Boredom: The Devil and Divine Discontent

Boredom The Devil and Divine Discontent

Boredom Can Drive One to Drink, Or it Can Be a Catalyst For Change

Most of us know what it feels like to be bedeviled by boredom.

First encountered in childhood and expressed in the characteristic “I have nothing to do” whine, boredom grows up to be associated with depression and with emotional instability and neuroticism more broadly.  Boredom is most dangerous in adolescence when a range of risky and self-destructive behaviors can become the default activities for a bored, disengaged and alienated teenager.

Renee Garfinkel, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and radio host. She is a columnist for the Washington Times (www.washingtontimes.com (link is external)) and co-hosts the Armstrong Williams Show on Sirius/XM radio channel 126 weekly. She also co-hosted a radio and a television show, both called Danger Zone (Sirius/XM radio, RLTV – Comcast, FIOS, and Time-Warner).

Editor: Muhammad Talha

Comprised of both cognitive and emotional elements, boredom is characterized by difficulty focusing and becoming involved in an ongoing activity. Boredom is resistance or its anger—there are multiple interpretations. All agree that boredom is an unpleasant emotional state related to insufficient stimulation—and it’s been implicated pathologies ranging from overeating to substance abuse, from depression to aggression.

Some people are predisposed to boredom: the young, for example, and people with ADHD, people who are depressed and anxious. Short attention spans make it harder to engage deeply. Sustained focus is what allows us to become absorbed in a task or activity. There is an inverse relationship between an individual’s susceptibility to boredom and mindfulness (see Perla, Nicole, 2011). The more mindful her subjects were, the less prone they were to boredom, and to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.

Clearly, a propensity to boredom can be a handicap, a risk factor, and an obstacle to the good life of contentment.  Someone who is easily bored is often dissatisfied with the status quo…but isn’t that just the sort of person we need?

Someone once called it “divine discontent”, a restless dissatisfaction with what is.  It’s divine because discontent with what eventually leads to making things different, and better.  The artist, the scientist, social leader, and dreamer all may begin with divine discontent.

In her latest book, New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change (2012), Winifred Gallagher explores what she calls “neophilia”, or the love of the new. She notes the genetic basis to personalities with varying degrees of inclination toward approaching or avoiding novelty. That difference is expressed in many ways, including curiosity and creativity.  Entire populations vary on this dimension. Immigrant populations are far more likely to be novelty-seeking than are those who chose to stay home. Making this point quite dramatically, Gallagher cites the work of anthropologist Henry Harpending with people in the backcountries of Namibia and Botswana. He was struck by their tolerance for tedium.  They were able to sit all day under the trees doing nothing. Their language has no word for boredom.

On the one hand, safety, stability, routine and predictability are necessary for survival and tranquility. On the other hand, divine discontent—and the desire for stimulation, novelty, and exploration—is vital if we are to grow and flourish.

We need them both.

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