In Pursuit of Boredom


An interesting piece of research came across my attention the other day. It was research done studying when people are board by monitoring smart phone usage:

Here is an except from the introduction:

Mobile phones are a commonly used tool to fill or kill time when bored especially while being on-the-go. These devices are most likely to be present in all kinds of boredom prone situations, such as subway rides, in class, or while waiting. In such situations, we turn to our phones to kill time, i.e., for self-stimulation without having a particular task in mind. For us, this reality represents an opportunity: if mobile phones are able to detect when their users are killing time, i.e. when attention is not scarce, then they could suggest a better use of those idle moments by, recommending content, services, or activities that may help to overcome the boredom; suggesting to turn their attention to more useful activities, such as revisiting read later lists, going over to-do lists or participating in a research survey; or helping the user to make positive use of the boredom such as using it for introspection, since mental downtime is essential to reflection, learning, and fostering creativity.

So that whole paper (which is pretty interesting) basically is research to see if people are favorable to their phone giving them notifications when it thinks they need stimulation. How did we ever survive before phones? I only hope that if this becomes a reality the third option of introspection is the main preference rather than the other ones.

The scary thing for me is two-fold:

  1. We have become time killers to the point where now we need to be told to kill time. Not only that we have very short attention spans. This goes against what it means to be educated. According to the Art on Manliness article on the Educated man: “The educated man is insatiably curious about the world around him and other people. In any situation, he sees something to learn, study, and observe. If he’s stuck somewhere with neither phone nor company,  he uses the time to untangle a philosophical problem he’s been wrestling with; the mind of the educated man is a repository of ideas that he can pull out and examine to pass the time in any situation.” It’s far better to have something to mull over than to kill time.
  2. Our lack of time discipline is not only affecting what we do, but now we may be getting told what to do to deal with that lack of discipline. There is more to life than being entertained! Jesus said when he was tempted that ‘Man does not live by bread alone’. Now He may say ‘Man does not live by entertainment alone’. I know that the federal government says that cell phone ownership is a right but that does not mean that we have a right to be entertained. That is not what the framers meant with ‘Pursuit of Happiness’.

The more we consume the less we are to create. A culture cannot be sustained by non-creation. If nothing else we need to stop worrying about our boredom and rather start being active and create. Think of it this way… Imagine that you really liked to eat cheesecake (don’t we all) and every once in a while you partake in the delectable desert. You would be a reasonable human. Now what if you are cheesecake every time you desired it? That would be very unhealthy, yet that is what we do with our amusement. Now with this research it is as if all the cheesecake in the world will call us on our phone to say “eat me!”.

However, there is a bigger issue at play here. One that Pascal hit on the head when he wrote “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” We do not like to be alone in our thoughts because then we would have to think the big questions. Peter Kreft commentates on this thought in his book  Christianity for Modern Pagans, Pascal’s Pensees Edited, Outlined, and Explained by saying:

“We want to complexify our lives. We don’t have to, we want to. We wanted to be harried and hassled and busy. Unconsciously, we want the very things we complain about. For if we had leisure, we would look at ourselves and listen to our hearts and see the great gaping hold in our hearts and be terrified, because that hole is so big that nothing but God can fill it. So we run around like conscientious little bugs, scared rabbits, dancing attendance on our machines, our slaves, and making them our masters. We think we want peace and silence and freedom and leisure, but deep down we know that this would be unendurable to us, like a dark and empty room without distractions where we would be forced to confront ourselves. . .

If you are typically modern, your life is like a mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiple diversions.”

Life is not simply flitting from one distraction to another instead it is dealing with the big problems, one way of doing that is being able to avoid the talking cheesecakes and face the rhinoceros in the room.


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