The most dangerous thing about smartphones, according to critics, is that we’re never bored. Boredom is healthy, they say! But history and science may say otherwise. People have spent thousands of years desperately trying to escape boredom, and even considered it a sin or disease. So should we really feel guilty every time we fill a dull moment with a screen?
In this episode, we dig into the surprisingly fascinating history of boredom — which once terrified America’s Founding Fathers and has long been a symbol of class and status — as well as the science of what boredom does to our brains.
Jason Feifer: This is Build For Tomorrow, a podcast about the unexpected things that shape us and how we can shape the future. I'm Jason Feifer, and in each episode, I take something that seems concerning or confusing today and figure out where it came from, what important things were missing and how to move forward.
Jason Feifer: Do you like being bored? I mean, I can guess the answer. Your answer is no, nobody likes being bored. Okay, here is a more interesting question. How far would you go to avoid being bored? Would you say willingly hurt yourself simply because it is better than sitting alone with nothing else to do?
Jason Feifer: This is what some researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard University tested a few years ago, they rounded up a bunch of people and asked them to sit alone in a room for six to 15 minutes. To nobody's surprise, the people almost universally said that they did not enjoy this experience.
Jason Feifer: Then plot twist. In some cases, study participants were put in a room and given a choice, they could either be alone with their thoughts, or they could push a button that would give them an electric shock. And just so that these people knew what they were getting themselves into, they were all given an initial shock, and it hurt. Most said that they would literally pay money to avoid being shocked again.
Jason Feifer: But then, they were put in that room with nothing else to do except sit and think. Or if they wanted, they could push the button and shock themselves. And wouldn't you know it, 67% of men pushed the button, and so to 25% of women. So, what can we learn from this? The study got a lot of media attention when it came out in 2014. The response often sounded like this report from Discovery's D News.
Voice Clip (Discovery’s D News): Hey guys, Terry here for D News, and it's become increasingly evident that we are a society who hates being bored.
Jason Feifer: A society that hates being bored. In other words, there is something specific about us right now, in this moment that does not tolerate boredom. The implication is that boredom is something that we should be able to tolerate because other people tolerate it, and the people before us tolerated it, and we cannot. And why is that? Well, the answer would seem obvious. Right?
Voice Clip (Paul Graham): The most dangerous thing about carrying a cell phone everywhere is that you're never bored. Boredom, like pain, is a signal.
Jason Feifer: That was a tweet from the computer programmer and essayist Paul Graham, which racked up more than 11,000 likes. Paul is just one of a loud chorus of people today who talk about boredom this way, as a natural state that we have lost touch with. It's almost like Adam and Eve eat the apple, and get kicked out of the Garden of Eden, and we picked up an iPhone and got kicked out of boredom. Here is the writer and philosopher Sam Harris on Joe Rogan.
Voice Clip (Sam Harris): The smartphone has made it virtually impossible to be bored. Boredom used to be a thing, you'd be sitting in the waiting room of a doctor, right, and they have crappy magazines. And then you're just sitting there. If you didn't know how to meditate, you had to confront this sense of bored.
Jason Feifer: And here is Audie Cornish, co-host of NPR's All Things Considered.
Voice Clip (NPR): Here's a question for you. Do you have enough time to be bored anymore as in mental downtime? Now, if you have a smartphone, you already know what I'm getting at.
Jason Feifer: And here's a CBS This Morning discussion on cell phones.
Voice Clip (CBS): Is the smartphone the enemy of boredom?
Voice Clip (CBS): It really is.
Jason Feifer: I totally understand why this idea is popular. I mean, it just feels true, doesn't it? Who among us has not tried escaping even the most fleeting moments of boredom? Who has not had to wait 30 seconds in front of a microwave, just 30 seconds and pulled out their phone to check email because it's better than just standing there with nothing to do? That is me every day.
Jason Feifer: But over the years as I've watched people lionize boredom, I've become curious about whether this is really the right way to think about boredom. Because if these critics are correct, and boredom is something natural and good, then the desire to avoid boredom would be unnatural. And how is that possible? Humans are social and inventive. We build, we create, we keep busy, and sure we all need mental breaks and moments of quiet, but did human beings ever really want to be bored? Before smartphones and the internet, did people just sit around contentedly being bored like a cow standing in a field, do they enjoy boredom? Do they not try to avoid it?
