Joanna Mathers writes on the importance of being bored.
Dust motes dancing in sunlit rooms; a heater's soporific hum – the quotidian landscape of boredom. If you're old enough to remember life before the internet, you're old enough to remember it.
Boredom hit most frequently in the endless summer holidays. You'd invent games and play Monopoly and backyard cricket but then get scratchy and want something else. In warm quiet rooms, the silence punctuated by dripping taps and the splutter of the neighbour's lawnmower, you'd wait for the kids' television shows to start. Or trawl the neighbourhood, making mischief.
Tito Tafa is the owner of Rebel Soul Records at Cross Street Market. And like most Gen X-ers, remembers what it was to have "nothing to do".
"Growing up in Whangarei, we used to do whatever we could to avoid boredom," says Tafa.
"There was a creek at the back of our section that led into stormwater drains. When it rained we would swim in it and just go with the current. If there was nothing else to do we'd make trouble, like stealing fruit from the gardens of people we didn't like. We'd have experiences."
But with the world at our fingertips, "nothing to do" may have gone the way of the dinosaurs. Does being "on" all the time have its downsides? Could boredom actually be useful?
In a book published in 2017, The Upside of Downtime, senior psychology lecturer Sandi Mann explores exactly why being bored isn't a bad thing.
In it, she postulates that we've become addicted to the dopamine hit we get every time we click or swipe our devices, every fresh video or story we consume, that craving need for constant arousal. Our tolerance for boredom diminishes in direct proportion to the amount of technology we consume.
This, she believes, leads to a reduction in our ability to concentrate and maybe the loss of the creative spark.
By Mann's reckoning, boredom can lead us down some interesting roads. The space awarded by switching off allows us to dream and create. Not allowing ourselves this space, being constantly "on", curtails our natural tendency to hunt out new pathways and experiences.
You can see this in play in many areas of our lives. Take Tafa, for example. He says he no longer goes to the movies because he has Netflix and doesn't experience the boredom that would have led him to search out experiences.
Decades ago this was a ritual for him. Going to the movies yielded up a multiplicity of experiences and connections that cannot be achieved by sitting on the couch. Boredom used to drive us to seek experiences outside our four walls. Now we no longer need to.
Boredom as a concept is relatively new. Our forebears were too busy staying alive to wallow in ennui.
The first recorded written use of the word "boredom", according to the Online Entymology Dictionary, appeared in 1845. But the pervasive sense of nothing meaningful to do and associated unpleasant state was considered important enough to play a starring role in the works of 19th century European philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer and Soren Kierkegaard.
Robert Wicks is an associate professor of philosophy at University of Auckland. He explains where boredom fits into the equation for these two philosophers.
"Schopenhauer regards boredom as one of the two main aspects of human experience. The other is desire," he says. "According to him, our lives oscillate between the activity of trying to fulfil our desires and becoming bored soon after we fulfil them. For Schopenhauer, boredom has a negative value and is a source of pain, without any redeeming value."
He says that Kierkegaard had a different attitude towards boredom: "[he saw it], albeit with a mocking sense of humour, sometimes as a source of creativity," says Wicks.
He points to this quote for Kierkegaard's position on boredom.
"The gods were bored so they created man. Adam was bored because he was alone, so Eve was created. From that time boredom entered the world and grew in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone, then Adam and Eve in union, then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille, then the population increased and the peoples were bored en masse."
This is a humorous aside, but it also serves to illustrate the connection between boredom and creativity. Fast-forward to 2019 and you find similar sentiment in a study of boredom presented in the online Academy of Management.
The study, entitled "Why Being Bored Might Not Be Such a Bad Thing", had two sets of subjects perform different tasks.
One set of people were given a task that provoked boredom, namely sorting a bowl of beans by colour, bean by bean. The other research subjects completed an interesting craft project.
Both groups were then given an idea-generating task. The outcome? The bean counters did better in both the quality and quantity of their ideas, as judged by a group of objective people outside of the study.
(A small qualification needs to be made here, however. The bean counters did do better when it came to free-flowing ideas; but they didn't do so well when solving more constrained problems.)
So, it seems there may be a connection between boredom and creativity (maybe old Kierkegaard was right?) But why is it so unpleasant? And does everyone experience it the same way?
Sarah Cowie is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Auckland. She defines boredom as, "A usually mildly unpleasant state that occasions us to seek novelty, variety, and challenges in line with our current goals."
