There are perhaps no two words that command less respect in this world than “I’m bored.” Before you know it, the to-do police—aka parents, teachers, friends—move in from every angle: There are causes to rally around! Countries to see! There are tons of things that you are only mediocre at that you could be practicing! You could be watching TV!
The problem with boredom is that people think boredom is a problem. In the ’90s, the band Harvey Danger made me believe that “if you’re bored, then you’re boring.” It seemed like a sin. We as a culture tend to place a lot of emphasis on being busy as a way to avoid laziness, and it’s hard not to feel anxious or ashamed when the people around us are bouncing from soccer practice to afterschool jobs to bassoon lessons. They seem more serious about life, and we feel guilty for just wanting to loaf around.
But boredom is inevitable, and I think it’s healthy. It’s your body’s way of forcing a time-out. This past September I was trying to write a paper about the Harlem Renaissance for an English class. It’s one of my favorite subjects, and I usually have lots to say about it, but I was bored with one of the authors I was supposed to be reading and I got frustrated. Two weeks before the deadline, I hit a wall. I couldn’t figure out how to put my thoughts together to write the paper. So I just stopped working on it. I watched Netflix all day, took a few naps, and generally tried not to even think about it. When I returned to the paper a week before it was due, I found the break had helped me, and I was able to focus. I realized I’m not always doing my best thinking when I’m staring at a computer screen, and even though it seems counterintuitive or self-sabotaging to spend a day on the couch with a deadline looming, sometimes that’s exactly what I need.
There are lots of instances in which boredom is just that: a damn break. It’s sitting alone with your thoughts and feelings, and just allowing yourself to be idle. But it’s also important to know the difference between being bored with things and being bored with time. In the first case, maybe you’re legitimately no longer interested in something that you’ve dedicated a lot of effort to in the past. When I graduated from high school, I was certain that I wanted to study fashion design. When I actually got to college, however, I was disenchanted with the classes and the businesslike approach to a creative endeavor. I realized that I mostly loved making clothes for myself, which I could do without marketing classes, so I dropped out and moved on. If you feel like you’re sick of playing basketball or writing the book you’ve been working on forever, it helps to ask yourself why. Have you lost steam? Do you just need to decompress (aka watch Netflix and nap)? Or do you really dread the project/activity at hand and you would rather be doing anything else? Sometimes boredom is a sign that something needs to change: your major, your job, the city you live in. It’s hard to face that reality, but doing so can kick-start a whole new pursuit/lifestyle that you actually enjoy.
Being bored with time is another beast entirely. For some of us, the worst thing in the world is having an entire day with nothing to do. It freaks us out and makes us feel lonely. Whenever this happens to me, I watch this video by the poet/songwriter Tanya Davis and filmmaker Andrea Dorfman. It popped up in my Google Reader a few years ago, and I clicked on it because I was curious: How can you TEACH someone to be alone? I loved it instantly, and I watch it frequently as a reminder that being alone is OK, and that there are lots of things to do in my own company. And as my fellow Rookie Hazel noted here, there are benefits to learning how to be by yourself, because you’re not always looking to other people for validation or entertainment or distraction.
Of course, it’s also possible to be around lots of people and still feel totally bored, in which case choosing to disengage becomes a radical act. Everybody wants to know why, and whether something’s wrong, and is it them? So instead of stomping around and complaining that everything sucks, which can send the message that your restlessness is about your friends and not you, I just tell people that, hey, I need some time to myself right now. I have left more parties early and canceled more plans to stay home and knit than I can even count. I recently skipped my own graduation to go to the movie theater and see Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3. It had been a particularly grueling semester, and graduation was going to be an all-day event, outside, on my feet, smiling a lot. The movies seemed to better accommodate my current state: exhausted, dying to sit down, preferably in the dark without talking to anyone. I feel bad about bailing on these things, but sometimes you have to do what you want to do. I believe it’s never a bad idea to step back and take care of myself.
In truth, the only time I think boredom can be a problem is if it’s sustained. If you’re consistently dispassionate about everything—going out to dinner with friends doesn’t interest you, staying home to read sounds awful, concentrating on work is impossible—it might mean that you’re depressed. A lot of us have been or will be in this situation at one time or another, and if you’re unhappy or stressed out about it, confide in a trusted friend or a family member or a professional. (Check out Jamia’s super-informative article about finding the right healthcare provider.)
On a similar note, and thanks to the internet, I think boredom is in part a reaction to our constant stimulation. More than anything, I feel like I’ve reached my limit right now with how much media and pop culture I can consume on a daily basis. Knowing that one of my friends is always saying something, or that a meme of a cat dressed as a shark chasing a duckling on a Roomba is making the rounds, can actually bore me at the same time it tempts me away from naps and walks and leisure. I love my friends, but how many Instagram selfies and pictures of food can I be expected to comment on? Lately, spending an entire day without hearing anyone else’s opinion sounds like a miracle. A lot of that is my own fault, but media demands a lot from us and most of us spend a lot of our day online. I think it’s good to give ourselves little internet vacations just to reinforce what we enjoy. We can’t let FOMO keep us from genuinely relaxing.
Summer is the perfect time to embrace boredom. If you think about how much you do during the course of a school year, doesn’t it make sense to give yourself permission to have at least one day or week without plans? I know that you’re probably told that you should be doing everything you possibly can to prove how awesome you are to prospective colleges or employers, but that doesn’t mean burning yourself out. I’ve never heard of someone being denied acceptance to a university because they spent a weekend binge-watching Arrested Development and eating pizza bagels. It might take a little convincing, but you owe it to yourself. ♦