Jason Feifer: And you know, who can begin to answer this question? It is ...
Jason Feifer: You didn't miss anything, Thomas Jefferson, you are actually right on time for the first critical revelation in the opening section of this podcast episode. In 1787, American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, wrote a series of letters to his 11-year-old daughter, Martha, instructing her on how to avoid boredom. In one letter, he even wrote out a schedule for her to follow.
Voice Clip (Thomas Jefferson): From 8:00 to 10:00, practice music. From 10:00 to 1:00, dance one day and draw another. From 1:00 to 2:00, draw on the day you dance and write a letter the next day.
Jason Feifer: It went on like that. Every hour accounted for, morning to night. Why would he do this? Because boredom, he wrote, is "a canker of human happiness." He said that it creates, "a diseased body." He described it as "the most dangerous poison of life." And he implored her.
Voice Clip (Thomas Jefferson): If at any moment, my dear, you catch yourself in idleness, start from it as you would from the precipice of a gulf.
Jason Feifer: This was a common attitude in Thomas Jefferson's time, as well as for 1000s and 1000s of years before. People have long written down how much they despised boredom and struggled against it. Doctors even once warned about the dangers of boredom, monks worried about the sins of boredom. And you want to know what the ancient Greeks thought about boredom?
Susan Matt: Some people called it the Noontime Demon.
Jason Feifer: That is Susan Matt, a historian of emotions, who you will be hearing a lot more from soon, because as it turns out, we know a lot about how humans throughout history responded to boredom. The answer is fascinating and a lot more complicated than you would expect. Anxiety over boredom, even in the last 200 years has also been a part of anxiety about class and shifting economics and a very evolving understanding of medicine. So when you hear someone like Paul Graham say that-
Voice Clip (Paul Graham): Boredom, like pain, is a signal.
Jason Feifer: You can follow it up by saying, yes, it is a signal that you should do some more research man, because boredom is not a parable about big bad cell phones stealing our minds away from us. It is a story about centuries of humanity struggling with exactly what it means to be human. So, should we escape boredom? Should we embrace boredom? Or should we feel guilty and ashamed every time we use our phones? On this episode of Build for Tomorrow, we're going to answer that question by looking at boredom in the least boring way possible. It is a trip through history and science, looking at where our struggle with boredom came from, and what if anything, boredom is really good for. All coming up after the break.
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Jason Feifer: All right, we are back and things are about to get boring in the best possible way. To start, let me properly introduce you to two people you'll be hearing a lot from. First, there is the woman you heard from a moment ago.
Susan Matt: I'm Susan Matt, I am a professor of history at Weber State University, and I focus on the history of the emotions.
Jason Feifer: And next, there is Luke.
Luke Fernandez: I'm Luke Fernandez, and I'm assistant professor at Weber State University in the School of Computing.
Jason Feifer: Susan and Luke are the married co-authors of a brilliant book that I just love called, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid. It is a history of all those emotions and more, and the vast majority of this episode will be drawn from their research. Also, side note before we begin, as this episode goes on, you're going to hear a full range of noises in the background of their audio. That is because Susan, Luke and I all happened to be in Colorado when I asked to interview them. So we decided to meet up and do it in person, which you'd think would make for a better interview, but instead a cascading combination of dogs and children and airplanes. And a freakin hailstorm made it perhaps the noisiest interview I've ever done. But hey, at least it wasn't boring.
Jason Feifer: Okay, here's the first thing that you need to know about boredom, the concept as we know it today, and even the word boredom itself is relatively new, but the seeds of it were planted in ancient Greece.
Susan Matt: So the ancient Greeks had a word acedia, which meant listlessness, and early Christians applied it to monks, who went out into the desert, lived alone, and got struck with a melancholy that made them falter in their devotion to God.
Jason Feifer: This historians' belief is one of the earliest known expressions of the concept of boredom, using the word acedia. And right out of the gate, things are complicated, because think of it, these monks have gone out into the desert specifically to focus on God and nothing else, and now they are bored, you shouldn't be bored doing something that important.
