Is it only the boring who become bored?

The tired precept has prompted many to believe it true. To a certain extent, it makes sense; ‘interesting’ people surely must be equipped to entertain themselves infinitely given their predisposition for intelligence and curiosity? Yet it is increasingly argued that boredom should not be a state of mind to abhor and resist but rather one to embrace and work with. This notion has been speculated by philosophers, substantiated by science, and indeed demonstrated by artists and musicians through their creative endeavours. Now we can even appreciate the importance of boredom being a driving force behind creativity, and some of the greatest minds in history.

Before delving into the creative crux of the matter, a scientific explanation behind why boredom can actually nurture creativity, not stifle it, can be provided. In the 20th century, British philosopher Betrand Russel theorised that there were two types of boredom: stultifying and fructifying. Fleeing from fructifying boredom can endanger one to falling into stultifying boredom, which can worsen quality of life. 50 years later, Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire, provided a scientific reasoning behind Bertrand’s claim that boredom can be an empowering and ultimately productive force. Mann describes ‘boredom’ as a “search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied.” A blank mind will naturally wander and seek for material to keep it occupied; at this point, the human brain becomes susceptible to creativity.

Think back to your childhood. Imagination would take over. “Pretend that you’re a…” was a common phrase floating around the playground. When faced with no alternative, children come up with their own games, powered by the sheer force of imagination. Nearly every child must have ‘played’ either ‘Doctors and Nurses,’ ‘Families’ or ‘Teacher;’ games that required no props but rather just the willingness of its participants to invent their own entertainment. Due to the rapid development of technology, there is no need to ‘pretend’ to entertain anymore. Mobile apps and video games are so advanced they can create these worlds themselves and allow children to merely follow the instructions. Games like Fortnite allow players to team up and engage in combat in a dystopian, zombie-environment. All players are required to do is to press buttons. FIFA encourages similar button pushing, where children play as their favourite team without having to go outside. It stands to reason therefore, that this absence of external stimulation motivates children to push their creative capacity to amuse themselves – which they most likely would not do, were they not bored.

A lack of stimulus leading to ingenuity can also be seen in adult life. Western civilisation, in particular, ingrains within society conforming to a path of school, university, a job, etc. The most important requisite in a job is that it earns enough money – not that it is enjoyable. And hence, monotonous. Prescribed existence, the tired trope of ‘adult who hates their job and by extension, life’ has permeated through reality into books and films alike. Take ‘The Incredibles’ for example – Bob despises his grey and dreary office job and finds it underwhelming and wholly unsatisfying. He is bored out of his mind. The complete lack of inspiration he finds in his day to day life inspires him to change it and make it what he wants it to be – so he returns to his previous career as a superhero. His boredom drives him to create the life he actually wants and to carve it into his reality. Transformation of lifestyle can also be seen in real life; consider that acquaintance who could not stand their HR office job any longer and so packed up and spent a year travelling around South America – their boredom inspired them to create a new path for themselves simply for satisfaction. A powerful and creative mindset is borne of an utterly insipid context which then motivates an inspired mindset.

There is also no escaping the prescence of boredom within art. Ennui is critical to the world of arts, whether it be the switch that sparks a passion, or inspiration for an individual piece. The former is often seen in the formation of an artist’s career – a reason for pursuing their craft in a particular field. For instance, the French painter Henri Matisse was interested in law until he was twenty-one. However, when struck down by appendicitis and the subsequent lengthy and wearisome recovery, his mother bought him some paints. With little else to do, he gave it a go. Soon he became riveted by the activity, eventually leading to his status as one of the most prominent artists of all time. It seems probable that had he not been in the throes of a monotonous recovery period that he would never have picked up the brush at all.

As well as igniting an interest, boredom can also inspire pieces. George Harrison of ‘The Beatles’ learned to play sitar after he became disillusioned with the music his group were producing. He studied under Ravi Shankar to hone his technique and soon ‘Norwegian Wood’ (1965) became the first commercial song in the Western hemisphere to use a sitar. Harrison’s boredom lead him and his band to become pioneers in pushing the boundaries of Western pop music, to give their audiences something they had not heard before. Similarly, American composer Mark Appelbaum said that he was bored of music in general – it all sounded the same to him. His motivation when composing is thus to make something “interesting”, something unheard before; he neglects the limitations of genre, instrumentation and time signatures to create “experiences of sounds” that are novel in their existence. Boredom of the conformity within artistic spheres allows artists to push their own boundaries of creativity and innovation.

Tavi Gevinson, creator and editor of ‘Rookie’ magazine and website, ascribes her career to her teenage boredom. As a freshman in high school, she found that there was no resource for teenage girls to share their art, stories, lifes and problems in a non-judgemental yet engaging format. ‘Vogue’ was too highbrow, ‘Red Tops’ only interested in surface emotions, nothing deeper. And so, she created an online publication that invited teenage women to share their creativity and the pains of adolescence to an audience that craved their content as much as these girls needed to share it. Gevinson’s boredom not only launched her career and gave her an outlet to read the things she wanted to but shared that opportunity with a generation of young girls and allowed them to give their creativity a channel and an audience.

Ultimately, boredom should be embraced. It has a productive power that is absent in other mental states. Boredom is a state of searching, needing, and wanting – when there is so little to occupy the brain, there is nothing to hold it back. People can be utterly reckless in their creativity, whether that be within their chosen medium of art, or implicated within their very own lives. Indeed, if you choose to believe Kierkegaard, boredom is at the very essence of our being and genesis; “the gods were bored; therefore, they created human beings.” Boredom is a natural occurrence of human life and cannot be ignored.