Don’t check that e-mail. Don’t answer that phone. Just sit there. You might be surprised by what happens.
A DECADE AGO, those monotonous minutes were just a fact of life: time ticking away, as you gazed idly into space, stood in line, or sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
In one of the most famous scenes in literature, for instance, boredom takes time. Marcel Proust describes his protagonist, Marcel, dunking a madeleine cookie into his teacup.
Boredom’s doldrums were unavoidable, yet also a primordial soup for some of life’s most quintessentially human moments. Jostled by a stranger’s cart in the express checkout line, thoughts of a loved one might come to mind. A long drive home after a frustrating day could force ruminations. A pang of homesickness at the start of a plane ride might put a journey in perspective.
Increasingly, these empty moments are being saturated with productivity, communication, and the digital distractions offered by an ever-expanding array of slick mobile devices. A few years ago, cellphone maker Motorola even began using the word “microboredom” to describe the ever-smaller slices of free time from which new mobile technology offers an escape.
“Mobisodes,” two-minute long television episodes of everything from “Lost” to “Prison Break” made for the cellphone screen, are perfectly tailored for the microbored. Cellphone games are often designed to last just minutes — simple, snack-sized diversions like Snake, solitaire, and Tetris. Social networks like Twitter and Facebook turn every mundane moment between activities into a chance to broadcast feelings and thoughts; even if it is just to triple-tap a keypad with the words “I am bored.”
But are we too busy twirling through the songs on our iPods — while checking e-mail, while changing lanes on the highway — to consider whether we are giving up a good thing? We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life’s greatest luxuries — one not available to creatures that spend all their time pursuing mere survival. To be bored is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one. It is in these times of reflection that people often discover something new, whether it is an epiphany about a relationship or a new theory about the way the universe works. Granted, many people emerge from boredom feeling that they have accomplished nothing. But is accomplishment really the point of life? There is a strong argument that boredom — so often parodied as a glassy-eyed drooling state of nothingness — is an essential human emotion that underlies art, literature, philosophy, science, and even love.
“If you think of boredom as the prelude to creativity, and loneliness as the prelude to engagement of the imagination, then they are good things,” said Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Sudbury psychiatrist and author of the book “CrazyBusy.” “They are doorways to something better, as opposed to something to be abhorred and eradicated immediately.”