Susan Matt: It became a sign of your lack of devotion to God and to your monastic vows.
Jason Feifer: Boredom, like pain, is a signal. And this is how boredom becomes a sin.
Jason Feifer: By the 12th century, the concept of acedia shifted a little, it was still associated with religion, but no longer just applied to monks. Now the average person could suffer from it as well if they weren't super into doing their prayers. Then around the same time, the French developed a similar word ennui, which was not specific to religion. It just meant a draining listlessness. And by the 18th century, ennui was adopted into the English language and made its way over to America. This means that the Americans in the 1700s and much of the 1800s did not actually use the word boredom, which hadn't been created yet. So when I quoted Thomas Jefferson a few moments ago, his letters actually spoke of ennui. Ennui is the canker of human happiness.
Jason Feifer: You can also find a fear of ennui in the letters of Thomas Jefferson's political opponent, John Adams. In 1801, after he lost his reelection bid for president against Jefferson, Adams wrote about how bored or ennui-ish he was now going to be.
Voice Clip (John Adams): Ennui, when it rains on a man in large drops is worse than one of our northeast storms, but the labors of agriculture and amusement of letters will shelter me.
Jason Feifer: Men like these had reason to worry. Doctors of the day, were constantly warning about how ennui could destroy your mind.
Susan Matt: It could lead to drunkenness or drunkenness could cause it depending on who you consulted. It could lead to masturbation, or perhaps, masturbation could cause it. So there's this whole litany of Victorian sins that are linked to idleness and ennui. So that comes up in a lot of asylum reports and newspaper reports and the like.
Luke Fernandez: Or even allegedly suicide. Right? There's a journal article about an aristocrat in Monte Carlo who kills himself at a dinner party, claiming that he's just too bored to go on with his life.
Jason Feifer: Hey, have you noticed a pattern here? Who have we heard about suffering from ennui? Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, this aristocrat in Monte Carlo, that is not a coincidence, just like a acedia in early Christianity was thought to only afflict monks, ennui in early America was thought to only afflict the wealthy. The working people, it was believed had plenty to keep them busy, so ennui was what people felt when they had too much leisure and not enough to do. It was a very real boredom, but also a kind of guilt or shame for all their excess time, which made ennui a complex experience.
Jason Feifer: I would hustle to say that this carries on today, even though we don't use the word. I mean, who do you see obsessing and self flagellating over how they spend their downtime today? It is the class that has the time to worry about how they spend their time.
Voice Clip (Paul Graham): Boredom, like pain, is a signal.
Jason Feifer: And that signal becomes clearer and clearer.
Luke Fernandez: It is a slightly privileged position to be able to celebrate spending time off the grid and celebrate boredom.
Jason Feifer: But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves, because the people of the 1800s were about to reckon with this too. I mean, the laboring class had to feel bored. Right? They may not have used the word ennui but they were often working in the fields for hours and hours doing monotonous tasks that could not have possibly engaged their minds. So what were they saying about that experience? The answer is interesting and complicated. First of all, the laboring class told a story of itself in which it was proud to never suffer from ennui. This piece from the Palatka News and Advertiser captures it well, it explores whether money and possessions can truly make someone happy.
Voice Clip (Palatka News and Advertiser Speaker): These things never bring happiness. Never, never, never. They bring on the contrary sadness, weariness, and ennui. Oh, is there anything on earth as awful as ennui? It bites into the very soul and saps life of all that is worthwhile.
Jason Feifer: What did the laboring class say about their work instead? They used words like dull or wearisome. Susan and Luke found tons of letters and diaries, written by farmers and workers in the 1800s, who describe in a matter of fact way what sounds like a very boring life. Settler in Kansas named James R. Stewart for example, wrote in 1855, that in the entire month of June, he "saw no unusual sights, heard no unusual sounds, did no unusual feats." I got the sense that by reading through these, they would have really liked more excitement in their lives, but they did have something that helps them carry on. And that is, they were the beneficiaries of the Protestant Reformation from centuries before, which associated work with virtue.
