Last week a striking survey of the 50 most boring things in British life was published. It was commissioned by the courier service Interparcel. Many of its top 50 were to do with waiting. Third from the top of the Boring List was waiting in queues, especially at the Post Office.
How the UK has changed, was all I could think. In September 2012 SWNS.com, a news wire service, produced a survey of 2,000 people suggesting the average British person “will wait patiently for food, the toilet, while doing the shopping or [waiting] stuck in traffic for … two hours and five minutes every week.” What’s more “a sociable 68%” are inclined to “strike up a conversation with those standing in front or behind, to pass the time”.
What can have changed to so alter the emotional life of the British in a mere two and a half years? Well, it hasn’t changed, you might rightly say. These surveys are in fact about as reliable as Kanye West (28 on the boring list).
Maybe the real issue has nothing to do with slippery statistics, but everything to do with that word boring: it can mean just about anything you want, and so it does in the boring list. It could entail waiting (being on hold is number 2 on the list), dullness, impatience, vulgarity (the Kardashians come in at number 12), impenetrability, disappointment, frustration, monotony (Gwyneth Paltrow is at 37), predictability, or just being fed up.
There is nothing inherently boring in any of these occurrences. Take waiting, an experience that is often said to be synonymous with boredom. Waiting is purposeful, mostly. You may wait to buy a stamp. But if the wait is too long, you become impatient. But only then. And, anyhow, impatience is not the same thing as boredom, though it’s similar.
You may also become bored with waiting itself, although that depends on the nature of the experience. When Clive James was diagnosed with terminal leukaemia he commenced a series of last hurrahs. The most recent was his poetry collection Sentenced to Life. I doubt that Clive James finds his waiting in the least boring. But others might. Clive James’s friend PJ O’Rourke urged him to “soft-pedal this death’s door stuff because people will get impatient”.
Don’t mix up the emotion (and boredom is an emotion) with the circumstances that can provoke it. Maybe we can solve the problem by trying to say what boredom is rather than what boredom isn’t. Definitions really can vary, but the one I favour (naturally – it’s my own) is that boredom is an emotion of mild disgust encouraged by temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances.
Unavoidability and predictability are easy to understand. But why disgust? In UK English, being “fed up” has long been an alternative word for boredom. Nausea is used that way by French writers including Jean-Paul Sartre ,and even by the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca. It’s as if boredom can be like an excessive meal. After too much, everything tastes the same. It’s predictable and, of course, you’re too full and slightly nauseous and even disgusted.
The reverse can be true as well: rice cakes featured at number 23 in the boring list.
Mixing up the meanings of boredom disguises its unexpected usefulness. Because the experience is unpleasant, it encourages people to escape from the predictable circumstances causing it. It’s a natural enemy of mental vegetation. Boredom is good, therefore, for entrepreneurs, scientists and musicians (but not always – Elton John described The X Factor as “boring, arse-paralysingly brain crippling”).
There has also been a link made between creative thinking and boredom. The neurologist Kalina Christoff, of the University of British Columbia, argued that when the brain switches off (boredom can encourage this) and when daydreaming supervenes, it can move into problem-solving. The problem-solving region of the brain will light up under fMRI scanning when a person daydreams. It demonstrates unexpectedly thoughtful activity.
But boredom, unalleviated, can be bad for you. A recent publication by the University of Montreal’s Kieron O’Connor and his team argued that a variety of harmful body-focused, repetitive behaviours such as “chronic hair-pulling [trichotillomania], skin-picking disorder and nail-biting” can be produced from unresolved boredom.
With boredom, I suppose, it’s a matter of getting the balance right. Too little and you’ll vegetate; too much and you’ll trichotillomaniate.
Adapted from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/may/01/boredom-free-the-mind
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