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Being bored is not idleness, can be good for you (& your kids)

On September 11, 2022, we received an email through the site’s contact form. It was short and concise. Signed by “Chris,” he liked Kirsten’s videos and invited us to visit his place somewhere in Britain:

“In UK you might be interested in our improved WW1 German prisoner shed.”

Instead of letting us know the town’s name, he shared his place’s exact coordinates. Chris Frost was writing from Godalming, a historical English town in Surrey strategically located between the transit of Portsmouth and London, the first town to be electrified in the world, no less.

Chris and Helga have long retired but had committed to turning their idle estate into a thriving community attracting friends and relatives. As we grew old, Chris explained, we wanted to be surrounded by people we care about. They’ve accomplished their dream, as we could attest during our visit.

Back when children weren’t micromanaged

When the Frosts were talking about the time they converted the modular prisoner shed from the Great War into their house, Chris’ descriptions carried us back to the time when the concept of “free range” for parenting didn’t have any meaning at all; things were much less regulated back then if the environment allowed it:

“This house was just an L-shaped piece of prisoner of war camp shed, and the garden was all jungle, and Helga had a referee’s whistle, and when she blew her whistle, the three boys would come thundering out of the jungle for mealtimes.”

The description he made shocked me as the epitome of my summer days when we spent two summer weeks in each of the small villages where my parents were born. Once there, we’d venture into the countryside with friends and only return home when we were starving or called to the table.

There were moments of tedium, discovery, amusement, risk, laughter, and conflict (never Lord of the Flies, but still). Things would get built and destroyed. Cards and table games would help us go through the hottest moment of the day under some shadow by a fountain, and after, we’d bike to swim somewhere and would play pick-up football too. At night, especially before adolescence, there was also time to read.

The Goonies are gone

These summers of sun, boredom, adventures, and invention seem to have disappeared, to the point that children growing up today will think that idle, free-range summers belong in fiction: books such as Huckleberry Finn, Louis Pergaud’s French take on free-range summers War of the Buttons, the Spanish 1981 TV series Verano Azul, or the old-pirate-map adventure depicted by the 1985 film “The Goonies,” explain stories unreal to today’s standards.

The closest thing to such adventures would require parental curation and feel-good indoctrination or would take place in the context of structured “adventure” summer camps. As much pop culture has idealized unstructured play among children, late Spring represents a parental race to sign children up for as many camps, activities, and sports as possible.

How Trainspotting (1993 novel by Irvine Welsh adapted by Danny Boyle in 1996) talked about a generational ennui

The more unstructured time remaining, parents seem to conclude with their actions, the more time their kids will spend on screens —or the more time they’ll need to dedicate assuming the tutoring or entertaining role. The goal seems to be, in any case, to avoid letting children face boredom and decide their long summer days on their own at any cost.

For children as well as for adults, any moment out of the main productive activity defining us individually (work, school) should maximize utility and prepare us for a better self in a better future, at the expense of actual self-discovery and avoiding, above all, any form of idleness, as if boredom were a malady to elude from the most tender age.

The art of being bored (and of overcoming ennui)

What if, in our obsession to banish boredom from our lexicon, we were inflicting (not suppressing) a diminishing blow to our children’s education? If we were to ask any parent if their ideal of upbringing is to micro-manage their children’s play and schedule to the limits of their budget, few (at least I presume) would recognize themselves on the formulated question. Yet some kids talk about time management with the same anxiety their overscheduled parents do.

In our quest to favor cognitive endurance (being able to sustain effortful mental activity over big periods) over unstructured play, we risk minimizing other cognitive abilities that require improvisation and adaptation, such as problem-solving and creativity.

As much as our society fears the impact of generative AI over information and work, we seem to be less worried so far about the risk of transforming formative vacation into something children perceive as another institutionalized process of their upbringing as future automatons.

The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), scripted by Steven Spielberg

Catherine Pearson reminds us in an article for the New York Times that we shouldn’t feel guilty letting our kids get bored. “It’s good for them,” she concludes:

“While I had a relatively regimented schedule and spent long stretches of every summer at camp, there were weeks when my parents, who both worked, hadn’t filled my schedule with much of anything, and they didn’t give a hoot about whether I felt sufficiently engaged or amused.”

Boredom and problem-solving

Pearson asked Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, about the effects of boredom on children. According to Westgate, boredom is normal, natural, and healthy.” She cautions about the lack of scientific research on the topic, then explains what most of us may have experienced or seen in previous times: if moderate and not sustained over time, being bored is an opportunity to get ourselves together and flex our creativity, problem-solving, self-motivation, leading capabilities, cognitive resilience and much more:

“Guarding kids from ever feeling bored is misguided in the same way that guarding kids from ever feeling sad, or ever feeling frustrated, or ever feeling angry is misguided.”

Not to be confused with deficiencies such as persistent loneliness or lack of attention, boredom shouldn’t be treated as a sign of distress or a call for help:

“Boredom offers children an opportunity to experiment with the kinds of pursuits that feel fulfilling and interesting to them.

“For example, if you let your kids loose in the backyard, they may feel bored initially, she said. But they can learn to prevent that feeling or resolve it by finding activities that feel meaningful to them, whether that’s counting bugs, playing with a ball, or drawing with sidewalk chalk. If parents don’t allow for free, imaginative play, children may never discover their innate love of nature, sports or art, or even the pleasure they can find in simply relaxing or playing.”

