The Urgent Case for Boredom

Boredom is a relatively new human feeling — and it’s endangered

Photo: WoodenheadWorld/Getty Images

SStop 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.

BBefore 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 from the ancient Greeks to describe the deadly sin of sloth. Like other early conceptions of melancholy and listlessness, acedia was seen as a disorder of self — the tragic refusal to recognize beauty in the God-made universe.

Modern boredom differs from acedia in two important ways. First, it’s highly situational. Boredom tends to come from the outside, not from within; we’re bored when our circumstances are boring. Second, it’s no longer seen as a fundamental trait and a high crime against God, but as something more trivial. Yes, it can be overpowering, but boredom is fickle, fleeting. It’s a feeling you can change the channel on.

Spacks offers multiple explanations for this shift, from the decline of Christianity to the increased emphasis on the individual, which came with an interest in naming subtle gradations of emotion.

But she also points out that the concept of boredom correlates with the rise of the novel as a literary genre, a historical fact that probably isn’t an accident: both depended on the emerging notion of “free time.” In her telling, work and leisure were more intertwined before the Industrial Revolution, with play and toil both bound up in the daily effort of survival. (Work songs are one example.) But as day-long shifts became the norm, “work” and “leisure” became distinct in ways they had not been before.

It is in that era that the word “boredom” first began to crop up. By the mid-19th century, it was suddenly everywhere, from newspaper articles to the pages of novels by Charles Dickens, as an explanation for the indolence of the poor and for the lassitude of the rich. By the mid-20th century, it was broadly recognized as a pervasive feature of existence. “Life, friends, is boring. / We must not say so,” wrote the poet John Berryman, in his 1964 Pulitzer-winning collection 77 Dream Songs. If acedia was an internal failure, boredom was external fact — a force of nature that society did its best to diminish and conceal, but that nonetheless lurked around every corner.

With the rise of this concept of boredom came the proliferation of antidotes. Spacks describes the great variety of entertainment options that emerged in 18th century Europe, from circuses and zoos to the stage shows that gave rise to vaudeville and the movies.

Another cure was work. In The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt describes how labor was once justified by the way it made contemplation possible. The Industrial Revolution flipped that equation, and we began to value people according to the perceived worth of their work. The inevitable consequence was a devaluation of downtime — which could now scornfully be called idleness.

Today, that attitude has been amplified to grotesque proportions, seeing its apex in “hustle culture” which suggests that the young and hungry should sacrifice sleep on the altar of productivity and beg to be exploited by their bosses. Judging from the slogans slapped up on the walls of WeWork everywhere, we should “Thank God It’s Monday” and “Never stop getting better.” You’re either doing or you’re dead.

But we may want to stop and linger for a minute — and our corporate overlords may want to let us. Because boredom plays a profound, if overlooked, role in creativity, inspiration, and innovation, something all the striving in the world can’t quite replace.

BBoredom may be universal, but it has been neglected by scientific research until recently. A 2012 paper in Perspectives on Psychological Science pointed out that boredom even lacked a working clinical definition, though the authors offered a suggestion: “The aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”

That definition will surely continue to evolve as researchers go beyond what boredom is and into further study of what it does. But early studies suggest that being bored may shape our behavior and problem-solving potential in profound and unexpected ways.

When scientists want to study the value of boredom, they typically force participants to perform extremely monotonous activities. How would you like to read numbers out of a phone book for 30 minutes, or endlessly watch a repetitive screen saver, or sort a large bowl of red and green beans by color with one hand? These are tasks that researchers assigned in two studies from 2014, and a newer one from 2019, respectively.

All three studies had the same result: Compared to a control group, the people who were forced to perform the boring task showed much more inventiveness in a subsequent, more creative exercise. The phone book people came up with more interesting answers when asked to devise new uses for plastic cups. Those who watched the screen saver were more original in their responses when playing a word association game. And the bean-sorters excelled when asked to come up with excuses that could justify showing up late for a business meeting. The implication is clear: The experience of boredom unlocks some inner mental verve in us.

This tendency is deeply rooted, so much so that it’s not even uniquely human. For example, African grey parrots, birds that can expertly name colors and quantities of objects, revert to increasingly wild and bizarre responses when those puzzles become too easy or repetitive — in other words, when they get bored.

Though scientists haven’t found a definitive evolutionary purpose for boredom, its benefits seem obvious: Boredom inspires us seek out new terrain and new approaches when our work or circumstances become mundane. It leads to exploration, variation, and innovation.

Taking advantage of that state, though, is easier said than done. Our aversion to boredom runs deep: A 2014 study in Science found that 67% of men and 25% of women would rather self-administer painful electric shocks than spend 15 minutes alone in a room alone with nothing to do. When given the choice, we’ll take almost any stimulus, even if it hurts, over quiet contemplation.

And these days, stimulants are in infinite supply. When life pings you with endless messages, notifications, and alerts, boredom — the deep, stultifying kind — becomes harder and harder to find.

In fact, we’ve become so boredom-averse that we need to be reminded of how to let it back into our lives — and what we might gain by doing so. For that, it’s helpful to turn to some of the world’s foremost experts in idleness, the most perpetually bored people out there: novelists.

SSince 2013, I’ve spoken to more than 150 writers for The Atlantic’s “By Heart” column, an ongoing series about artistic influence and creative challenges that formed the basis of my book, Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process. One thing that has become clear across many interviews is that writers actively seek out circumstances that allow them profound, prolonged boredom. That stillness — the kind many of us would rather give ourselves an electric shock than feel — is where ideas come from. Without it, many couldn’t do their work.

Novelists are endurance athletes when it comes to boredom, and the strategies they’ve shared with me over the years are varied and deeply personal. David Mitchell leaves the Apple homepage up as his home screen, so he isn’t tempted by anything more interesting when he opens his browser. Celeste Ng writes mainly at night and early in the morning, when the flood of email and other distractions slows to a trickle. Mohsin Hamid got into the habit of taking epic walks — 5 miles or more — each day, just to make space to let his mind wander. And Jonathan Franzen is careful to restrict his daily internet use to leave time for introspection.

“I need to make sure I still have a private self,” he told me, “because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to.”

To put it another way: Boredom is about developing the strength to stay in that silent room alone, to choose that over the electric shock. That’s when the mind starts reaching for the stranger, wilder possibilities — and that’s when we start to become capable of things that might surprise us.

Inspired by these writers, I’ve developed my own strategies for welcoming this state. For The Paris Review, I wrote about a practice I have come to cherish: disconnecting the internet router before I go to sleep each night, so that I’m not lured in the morning by the bright, boredom-breaking lights of email, Twitter, and the news.

I try to write in the mornings, but even if I just end up playing my guitar or thumbing through a poetry collection instead, that time provides a clarity that stays with me throughout the day. I try to prioritize that productive stillness, and on the days I don’t make time to kill time, I have learned to miss it.

But boredom springs eternal. Its scarcity is an illusion, once you start to look. And when you start to think of boredom as something to embrace, not escape, you start to see potential for it everywhere: Take out your earbuds while you’re jogging, and listen to your breath. Zip your phone up in your backpack on the train, and let your gaze wander over the faces of your fellow riders. The mind requires a certain stillness to rebel against. It can improve you, if you let it.

Joe Fassler is author of Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process and the forthcoming novel The Sky Was Ours (Penguin).

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