a long, slow, “boring” movie, many people in the audience went to see the movie because it had an interesting component, the director, the actors, photography, or music, pick whatever you want. However once you’re seeing the movie you don’t seem to get the plot, the message, the sequence or even the whole purpose of such a long boring movie. Inside your mind what is happening? First you become desperate, then you start getting anxious, then probably angry and in the end if we picture a really sad consequence you’ll feel depressed.
If we break boredom into the whole chain of emotions derived from it we’ll be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Once you start feeling boredom from the movie and capturing that moment if you use the model above you can start questioning yourself: Why you feel bored? Is it because you created an expectation due to any of the promotion of the movie, director, actors, photography, etc.? This kind of questioning will start to unfold a process of detecting why you even went to see the movie and will make become more focused on whatever made you want to go and see it.
Extracting that feeling on a positive mindset …your questioning made you more focused on the why you decide something !!
Then second step if we allow to feel to next train of emotions such as desperation, anxiety, anger, etc.. and we recognize that “a movie” is provoking all these range of emotions then maybe we will end up laughing about how stupid does it sound that a simple movie can make you feel that way or maybe you will start to find a sarcastic humor about the scenes, the plot or the actors trying to find a positive outcome from such a lousy movie.
Third step once you start on the positive side of watching a boring movie you’ll probably also find more positive traits of the movie or maybe you’ll even be able to detect the one thing that made that movie so awarded and commented by critics or experts.
Fourth the train of negative emotions as we all know will be fixated in your brain allowing yourself to learn from the experience of watching a boring movie.
Fifth from all this train of emotions, the regulation of them, and even the integration we’ll end up with a pleasurable learning experience forced by boredom and the fact that you accepted all the negative emotions from an observer point of view which is in the end it is the whole purpose of any kind of art, the artist wants you to transmit an emotion, a feeling and if it achieves to trigger a sequence of emotions derived from a “boring” fragment on the movie then he succeeded.
If we allow to embrace boredom as a positive experience to question ourselves our objectives, our goals, our purpose, to be critic on our expectations, our desires and by doing that gaining attention on the most important path in our lives then we are winning and more than that we are knowing ourselves more from an inner point of view which is what we all to do in order to be separated from the addictions that the new era is submitting us everyday through a directed marketing towards your expectations.
Of course nobody promotes that boredom is such a powerful and positive experience because then the whole consumeristic society, the most important industries of entertainment would collapse and then we will probably become really free from their manipulation which is something that any government wants.
They prefer that we stay “as we are” addicted to the instantaneous pleasure, addicted to be busy, addicted to obtain satisfaction form the external things or events promoted by them…
I leave you with a big question mark, with a big endeavor for you to test and with a model for you to prove whenever you feel a “negative” emotion that if you are brave enough to try …you’ll find a way to use all your emotions independently of their nature positive or negative on your favor to explore, seek, find and become a better version of your inner self.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science, 330(6006), 932–932. doi:10.1126/science.1192439
Bench, S., & Lench, H. (2013). On the Function of Boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459–472.
D. Dahlstrom, A. Elpidorou, and W. Hopp. Philosophy of Mind and Phenomenology: Conceptual and Empirical Approaches (Routledge, 2015)
Elpidorou, A. (2017). Boredom in art. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40.