Thursday 11 August 2016

The Uses of Boredom

A 'developmental psychologist' was on the radio earlier today, arguing that these days children have far too many activities organised for their holidays and leisure time, and should be left to their own devices rather more, even - perish the thought - allowed to be bored. In my childhood, I'm happy to say, children were generally left to their own devices far more, the adult world and that of childhood being more clearly divided and the place of children in the family rather less central. We children were free to roam to an extent that seems incredible today - and were equally free to experience, as a normal part of life, great tracts of grinding boredom. When activities and outings were organised for us, I generally found them quite bewildering, sometimes frightening and quite often every bit as boring as having nothing to do - but that was probably just me.
 Looking back, I'm quite impressed by how much of my time I seem to have devoted to doing nothing and feeling bored stiff. However, I don't regret it: I'm sure blankness and empty tracts of time have their place in forming us, in developing resilience and endurance, and in generating if not creativity, at least the possibility of it, by allowing the mind and imagination to roam at will. I have a feeling too that experiencing plenty of boredom in your early years can immunise you against ever feeling it again to any serious extent. In my adult life I have rarely been bored - certainly not when in any situation under my own control - and any boredom I might feel is always tempered by the sense that, despite appearances, something is happening that is somehow worth paying attention to. My boredom is not the profound, soul-gnawing kind, bordering on depression, in which everything and all possibilities seem weary, flat, stale and unprofitable.
 Someone defined boredom as the feeling that everything is a waste of time, and serenity as the feeling that nothing is. Maybe I've achieved serenity then - at least some of the time and in some sense - but if that's the case I have no idea how or why. Perhaps it has something to do with trying to maintain perspective, paying full attention to what is around us, and taking pleasure in small things. Marianne Moore expressed it in three words: 'Humility, concentration, gusto.' These things certainly militate against boredom, but perhaps to develop them we need to have a good grounding in being bored, an early education in the uses of boredom.


  1. I felt the same as you about organised activities when I was a child. As an older child, at school, me and my friends used to call them "compulsory enjoyment". I think boredom is experienced differently as a child because time is experienced differently. It has a vastness about it and it stretches in front of you, shimmering to a distant horizon like an ocean. Time shrinks as you age. I don't know why.

  2. 'Children are left to their own devices' has a literal meaning these days. It means they spend the whole of the summer holidays gazing at youtube videos on their iPads. I don't really believe in boredom either as the human mind at rest , unless its asleep (and even then it generates things) always throws up new angles as it considers the miracle of existence endlessly.

  3. True, Guy, and true, Karen - a good point about how our perception of time changes as we grow older. The great boundless ocean I now see as something more like a lake, or perhaps a moat.
    Welcome aboard, Karen - a first-time commenter, I think?

    1. Thank you. Yes, I have just found your blog and am enjoying it very much.

  4. Although that grey, post-war world is well remembered, any faint possibility of lapsing into boredom was quickly expunged by my (single) mother, who always seemed to have an errand for me to perform - usually a 200 yard walk to the corner-shop to buy five Du Maurier - something no sensible parent would consider these days on the streets of W9. Any spare time was taken-up with pulling the legs off beetles, or burning my younger sister with a borrowed magnifying glass.
    Frankly, the days weren't long enough..

  5. Aah Du Maurier - I remember the pack so well, v stylish. Didn't know you cld get them in 5s... My corner-shop errands were nothing like so glamorous.

  6. I recall coming home from school at ages 8 and 9 having fetched my mother a pack of Parliament cigarettes and a small bottle of paregoric. I was bored only when entrapped. Books saved me from any longeurs of ennui.

  7. Paregoric! Sheesh, those were the days... It took me a while to discover books - which might account for a lot of my childhood boredom.