Is Boredom the Enemy

The cure for boredom is curiosity.
There is no cure for curiosity.”
 Ellen Parr

Except in a psychiatric institution

If you are confined to a psychiatric hospital the two main  choices on how you spend your time are:  Sit in a plastic chair and watch TV or pace the hall.  Sure there are some other choices: you can mop the floor, you can go to therapy groups or attend other activities – cooperation means improvement.  You will simply do anything that gets you off the ward and gives you some short semblance of respite from painfully cruel boredom.  Subduing curiosity is destructive of our capacity to connect with our resilience and re-engage with our potential to live a life of meaning.

There is speculation among researchers that there is a link between boredom and depression.  Some have given it the name “apathetic boredom.” Another type of boredom is identified as “crushing boredom.”  I wonder if it is linked to more conditions than depression.

Chimpanzees, who may be considered our evolutionary cousins, are highly social animals who are stimulated by the daily novelty of life in the wild.  When confined to research laboratories, the endless boredom is crushing.  So crushing that we can see the dysfunctional behavior and emotions that mirror the experience of what we call “mental illness.”  What else might we expect when we put curiosity in a strait jacket?

A memory that sticks with me is the complaint a middle-aged woman expressed to me while I was conducting an educational seminar on self-help.  She said that she was frustrated by having to work her way through various inane steps in order to be eligible for independent housing. She was forced to  live with the restrictions of  a group home until she was judged suitable to live in her own home. To do this, she had to learn meal preparations and other self-care skills.  My memory of her complaint: “I cooked and kept a proper home while raising three children, why must I demonstrate that I can shop, cook and brush my teeth.  I am bored to death in classes where I learn nothing that I don’t already know.  And when I get angry, I am demoted to a lower rung on the ladder to independence.

I am often reminded of the Dignity of Risk – so essential to our development.  If we are forbidden from being open, facing our fears and embracing our curiosity, we remain frozen in apathetic boredom until it becomes crushing boredom.  If it is not our choice to sit with boredom, if it is imposed by controlling outside forces, it gives rise to impotent anger and all that is left is “learned helplessness.”

Investigators of boredom are also recognizing the benefits of certain kinds of boredom.  If we choose to stay with our boredom and contemplate the emotions and thoughts that spontaneously arise, hints of our creativity often emerges.

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift would be curiosity.” Eleanor Roosevelt