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The Lost Art of Boredom

It had been nearly three years since I last opened up Animal Crossing: New Horizons on my Nintendo Switch. A few days ago, I had the itch to play it again, remembering that Nintedo had dropped new DLC for it a while back that I had never experienced.

To my surprise, I couldn’t find the digitally-purchased game on my console library. One of my sons must have deleted it to make room for Fortnite or something. When I redownloaded the game, I was horrified to find that my save data had also been erased.

That is partially on me. I pay for the Nintendo Switch Online cloud data storage, but I just never uploaded my New Horizons data, as that feature had either just rolled out or was just about to roll out around that time I stopped playing.

For those of you who have played before, you’ll understand the weight this statement carries: I had lost everything. I had collected every bug, fish, fruit, fossil, piece of artwork, and nearly every piece of furniture. I had a bank account with millions and millions of Bells. I had more Nook Miles saved up than I could use before they were replaced again. I had terraformed the entire island exactly to my liking. I had an amusement park, a maze, an entire house just for weird, nerdy stuff.

Hundreds of hours of grinding, all gone. It hurts. It really hurts. Which is strange, because I didn’t actually lose anything real. What hurts is that I lost all that time.

As I attempt to look at the glass half-full and decide to start playing the game from square one again, I keep being reminded of the first time I played it. Myself, like millions of others across the world, bought this game just before or shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic took hold of our lives.

It became a floatation device for our sanity. Just like Tiger King, LEGO Masters, and making your own sourdough bread.

Anything to escape the boredom.

THE LOST ART

My wife and I were discussing TikTok on a recent episode of our podcast, declaring it the go-to app for your longer trips to the bathroom. “What did we do in there before TikTok?” I asked. “Did we just sit there, experiencing everything that was happening to us?”

Joking aside, it’s not hard to remember what I did in the bathroom to pass the time before smartphones. I read. I read everything. I read anything I could reach. Shampoo bottle, toothpaste ingredients, my mom’s Reader’s Digest magazines full of jokes I didn’t get…

Same thing at the breakfast table. Cereal companies used to go all out putting activities on the cereal boxes because they knew kids would be reading them every morning. 

Even staying home sick from school was different. Everyone my age remembers exactly what they did to kill the boredom between upchucks: Watched The Price is Right, usually followed by never-ending coverage of golf or RonCo infomercials. “Set it and Forget it!” Today, my kids can watch pretty much anything they want, at any time.

Boredom to my children is excruciating, because it’s rare. Between the couple hours of video game time they get each day, and the couple hours of TV time they get each day, it seems that their only fixation is filling the boredom until they can turn a screen back on.

Of course, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I’m the same way, as an adult. When I was a kid, I didn’t complain about boredom because it was a given. I had to fill my own time. There was no other option available to me. Today, if I don’t have at least three screens in my field of vision, I feel like I’m slowly dying inside.

Some of the brightest minds and biggest talents who built and innovated and created things that shape our world and culture all started down the paths they’re on today because one day they were bored enough to try something new or to dream up a new idea.

Boredom is often perceived negatively, as a state to be avoided or an indicator of laziness. However, a growing body of research and philosophical thought suggests that boredom, when embraced, can be a powerful catalyst for creativity, self-reflection, and personal growth.

Boredom is a universal experience, characterized by a sense of dissatisfaction and a lack of interest in one’s current activity or surroundings. While often seen as a modern problem, exacerbated by the digital age’s constant stimulation, boredom has been discussed by philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Russell for centuries, each exploring its existential and psychological implications.

One of the most significant benefits of boredom is its ability to foster creativity. When we are bored, our minds search for stimulation, often leading to creative thinking and problem-solving. A study published in the journal “Academy of Management Discoveries” found that boredom can spark individual productivity and creativity because it allows for daydreaming and mind-wandering, which are crucial for creative processes. This suggests that periods of boredom are not only natural but necessary for fostering innovation.

Some of the brightest minds and biggest talents who built and innovated and created things that shape our world and culture all started down the paths they’re on today because one day they were bored enough to try something new or to dream up a new idea.

In today’s fast-paced world, we seldom find time to pause and reflect on our lives, goals, and values. Boredom forces us to confront our thoughts and feelings, often leading to personal growth, self-discovery, and deeper faith. This introspective process can help individuals understand their desires and motivations, leading to more meaningful choices and actions.

Moreover, embracing boredom can have positive implications for mental health. The constant pursuit of entertainment and engagement can lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. Allowing oneself to experience boredom can be a form of mental rest, providing a break from the overstimulation of modern life. This downtime can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.

EMBRACING ACTIVE BOREDOM

Lent just started last week. For this period of 40 days, thousands of believers will choose to abstain from their smartphones or video games or whatever distractions they’ve let overwhelm their daily lives in an effort to mentally detox, quiet the noise, and attempt to hear God speak in their lives more clearly.

It is an opportunity for rediscovering old interests or finding new passions. Embracing boredom can lead to engaging in hobbies, learning new skills, or even changing career paths. For the elderly, boredom can encourage the pursuit of activities that bring joy and fulfillment, contributing to a sense of purpose and decreasing feelings of loneliness or isolation.