Luke Fernandez: When you're out there on your farm or on your homestead and trying to plow the land or harvest a crop, there's a lot of tedium and monotony involved in that activity. But you don't attach much import to that because you see so much virtue in the actual work you're doing. And so, people from the middle classes, the yeoman farmers, the people out in the homesteads, yeah, they felt tedium, they felt monotony, but they didn't worry about it the way upper classes did.
Jason Feifer: But still, how did they cope with the monotony? They basically resigned themselves to it, they read, they daydreamed, they built air castles, that was a common phrase they used, building air castles. The settler in Kansas once wrote in his diary that the day's big activity was walking over to someone's house, finding that nobody was home, and then walking back. Some people did romanticize this, there was a pamphlet in 1890, that's sold well called the Blessed be Drudgery. But most people seem not to think of it as good or bad. They just consider dullness to be part of life. And then everything changed because of this.
Jason Feifer: When industrialization increased in America in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it changed the way people thought about work. Beforehand, many Americans worked for themselves. That was what was going on in that example Luke gave from a moment ago, the yeoman farmer doing monotonous work, but feeling the virtues of labor. Now, more people were working for others doing a single task in a factory over and over. And they found very little virtue in that.
Susan Matt: There are lots of histories on the evolution of work, which show that the intrinsic satisfaction you can take from work goes down when you become part of an assembly line, and you're not producing a whole product.
Jason Feifer: And these new workers had a relatively new word to apply to these new jobs. It was finally the word we now know and use, the word boring. The word actually was developed in the background over a few 100 years. In the 18th century, the word bored described a very dull person. And then in the mid 19th century, that evolved into the word boredom, which was a state of mind. This became a useful word because of course, the word ennui was still associated with the wealthy, but anyone, no matter their job or status, could be bored.
Susan Matt: And maybe that's why it catches on in a way that ennui never does in America.
Jason Feifer: But of course, as we know, people do not want to be bored. And while they were once willing to tolerate the feeling of absolute dullness, they now are working in factories, and the feeling became intolerable. I mean, when Henry Ford wanted to add 100 men to his factory, he had to hire 963 of them, because the vast majority would leave. So now employers had a problem. They needed people to do these new jobs, but these new jobs were too boring. So what's the fix? The industrial psychologist Elton Mayo looked into this question in the 1920s and came up with an answer. Here's what he said in a radio broadcast called What Do Workers Want?
Voice Clip (Elton Mayo): If our work has become, in some degree, routine, or even monotonous, we are compelled to develop as a balance the practical and social aspect of things. The home and garden, the children participation and neighborhood activities all take on added importance.
Jason Feifer: When work sucks, then your off the clock time must compensate for it. Very quickly, the entertainment industry also stepped in to fill this void and this, workers were told, is your reward for a hard day's work. You will be bored earning money so that you can spend that money in non boring ways. And workers took the deal. I mean, not like they had much choice, but they did like all of this new leisure. Here I'm going to quote from Susan and Luke's book, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid, because it just captures the shift so well, "This was a revolution in how many conceived of life's meaning, it altered their expectations for what they were entitled to, rather than sadness and passive acceptance of routine drudgery. Many came to believe that pleasure, happiness, excitement and novelty were their birthright."
Luke Fernandez: It's sort of a devil's bargain as it were, and it's saying, "Well, we'll give up the intrinsic rewards of work, which might be there for the extrinsic rewards. So if you go into the factory every day, and it's no fun to work there, at least when you leave in the afternoon, you'll have money to go to the saloon, or to the theater, or to buy something from the Sears Roebuck catalog.
Jason Feifer: This is starting to sound familiar, isn't it? Today, we still have boredom, and we still have the amusements that help us escape that boredom. And of course, today, we also have the people who say the amusements are counterproductive, and we should really be more bored. So where did that come from? It is all part of the history too. But before I tell it to you, I think that there's something else we should pause to consider. Up until now, we have been talking about boredoms evolution as a word and a concept and an experience. But we haven't actually defined what we mean in a very specific way, when we use the modern word boredom. What actually is boredom from a scientific perspective?
John Eastwood: There is some work still being done to come up with a consensus understanding that all social scientists and researchers can get behind. That's one of the things that we've been working on our lab in the last little while.
