It’s hard to define boredom, except by its essential lack. It’s about an absence of things: of thoughts, of activities, of fun. I spent childhoods watching rain run down the windows, having read all my books already, and yearning for another Paint-By-Numbers set. My mother used to tell me only stupid people got bored. But I think it’s the converse: it’s the ones whose brains are always flickering and shimmering, seeking out the next novelty, who must tire easiest of what they already know, of the conversations heard a hundred times before, of the words and pictures that can’t fill you up anymore. Powerful brains, the human miracle, that can find hours of imaginative entertainment inside their own head in a doctor’s waiting room, or instead let themselves in five minutes be submerged under the grey lake that is boredom.
Cortisol levels actually rise when we’re bored, showing us in a state of stress. We feel like ‘chewing off our own arm’ or engaging in self-destructive behaviour, we fidget and tap pens and drum our fingers and sigh. Drug addicts are more likely to relapse if they report feeling bored; patients with traumatic brain injuries more likely to report higher levels of boredom and then engage in riskier behaviour to assuage it. Boredom is a state that swallows and encompasses and crushes.
But boredom is increasingly squeezed out of society. Our phones are always in reach, to tap another round of Angry Birds out, or scroll endlessly down Twitter. Boredom is something to be avoided at all costs, to be feared, to seek to stave off its looming presence with low-touch, low-impact digital stimulus, firing up our brain with tiny fragments of pleasure like pixels bouncing across a screen.
However, it’s the strength of our internal resources that pull us through the vacuum of boredom, the wet pictures and fragile worlds we create inside our own selves. So maybe my mother was right. The thoughts that filter into your mind on a three hour train trip when your phone’s out of battery and your whole life seems laid out before you like patchwork fields. The way sunlight drips through grey clouds, how tightly the man next to you is holding onto the headlines in his newspaper, the tessellation of the patterns of the forms of train seats. Or flee instead into a richly created dream world, where magic is the everyday, creating the new from the impossible, seeking novelty in a long story arc, a life of characters who are not like and yet are, me.
I think we are scared of boredom because it is in boredom that we look inside, and see how we have filled ourselves.
As Martha Naussbaum would put it, “Do not despise your inner world.” Embrace it.