But it’s even more important for the kids. For children, boredom is not only normal but essential for development. It encourages imagination and play, which are critical for cognitive and social skills development. When children are left to their own devices, they learn to entertain themselves, fostering independence and creativity. Boredom pushes children to explore their interests and develop new hobbies, contributing to their sense of identity and competence.

You see, there really are two kinds of boredom, but we often think of them as the same. The first is “forced boredom.” A few months ago, I went to get a more intense kind of eye exam where they dilated my eyes so much that I couldn’t see a single thing clearly. I even fumbled my way to the Accessibility settings on my phone and managed to turn the text size as big as it could go and I still couldn’t read what it said. There was a TV screen on the wall across from me with rotation slides, but I couldn’t even use that as a distraction. I sat in the waiting room for two hours, unable to do a single thing to cure my boredom. It was excruciating. That’s forced boredom – situations where you have no choice but to do nothing.

The second kind of boredom is “active boredom.” This is where you find yourself bored, but you have so many options available to you to cure it. While most of us think of “forced boredom” when we imagine being bored, in reality, nearly every situation where we find ourselves bored is an opportunity for “active boredom.”

We are faced with the question, “What can I do right now to cure this boredom?” Or maybe, “What have I been needing to do that I finally have free time for?” Or even, “Is this a moment where I should rest and be still and listen for God’s voice?”

When we start to see boredom as a blank canvas rather than some kind of cosmic punishment, we realize what a true gift it is.

BURNOUT CULTURE

In the digital age, the phenomenon of being “always online” has become a pervasive aspect of our lives. This constant connectivity, while offering unprecedented access to information and social interaction, has significant drawbacks. The culture of perpetual online engagement is not only reshaping our social interactions but also affecting our mental health, attention spans, and ability to enjoy moments of boredom as opportunities for personal growth.

The “always online” culture contributes to a range of mental health issues. Constant exposure to social media can lead to comparisons, envy, and dissatisfaction with one’s life, exacerbating feelings of loneliness and depression. The pressure to be always available and responsive to work emails and messages blurs the boundaries between work and personal life, increasing stress levels and the risk of burnout. A study in the “Journal of Abnormal Psychology” links high usage of digital devices to an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression, particularly among adolescents and young adults.

My oldest son has been asking for a smartphone since he was 6. He’s almost 10 now and I’m holding out as long as I can to give in, because I know that it will bring with it a significant change to the innocent boy I know so well.

The barrage of notifications and the endless stream of content available online are significantly impacting our attention spans. The dopamine-driven feedback loops created by social media platforms are designed to keep users engaged for as long as possible, leading to a constant craving for new stimuli. This environment makes it increasingly difficult to focus on tasks for extended periods or engage deeply with complex ideas, affecting productivity and the quality of work and learning.

The “always online” culture, by filling every gap with digital content, deprives us of the mental space necessary for creativity and the development of new ideas.

The ease of reaching for a phone or device whenever a moment of downtime occurs has eroded our capacity to be alone with our thoughts. Solitude, once a natural part of daily life, has become something many seek to avoid. This avoidance of quiet reflection prevents individuals from engaging in deep, introspective thinking that is essential for personal growth and self-discovery. The “always online” culture, by filling every gap with digital content, deprives us of the mental space necessary for creativity and the development of new ideas.

As outlined earlier, boredom can be a catalyst for creativity, self-reflection, and personal growth. However, the “always online” culture offers easy escapes from boredom, leading many to miss out on these benefits. Instead of allowing our minds to wander and engage in creative problem-solving, we often choose immediate digital gratification. This constant stimulation limits our ability to develop patience, diminishes our creative impulses, and reduces opportunities for meaningful personal development.

When looking at your own life, ask yourself… What if I turned off notifications for the night at 5pm? What if I limited video games to the weekends? What if I ate dinner without the TV on? What if I actually stopped looking at screens 2 hours before bed every night?

How would it change you? How would it affect your mood? What would it give you the time or mental bandwidth to do? Truly, boredom can be the catalyst for something great in your life, big or small.

By embracing boredom, individuals across all ages can unlock new possibilities, improve their mental health, and enrich their lives. Instead of constantly seeking to avoid boredom, we should recognize it as an opportunity for positive change and growth. In a world that values constant engagement and productivity, learning to appreciate and utilize boredom might be one of the most radical acts of self-care and innovation we can undertake.

While starting over with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, grinding away to pay off that con-artist Tom Nook, I realize that I’m only playing in short bursts. Not because I don’t want to play, but instead because I don’t want to play just because I’m bored. Instead, I want to embrace times of boredom to see just what those moments can become. Who knows? One day, one of those moments could change my life forever.





DIR OF CONTENT & RESOURCES
Station Manager of LTN Radio and co-host of the "Nerd History Podcast" & the "Two Words Podcast". Matt is a third-generation radio station manager who has done pretty much every job in the radio industry. Matt is the father of two boys and a little girl. It's probably the best thing about him.

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