Jason Feifer: That is John Eastwood, who does his research at a lab, yes, called the Boredom Lab. He can literally break boredom down into its core component parts and help us see what of that is useful and what is not, and whether we really should want to feel bored. And that is what we're going to do after a short break. When we come back, it is the science of boredom, and then the rest of the history of boredom and how it applies to all of us today.
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Jason Feifer: We are back. So just before the break, I introduced you to this guy.
John Eastwood: My name is John Eastwood, and I'm an associate professor of Clinical Psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada.
Jason Feifer: And like I said, John runs the Boredom Lab there, which is dedicated to deepening our understanding of boredom, because there is much to understand.
John Eastwood: Oftentimes people mistakenly assume that boredom just arises when there's nothing to do around us. And that's a bit of a misnomer. We would define boredom as this uncomfortable feeling of wanting but being unable to be engaged in satisfying activity.
Jason Feifer: John says that there are two core things happening in the mind of a bored person. The first thing is what boredom researchers call a desire bind.
John Eastwood: So the bored person desperately wants to be doing something, but they don't want to do anything in particular that's available to them in the moment. So they can't muster up an actionable desire.
Jason Feifer: Hence, the desire bind. Now, if you have kids, as I do, then you are surely witnessed this all the time, like my six year old will always say, "I'm bored." And my wife and I will be like, "Stop saying that, you're in a house with 1 million toys." But he wants something other than the toys he has. It is a desire bind, the first part of boredom. And the second part of boredom is what John's team calls an unoccupied mind.
John Eastwood: So the bored person's cognitive abilities, their mental capacity is underutilized. So it's as if they have brain power that's sitting on the shelf and not being used. And this feels really uncomfortable.
Jason Feifer: So, if you were to summarize what's going on here, John says that you can think of boredom as a crisis of agency.
John Eastwood: An agency refers to our capacity to think about the future, to develop plans, to monitor ourselves and regulate ourselves as we engage in a plan. And so boredom throws down the gauntlet that tells us you're not being agentic in this moment, and it invites us to address that problem and to regain our sense of agency in the world. And that can be an opportunity to either go in some positive directions or some negative directions.
Jason Feifer: And this is a good thing in theory, we want an internal alert system for when we don't have agency, which used to say, wouldn't you know it?
Voice Clip (Paul Graham): Boredom, like pain, is a signal.
Jason Feifer: The comparison is true in a way.
John Eastwood: Physical pain tells our body that we're in some danger or we're damaging our body. And so similarly I would say that boredom is good in that it alerts us to a problem and helps us rectify that.
Jason Feifer: But what happens from there is not so simple. For some people, the sensation of boredom pushes us to engage our brains and bodies in positive ways. For others, boredom is associated with things like overeating, impulsivity, depression, anger and risk taking. And this is true not just in humans, but in animals. When animals are in under stimulating environments, they may bite themselves or pull out their feathers or fur, which of course, reminds me of that electric shock study with humans from the beginning of the episode, where people zap themselves out of boredom. And why do living creatures all do this?
John Eastwood: So, we don't know for sure, but the possibility is that both for animals and for humans, the bored state is such an uncomfortable feeling that people may actually prefer physical pain as something to vivify, and make them feel more alive again, after that kind of dull experience of being bored.
Jason Feifer: And now we can see why people will take almost any opportunity to escape boredom. Which brings us back to our boredom timeline, because when we left off with the history, we were just getting to the point where those escapes from boredom were being created. Remember, an industrialized America created all these monotonous jobs, and workers effectively agreed to a deal. We will do these boring jobs in exchange for having money and time to enjoy the new pleasures of modern life. Cities were soon full of entertainment options, and while rural people had less access to that, eventually, new technologies like phonographs and radios brought the fun to them.
Jason Feifer: The Edison phonograph was even advertised that way, it said, "It was the ideal amusement for the farm." But while the working class was enjoying this newfound leisure, the worrying class was seeing reason to worry. Here is Susan Matt again.
Susan Matt: In the 1920s and early 30s. There is a real discourse among psychologists, sociologists and other commentators who are wondering is it good for humans to be exposed to movie theaters, to concerts, to radio's blaring? Is this too much sensory stimulation? Is it going to lead to sensory overload, is it going to lead to nervous people who demand ever more excitement in their lives?
