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Life’s problems don’t only come in big, dramatic varieties – break-ups, career dilemmas, illness, intergenerational conflict. Often they arrive in subtle, insidious forms, such as boredom. Nothing is terribly wrong: we’re just disenchanted with our life and can’t muster much enthusiasm for anything.
This may not be a problem in itself. If your job or your domestic life have ceased to interest you, it’s appropriate to recognise it and do something about it. Boredom can then be treated simply as information, without which you might just soldier on, not realising that something needs to change. In other cases, however, boredom can be more of an issue, and you may wish to examine it more closely.
Being the kind of person who gets bored easily, for instance, and keeps flitting from one thing to another, may stop you pursuing anything long enough to build a good level of proficiency. This needn’t be a problem. You may be happy with moving on frequently and the breadth of experience that brings you. However, if you’re frustrated about it, it may help to realise you need to work through your feelings of boredom and learn to stick at things longer than you naturally would.
A global boredom and loss of interest in life, on the other hand, could be more problematic. It’s also self-perpetuating: the more bored you are, the more the world seems dull and uninteresting. But there is a virtuous cycle as well: the more you’re engaged with things, the more your environment seems richly fascinating. Recognising that we’re in a vicious cycle may help to kick-start the slow journey towards reversing it. For instance, by really looking at what’s around you.
Whichever kind of boredom you’re suffering from, there is some good advice to be had in flow theory, which advises that finding the right level of engagement is a question of matching challenge to ability. Too much challenge and we feel anxious; too little and we feel bored. So up the challenge a little and you may find that the boredom lifts too.
The thought that only boring people get bored is such a commonplace that it’s not clear who said it first. G K Chesterton, for example, coined the similar “There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”
Like many familiar sayings, there is a wisdom here that quickly turns to folly if we don’t read it carefully. It’s true that a curious, lively mind will always find things to stimulate it. But that does not mean that boring is only in the eye of the beholder. On the contrary, some things really are boring in themselves, and unless we have the capacity to get bored by them, we in turn will become boring ourselves.
The kind of boring I have in mind is that of endless repetition, which can drain the interest of even the most fascinating or funny. For instance, a question such as “is religion compatible with science?” is important and intriguing, but hearing the same argument rehearsed for the umpteenth time is the epitome of tedium. A person who is not able to get bored by such pointless regurgitations becomes trapped in the same mental space, unable to develop and possibly contributing to the intellectual stasis that prevents the debate moving on.
A rather different case is that of the apparently witty raconteur whom we discover, on a second or third encounter, is actually recycling the same puns, quips and anecdotes ad nauseam. What such a person lacks is the ability to become bored with himself. This is, I think, one of the most important virtues of all. We spend more time with ourselves than anyone else does, and so we should be the first to notice that we’re saying the same things, reacting in the same unhelpful ways, talking too much about the same subjects. We have a duty to get bored by ourselves before others do.
The person who never gets bored is like the dog that never tires of fetching a stick, too easily pleased by repetition. Getting bored and then doing something about it is therefore vital in making sure we and the world do not get stale.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England. To suggest a question, email shrink&sage@shrink&sage.com