Blackouts and Boredom

In our age, one would think boredom would be wiped from the face of the Earth once and for all. We’ve got heaps and heaps of television channels available for free. We can stream more over the Internet. We can find music at our fingertips, movies, documentaries, podcasts, and when the average person can instantaneously communicate with almost any other person on the planet – who has the time to be bored any longer?

Enter the storm season! Where I reside, the storms appear to be highly correlated with blackouts. The other day, whilst my housemates where still away holiday making, I had the pleasure of experiencing three blackouts in 24 hours. The electricity was nearly off for longer than it was on.

My electric dreams and plans for this day were over.

I have really come to enjoy my alone time. It seems to restore me (not just by the napping involved) and offer opportunities for reflection, understanding and creativity. But this silence and solitude wasn’t planned for. It was too much all at once.

At first I was a startled by how bloody quiet it got.

It can be pretty difficult to get this type of silence without an unsolicited electricity interruption these days. There’s usually some form of traffic hum or television buzz going on in in the background. There’s the beeping alarm that wrenches us awake to start another day. Throughout the day we can be assaulted by our ringtone, by text messages and email alerts. Our devices ensure we’re always connected to the rest of the world. Social networks, instant messaging, emails, and the like are constant. Technology has made interaction a click away and the world has gotten a lot smaller.

Silence can be pretty powerful. Somehow, our culture has transformed the idea of being quiet and by one’s self into some sort of eccentricity that the well-adjusted individual shouldn’t have to experience. In this case, we are talking about being alone and not being lonely, although it seems the distinction has been blurred. Yet silence has much to offer in all facets of our lives. Without all the noise and chatter and distraction of the world around us, it’s so much easier to connect back to our self.

Still, with the quiet and the aloneness of the third power outage the only thing I seemed to be connecting with was a sense of boredom.

Boredom is a universal experience and is best described in terms of attention. When we’re bored we don’t just have nothing to do, we have a desire to be stimulated, but for whatever reason, are unable to engage with our environment. It’s about our level of connection or relationship with the activity.  In a nutshell, boredom is the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity.

Interestingly, it has been found that boredom can be associated with both low-arousal and high-arousal states. At times, boredom breeds lethargy — we might even have trouble keeping your eyes open. In other situations, being bored can lead to an agitated restlessness: think pacing, or constantly tapping our feet. Often boredom can oscillate between the two states. We might pump ourself up to concentrate on a dreary task, then slip back into listlessness as our focus wavers again.

I started to think that perhaps technology was behind my usual lack of boredom. My love of television and music and documentaries and podcasts and talking means that in today’s world, I’m living the attentional dream.

But that’s not true.

Apparently, boredom is on the rise. And not just during blackouts. In one survey, participants were asked ‘What bores you at work?’ Fourteen per cent of respondents said another person. Apparently even other humans are boring these days.

What’s possible is that by relying on technology to save us from boredom – as novel and as stimulating as that appears on the screen – the more we have to stimulate us, the more stimulation we crave. Our brains are hardwired to seek novelty. When we see a new image, or something pleasurable on our flickering screen, there’s a surge in the pleasure chemical dopamine. And we want more of it.

The problem is though that we’re stuck in the rut of trying to satisfy our need for neural stimulation via the exact same method over and over – tap, swipe, gaze, tap, tap, swipe, gaze, hmmm, gaze, gaze…

So, what’s the antidote to that nagging feeling of boredom? Engage in utterly varied and diverse activities. Things that get us out from the boring, monotonous routine that seems to be the wider pathology of our technological world. Turn the power off and see what happens.

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