Jason Feifer: Susan and Luke include a bunch of examples of this in their book. For example, in 1921, the psychiatrist, Abraham Meyerson described entertainment as a kind of drug.
Voice Clip (Abraham Meyerson): Excitement follows the great law of stimulation, the same internal effect, the same feeling requires a greater and greater stimulus as well as new stimuli.
Jason Feifer: And in 1925, the sociologist, Robert Park, wrote that.
Voice Clip (Robert Park): Leisure is now mainly a restless search for excitement. The restlessness and search for adventure is, for the most part, barren and illusory, because it is uncreative. We are seeking to escape from adult world instead of turning back upon it to transform it.
Jason Feifer: It's kind of crazy. Right? Just a generation or two earlier, the word boredom didn't exist, and the very concept of it seemed exclusive to the wealthy who at once got to enjoy their luxury, struggle against the free time that their luxury afforded, and then feel guilty about the struggle. Meanwhile, doctors were describing all these terrible dangers of boredom, which encouraged the wealthy to stay busy and the laboring class were left to build air castles and write letters about how nothing happened to them.
Jason Feifer: Then the concept of boredom became democratized, as did some sense of leisure or at least access to entertainment and leisure time. And wouldn't you know it, that's when doctors and intellectuals start saying, "Wait a minute, I don't know if all this entertainment is very good for you people." By the 1950s and '60s, the narrative had shifted even further, the idea of boredom and the entertainment that helps people escape from boredom melded into one singular thing. The entertainment industry itself was now seen as the cause of boredom, or at least the trap that kept people from truly accessing their minds.
Jason Feifer: Commentators worried about a pampered population that tried to escape their dull lives through entertainment. Here is the journalist Harriet Van Horne in 1961.
Voice Clip (Harriet Van Horne): You have to be bored near-frenzy to turn on the television set these days. Once you've turned it on, you merely exchange passive boredom for active boredom.
Jason Feifer: Although wouldn't you know it, around that time, boredom once again becomes a concern for doctors. A landmark 1957 study published in Scientific American called Boredom, a Pathology. McCall's Magazine soon ran a piece called is boredom bad for you? Which went on to report.
Voice Clip (McCall’s Magazine): Don't underestimate the dangers of being bored. According to experts on the subject, it's one of the most destructive of your emotional states.
Jason Feifer: And onward, we would go through the decades with a shifting understanding of who was bored and what the effects of boredom were and how to escape that boredom, and whether the solution was also the problem. Which more or less brings us to where we are now, in a big soup of all our previous opinions and class anxieties about boredom. So, what are we to make of all of this? Are we the modern people who pull out their phones, whenever they're bored, actually missing something important? Is boredom something that we should want more of like the pundits say?
Jason Feifer: Longtime listeners of this show will know where my instinct lies, I look back at the past, and I see that a conversation from today is just a repeat of a conversation from yesterday, and then take that as a sign that today's worries are overblown, because if we survived whatever we were worried about the first time, maybe it isn't that big of a deal to begin with. And if 1000s of years worth of people also saw an escape from boredom, utilizing whatever tools of distraction they had available to them, then doesn't that mean it is perfectly natural for us to do the same with our tools of distraction? But Luke, he's not buying that.
Luke Fernandez: I make a slightly different inferences that, well, it's precisely because we worry about these things, that we make the appropriate adjustments. Maybe a good illustration of that is back in 2008, or 2010, when my students were coming in the classroom, and the phones were going off, ringing all the time, and actually posing a real distraction. Through the process of worrying about those things, we've learned how to use those devices more politely or less intrusively than we did when we first started using them. I don't hear a phone going off anymore in the classroom.
Luke Fernandez: We're constantly celebrating innovation, that innovation is something that we should be engaged in if we want to be a productive, competitive society in the world. But innovation isn't just about creating products and creating new technologies, it's also about learning how to use technologies wisely, and so that the process of worrying, being anxious, at least in the most charitable sense, is another form of innovating.