She explains that as humans are goal driven creatures, we feel the need to achieve certain things within different time scales. Doing nothing doesn't contribute to our goals, so we feel uncomfortable and want to change this. Distraction makes us less aware of our lack of achievement. And technology could possibly be the ultimate distraction.
Not everyone's reaction to boredom is the same, however. Cowie says those who are high in "openness" to new experiences, respond well to boredom.
"If their current situation isn't working, they are more likely to look for new experiences and seek creative ways of alleviating boredom."
Others find it excruciating. "People who enjoy complex thinking and engaging with new ideas often find boredom very uncomfortable."
As well as being a warning bell for unmet goals or need for challenges, boredom can also create space that allows us to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to important information.
Those who are always clicking and swiping get a constant low level of stimulation, even when they encounter information that is important. But if you aren't overstimulated in this way, you are able to put such information in context and recognise its meaning.
Cowie says that boredom can serve an important purpose in other ways. Consider puppies and kittens. If left to themselves with nothing to do, they begin to create scenarios that emulate what they may expect to do in the wider world, like hunting and play-fighting.
"When we're bored, we search for things to stop the boredom. This can lead to creativity and coming up with solutions."
Evan Silva remembers well the creative solutions he and his mates came up with growing up in post-war Ōrākei.
"We lived in a street that was full of young mums and dads and lots of kids. There was a valley across the road, and some mornings the kids would cry out 'Ja Ca Ko' – it was a message to the other kids to see who was around. If someone answered back it was a sign that they wanted to meet up."
Silva was a pop musician, a singer in a band called The Action in the 1960s. He says while he can't remember boredom in his childhood, it started creeping in as a teenager. It was then that music saved him.
"When I was bored, before music, I started getting into a bit of trouble. But music really pulled me out of that."
Before technology, real world experiences were needed to ward off boredom. And for the kids in the 1960s, these real-world experiences came in the way of live music. There were hundreds of venues in Auckland alone, places where teenagers could meet up and pair off; dance and experience a distinct culture.
The experience of boredom, and the attendant creativity that emerged within the music community of its day, led to a cultural experience that has been eroded by the distraction of technology. And Silva feels this is a bad thing.
"Music saved people from boredom," says Silva. "You can create music on your computer now, but there is nothing like the experience of performing, growing and developing, in front of an audience.
"People are stuck at home, doing their own thing, not having the experiences that allow them to progress."
While boredom can lead to creativity and can serve as an internal alarm that we're on the wrong path, it has a dark side. It can feel uncomfortable, painful even. And childhood boredom can feel unbearable.
Grant and Natasha Rix are committed to helping kids work through boredom through mindfulness. They run Mindfulness Education New Zealand, a professional development programme for teachers wanting to use the method in their classrooms.
Grant Rix explains that if parents allow their children to experience boredom, armed with mindfulness they are able to learn its value.
Their "Pause, Breath, Smile" programme is a term-long course taught at hundreds of schools across the country. In this, children learn practices such as mindful breathing and awareness of the present to help them understand and work through feelings such boredom.
"In this we teach children the difference between what we call 'treat happiness' (the way you feel if you have a lolly or play a game on a device) and 'peace inside' happiness, how you feel when you are around family or nature," says Grant.
The appreciation of "ordinary moments" (when there is "nothing to do") and the practice of gratitude around these moments can lead to a sense of profound contentedness, according to the couple.
And times where we would otherwise experience boredom can be transformed by the practice of mindfulness.
"By paying attention to what is happening in the moment as you are, say, doing the dishes can be very satisfying."
The effectiveness of this mindfulness-based programme has been reinforced by research. A study conducted by University of Auckland and Auckland University of Technology found outcomes that included enhanced self-awareness, better conflict-resolution skills, and increased calm.
"Mindfulness allows children to be alone with their experiences, whether they be pleasant or difficult. It ultimately teaches them emotional regulation strategies - and this can have great outcomes," says Grant.
"If children have constant stimulation, they can't learn how to move through boredom and understand the feelings associated with it, like agitation and frustration."
Creativity, self-awareness, improved problem-solving – these outcomes of boredom are rarely considered when we are wallowing in the "nothing to do blues". We may have combatted boredom but it seems that we may need more of it.
It's something to consider next time we reach for the phone to do a status update on Facebook. Maybe we'd be better off experiencing the moment, in whatever form it takes, instead.