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The Art of Being Bored

Today, every corner of our lives seems to be filled with never-ending streams of information and vibrant entertainment. The concept of being bored has become almost extinct. Thanks to constant access to the internet and social media, fleeting moments of boredom are swiftly replaced with scrolling endlessly through feeds, binge-watching TikToks, or engaging in mindless meme sending. Amidst this abundance of stimulation, have we forgotten the art of being bored?

When I was younger, I used to spend every summer at my grandma’s house in Japan. I remember idly rolling around the mountains with no internet or anything to do other than watch dull daytime TV or dust off a comic from the 1970’s. When that got too boring, I had to get creative: toss a ball outside or rummage through my grandma’s watercolour paints, butchering a portrait of the family dog. But in all those exhausting hours that I spent stuck on the sofa, counting corners of chipped paint on the ceiling and recounting riveting scenarios in my head, I felt that I had truly understood what boredom meant. 

In fact, I must have invited boredom at times, tossing my phone to the side knowing that there was nothing that I could do with it. Even just a decade ago, we had little to do on phones, particularly when your phone plan only included limited texting and no data. Feeling disconnected from the internet was certainly the norm when I was younger, making me autonomously reach for other activities such as writing ludicrous BTS fanfiction or listening to my pirated Fall Out Boy album on my iPhone 4S. It did the job of letting time pass by. I had somehow allowed myself to be entirely unstimulated. Being “offline” didn’t mean temporarily deactivating your Instagram while bingeing Netflix, it meant quite literally having no way to get back to digital civilization.

The case is starkly different now; there is simply too much to do on your phone. When I feel even a slight wave of disinterest with my current activity, I reach for my phone on autopilot. Without even realising, I’m suddenly scrolling through wholesome cat memes on Instagram or finding out about the various species of dinosaur on TikTok, letting myself rot away. Finding external sources of entertainment, especially from such a pocket-sized object, is easier than ever thanks to the development of short-form content on social media. 

Enter “doomscrolling”. We’ve all done it. You open your phone and, as if by magic, your finger starts swiping down on one video after another. Doomscrolling is the idea of seeking out negative information online. Like watching a car crash, know that you could (and should) stop at any time but still somehow choose not to. I’ve certainly fallen prey to doomscrolling myself, which always started with an upsetting news article that led me down the dangerous rabbithole of true crime. When such information can be presented in bite-sized pieces, it’s easy to see how “just one more video” can easily escalate to a ten-part documentary. 

Doomscrolling (even in the most harmless sense) often makes me go into a trance of viewing one video after another, oblivious to the amount of time actually passed. After several hours, I watch the vibrant flashy colours swirl around me, the same pitched-up TikTok song haunting me in all crevices of my eardrums. It is only when I suddenly look up at my laptop and realise I only have two hours left to finish my essay, I ask myself why I just wasted so much time. Was looking at all those sad edits of One Day really worth it? I don’t think so. But at least it itched the scratch of needing to watch them. 

Dopamine, often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, plays a crucial role in giving you motivation and satisfaction, controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, and concentration, among other functions. Every notification, like, or share on social media makes us feel good and fulfilled, reinforcing the behaviour and fostering a cycle of constant engagement. It’s due to dopamine that many of us obsessively check the number of likes or comments a recent post has received. 

It certainly feels rewarding to enjoy the dopamine from social media, but the relentless pursuit for more stimulation feels vapid and unhelpful. Anna Lembke, Professor of psychiatry at Stanford University of School of Medicine, states that social media has revolutionised the way in which we access dopamine. It hits the four key criteria for being dopamine gold: it’s easily accessible; there is unlimited content; content is often combined with other stimulating elements like sex, gaming, or music; and novelty, as dopamine triggers are especially sensitive to new things. Over time, our brains become desensitised to smaller rewards leading to a need for more frequent and intense stimulation to achieve the same level of satisfaction.  Social media addiction is akin to other dopamine-centred addictions like drugs, sex, or gambling. Those with dopamine-related addictions suffer from restlessness and agitation, and their symptoms are associated with poor mental health, sleep issues, and in the case of social media, a decrease in attention span. Yet, while “with cocaine you run out of money, […] TikTok is indefatigable”, meaning that unless you really want to throw your phone into the sea, resisting the urge to go online is too painful. 

To combat social media addiction, some have attempted a “dopamine detox”, cutting off all forms of social media in search of a simpler, less stimulating life. Some may do a dopamine “fast”, turning their phone off for a short amount of time, whereas others may commit completely to removing social media from their daily routines. By restricting addictive activities, you find a way to resist the urge to feed those impulses, opting for less overstimulating ways like reading or physical exercise. 

But is there a sense in which – the compelling nature of social media stimulation aside – we are normatively averse to boredom? Boredom has long been stigmatised as a negative state of mind, heavily associated with feelings of restlessness, dissatisfaction, and unproductivity. In a society that values productivity above all else, the idea of being bored is often seen as a waste of time. 

On the contrary, we probably ought to spend more time being bored. Boredom provides the necessary space for creativity, mindfulness, and self-discovery. When we allow ourselves to be bored, we open the door to new ideas, perspectives, and experiences that might otherwise pass us by in the flurry of constant stimulation. In The Burnout Society, Byung-Chul Han writes that “boredom to the mind is like sleep to the body”. We often forget to decompress and appreciate that a clear, unstimulated mind can be beneficial in sprouting our creativity, although it seems paradoxical to think so. 

So how can we reclaim the art of being bored in a world that constantly bombards us with distractions? Instead of viewing boredom as something to be avoided, we can learn to embrace it and invite it as an opportunity for growth and self-exploration. Setting boundaries around our use of technology and even carving out dedicated time to just let ourselves be bored might be helpful, implementing small yet effective dopamine detoxes in our lives where we disconnect from the digital world and allow ourselves to simply be. 

By ‘dopamine detoxing’, we can also allow ourselves to find activities that truly cultivate a sense of flow and engagement without the need for external stimulation. As fun (and equally embarrassing) as it might be for me to be on level 6333 on Candy Crush, I can’t say that it makes me feel truly fulfilled. Whether it’s reading a book, going for a walk in nature, or pursuing a creative hobby, these moments of unstructured time can nourish our minds and souls in ways that digital overstimulation cannot. 

When we become overwhelmed with social media and the internet, rediscovering the art of being bored might just be the antidote to the pitfalls of constant stimulation. By embracing moments of stillness and allowing ourselves the freedom to be unstimulated, we can tap into inner reserves of creativity and inspiration. So maybe the next time you find yourself bored, you should just lean into it, wait a while, and see what exciting things it brings.

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