Jason Feifer: And that seems reasonable to me. Technology alone is not the sum of innovation, the way we use something is also innovation and new tools do not always seamlessly integrate into old settings, which means that we should always have smart conversations about ways to improve. But I guess I still worry about the ability to actually identify what's new about new things. Like when commentators today lionize boredom and talk about how dangerous it is that we don't allow ourselves to be bored, they seem to be ignorant of our very old, very human, very natural desire to not be bored.
Jason Feifer: This isn't some new thing that cellphones created. And this matters because if we make decisions and set expectations based on a romantic idea of ourselves, rather than an actual understanding of ourselves, then we're creating expectations that don't match our needs, we will always be disappointing ourselves. But of course, I admit, these are the words of someone who does not study boredom for a living. So, let's turn back once again to a guy who actually does, John Eastwood, who runs the Boredom Lab. What does he here when he hears people talk about how we need to be bored, and how dangerous it is that we're not allowing ourselves to be bored? Is this true?
John Eastwood: I would kind of think about it a bit differently that I think what we're romanticizing or what we yearn for, or what we need or want, I would characterize it as we need to be less stimulated, or we need to be in potentially boring situations without succumbing to boredom.
Jason Feifer: Boredom, of course, is a lack of agency, a desire bind, an unoccupied mind. That is never desirable, and it never will be, and for good reason.
John Eastwood: I don't think we should equate under stimulation, I don't think we should equate a weekend without the internet as being necessarily boring. What we should do is recognize that we may be have to grow our capacity to become mentally engaged when the external stimulation falls away. So this is an important skill that we need to foster, we need to develop.
Jason Feifer: When I heard John say this, I flashed back to this thing that the technology police keep saying about how we need to be bored. They always give an example of missed opportunities for boredom, as if there are little litmus tests for our mind. And the example is just like the one that I gave at the beginning of the show, when I talked about how I check my email in front of the microwave, it is these moments, the ones we fill mindlessly with distraction. Here is a little bit of that clip that I played of Sam Harris.
Voice Clip (Sam Harris): Boredom used to be a thing, you'd be sitting in the waiting room of a doctor. Right?
Jason Feifer: And before cellphones, he said, you'd have to sit there being bored, which isn't really true, of course, because there were magazines and TVs in waiting rooms. But anyway, you see where he's going with it. And here's that same sentiment expressed on CBS This Morning.
Voice Clip (CBS): Is the smartphone the enemy of boredom?
Voice Clip (CBS): It really is, because anytime anybody gets up to go to the bathroom at the dinner table, we're all checking our phones, thinking that there's some great answer happening there.
Voice Clip (CBS): And the person going to the bathroom usually takes their phone.
Voice Clip (CBS): Exactly.
Jason Feifer: Everyone affirmed the observation at once. But look, now that we've heard John make this great point about the difference between boring and less stimulating environments, I am hearing this public advice about boredom differently. What I now hear is well, it's like the equivalent of how some financial pundits will tell you to skip your daily latte because you'll save $5 a day that really adds up over time. But my brilliant friend, Nicole Lapin, who is a financial expert, and best selling author, and host of the podcast, Money Rehab, which you should totally listen to. Well, she hates that advice. Because giving up your morning coffee doesn't make you a millionaire, it actually just adds an inconvenience to your life that slows you down and maybe makes you lose more money in other ways.
Jason Feifer: You want to be a millionaire? Enjoy your damn coffee and start making larger and more strategic financial decisions. And this whole boredom thing cuts the same way. When critics today talk about the importance of boredom, it's almost as if they're scolding us for not taking every opportunity for quiet contemplation, where the only difference between enjoying quiet moments and not enjoying them is that we have been ruined by a cellphone. But you know what? Sam Harris, if you can clear your mind and reach a meditative state in a doctor's office waiting room, then you go for it, man, but I can't, and most people can't.
Jason Feifer: And I think that hammering this message that small moments of downtime, or where we reveal the weaknesses of our minds, is really counterproductive. Because there are times when we are bored. We just are, and we don't like being bored. Not now, not 100 years ago, not 1000 years ago, boring is boring, and it makes us want to zap ourselves with electricity, and it makes animals want to tear their fur out, and that's what's natural. So give us a break and stop making people feel like they're doing something wrong when they're not.
