Stop what you’re doing for a minute, and try to remember the last time you let yourself be bored. Not “phone bored” — the Generation Z weariness that stems from digital overload — but bored bored, the tedium of too little stimulation. When did you last surrender to that restive feeling, the kind that waits at the edge of languor?
I’m guessing you can’t say. Boredom is the scourge of modern life, and the great engine of American commerce is doing its best to banish it. We get our groceries and clothes delivered, and platforms such as TaskRabbit and Seamless promise to free us from mundane chores like shopping, assembling home furniture, cooking weeknight dinners, and picking up takeout. Podcasts distract us from the dreariness of the morning commute and post-dinner dishwashing. At night, the shows we binge-watch preload endlessly, postponing forever the quiet moment after the credits roll.
And then, of course, there are our phones. In all the world’s waiting places, people stare into devices with heads bowed. The phone, a portal that can summon whatever we find most interesting, is the ultimate boredom killer — a way to defer the inner restlessness that was once synonymous with being human. We may be stressed out, distracted, and overworked, plagued by eye strain and brain fog — but we’re not bored. In 2019, you just don’t have to be.
That’s probably not a good thing. Recent research shows that boredom has surprising benefits, with links to imagination and creativity. It turns out all our efforts to uproot boredom don’t make our lives better. Instead, they can eliminate something precious.
Before we talk about the value of being bored, there’s something else to know: Boredom hasn’t been around forever. Not that we haven’t always felt it. But our relationship to that feeling — and our sense of what it implies — has shifted dramatically over the centuries.
In Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, the scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that the contemporary sense of boredom didn’t even exist until the 18th century: “It was a new concept,” she writes, “if not a new event.” Medieval thinkers wrote instead about acedia, a term borrowed…