Jason Feifer: But of course, that is not to say that we can't, as John says, grow our capacity to become mentally engaged when the external stimulation falls away. Here's a crazy idea, what if we all just have to figure out for ourselves what that looks like? And what works for us in the moments that make sense for us? What can that look like? Well, look, I can only say what it looks like for me. But here it is. About a year ago, I started taking bike rides to get some exercise, which I had never done before. I would go half an hour sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the day. And at first I thought, "Well, what am I going to do while riding this bike?"
Jason Feifer: So I listened to podcasts or to music. But after a while, I started to realize that my mind was wandering during the podcasts or by the end of the bike ride, I was totally sick of music, but actually was enjoying the feeling of riding the bike. So then I tried riding without anything in my ears, and I liked that too. I'd come up with ideas or remember something I'd forgotten to do, or let my mind refresh. I realized that this works really well for me, because I am very bad at sitting still, I always have been. So if I can give my body something to do, my mind can explore.
Jason Feifer: Now, is this being bored? I submit to you, it is not. Is this utilizing my downtime in unrealistic ways? No. This is me discovering something about me and changing my routine a little as a result. And hey, whatever, it worked for me, maybe some version of that works for you too, I suggest trying it out. But the next time you feel a little bored, because you're walking to the bathroom, or waiting for your food in the microwave, or whatever, I give you permission to not feel bad about whatever you do to feel that time because sometimes we are bored, and we don't like to be bored. And boring is not what we should strive for.
Jason Feifer: And that's our episode. By the way, this is not the first episode that I've had Susan and Luke on to discuss the history of emotion. So if you want to hear more from them, rewind to the episode called Your Vein, and that's okay, where we get into the history of vanity and how it was shaped by the post office, the camera and the mirror. And of course, also pick up their book, Bored, Lonely, Angry, Stupid. And also, I have one more great little bit from their research to share. It is about what happened when laborers in the 1800s tried to escape their boredom with fantasies, and it didn't quite work out.
Jason Feifer: But first, do you want to feel more optimistic about the future, I have a free audio course that can help you do it and you can find it by going to Jasonfeifer.com and clicking on the free training button at the top. While you're there, you can also see more of my work and get in touch with me directly. I promise to reply. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @heyfeifer, H-E-Y-F-E-I-F-E-R. This episode was written and reported by me, Jason Feifer with additional research from Britta Lokting and Adam Soccolich. Sound editing by Alec Bayliss. Our theme music is by Caspar Babypants. Learn more at babypantsmusic.com.
Jason Feifer: The actors you heard reading all those great old quotes were Gia Mora. You can find her at giamora.com, and Brent Rose. You can find him at Brentrose.com. Thanks to my sister and her husband, Jody and Andy for letting me take over their house to do the interview for this show. And also fun note as I create this episode, I am actually on my way back to New York after a year and a half out west. So, the interviews in this episode were recorded in Colorado. The episode was written and recorded in Washington, D.C., and I will be in New York by the time it actually goes live. Technology. How about that?
Jason Feifer: This show is supported in part by the Charles Koch Institute. The Charles Koch Institute believes that advances in technology have transformed society for the better and is looking to support scholars, policy experts and other projects and creators who focus on embracing innovation, creating a society that fosters innovation and encouraging people to engineer the next great idea. If that's you, then get in touch with them, proposals for projects in law, economics, history, political science and philosophy are encouraged. To learn more about their partnership criteria, visit cki.org, that is cki.org.
Jason Feifer: All right, now, one more little bit about boredom. Susan and Luke found all sorts of letters and diaries written by people who struggled with the monotony of their lives and who described the ways that they try to keep busy. The factory worker named, Fiducia, wrote in the mid 1800s, about escaping into fantasies. But then the fantasies became so dark that she had to stop. She wrote a poem about it, part of which goes like this.
Voice Clip (Fiducia): O Fancy now remain at home, and be content no more to roam, for visions such as thine are vain, and bring but discontent and pain. Remember, in thy giddy whirl, that I am but a factory girl, and be content at home to dwell, though governed by a factory bell.
Jason Feifer: Anyway, that's all for this time. Thanks for listening, and I hope you didn't find this episode too boring. I am Jason Feifer, and let's keep building for tomorrow.
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