The senseless apathy of Meursault

If we never develop the skills to explore our own sources of meaning and introspection, we could be equally challenged when on our own as we reach adulthood.

Boredom shouldn’t be confused with existential tedium or other signs of personal detachment from reality that require a per-case analysis and exploration, as we learned from existential philosophy.

Meursault, the indifferent European settler (pied-noir) of French Algeria from Albert Camus’ novella The Stranger, drags himself around like an automaton, incapable of eluding apathy and absent-mindedness.

War of the Buttons (“La Guerre des Boutons”) 1962 cinema adaptation by Yves Robert of Louis Pergaud’s novel (published in 1912)

From the novella’s very first lines, we sense that his life is detached from reality and all that happens around him. There’s something very odd in his perception of existence and the world around him; there’s no escape from a lack of meaning, and very frustrating: Meursault lacks the capacity to act and change his gloomy vision of things. His acts lack a conscious free will; the real “stranger” in Camus’ book is actual human “agency.”

To Meursault, even his mother’s death (“Mother died today. Or maybe yesterday; I can’t be sure.”), which he learns via a telegram, or the atrocious action of killing an Arab at the beach after feeling disoriented by the sun (he’s not that sure about how that happened or why), are acts that he carries with troubling indifference. He has lived a life in which things didn’t make him feel strong opinions, nor passion, nor revolt, like a stranger in an environment that has decided for him.

Trainspotting with Renton

No wonder Camus’ early philosophy, absurdism, was nurtured by pessimism. To chief nihilist Arthur Schopenhauer, life is all that happens in between two feelings: pain on one extreme and boredom on the other extreme. Hence, to him, the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom. Not that cheerful.

As a middle-aged man in between cohorts (being from 1977, I’m younger than the core of Generation X, and older than early Millennials), the Meursault of my generation carries the soundtrack of Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam’s Jeremy and, to us Europeans, the characters in Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (the activity of “transporting” itself is the embodiment of ennui), whose film adaptation catapulted Ewan McGregor. It’s McGregor’s character and protagonist, Renton, who talks (with a thick, working-class Scottish accent) about the maladies of one among many generations lost to existential angst, drug abuse, and nihilism:

“Life’s boring and futile. We start oaf wi high hopes, then we bottle it. We realise that we’re aw gaunnae die, withoot really findin oot the big answers. We develop aw they long-winded ideas which jist interpret the reality ay oor lives in different weys, withoot really extending oor body ay worthwhile knowledge, about the big things, the real things. Basically, we live a short, disappointing life; and then we die. We fill up oor lives wi shite, things like careers and relationships tae delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally pointless. Smack’s an honest drug, because it strips away these delusions. Wi smack, whin ye feel good, ye feel immortal. Whin ye feel bad, it intensifies the shite that’s already thair. It’s the only really honest drug. It doesnae alter yir consciousness. It just gies ye a hit and a sense ay well-being. Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it is, and ye cannae anaesthetise yirsel against it.”

Sinful maladies of the Burnout Society

Instead of envisioning the human ability to greatness, compassion, or transcendence, Schopenhauer only saw an urge for survival and reproduction. Schopenhauer set the tone of pessimism and transformed boredom into an attitude explored later by the existentialist philosophers, including the young Albert Camus, which later in life would evolve towards classical humanism (love, empathy, mutual comprehension) to elude the void of perceiving life as meaningless or even absurd.

Pain and boredom are the infinite and zero of human psychology, so different that, in their extremes, they touch each other. None of these extremes are a sufficient cause to fall into a state that gets confused with boredom, which some refer to borrowing a French word: “ennui” which we could translate as chronic boredom.

From the beginning of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996):
Choose life.
Choose a job.
Choose a career.
Choose a family,
Choose a fucking big television
Choose washing machines, cars,
Compact disc players, and electrical tin openers.
Choose good health, low cholesterol
And dental insurance.
Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments.
Choose a starter home.
Choose your friends.
Choose leisure wear and matching luggage.
Choose a three piece suite on hire purchase
In a range of fucking fabrics.
Choose DIY and wondering who you
Are on a Sunday morning.
Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing
Sprit-crushing ga me shows
Stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth.
Choose rotting away at the end of it all,
Pishing you last in a miserable home
Nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish,
Fucked-up brats
You have spawned to replace yourself.
Choose your future. Choose life.

We treat boredom as a sinful malady akin to laziness, though boredom arises precisely because our conscience shows its spiritual antibodies to combat the sort of indolence that detaches people from their surroundings. And, by using the screens around us as a cure for boredom, we avoid the opportunity for introspection.

Boredom is an opportunity, a cognitive call to action, a necessary calm before a call to action, especially for children trying to avoid the tedium that used to come after school once the unstructured summer days settled in.

But summers are now structured for children, and parents race to sign up for camps and activities designed to reinforce or develop skills on a structured basis: parents pay hefty fees in exchange for a utilitarian return on investment. Who wants their children to face boredom and the need to get themselves out of it on their own if they can pay for Kumon math and robotics camp?

Boredom and ennui, according to Nietzsche

Nietzsche distinguished between the curiosity that drives our thoughts to solve things and the impulse to keep ourselves “busy” out of guilt so any surplus of leisure is squeezed out of its utility “to continue reading, collecting, arranging, observing and narrating.” Screens have turned engagement and entertainment into an “ennui” that gets ever closer to exhaustion. Binge-watching isn’t boredom but existential ennui, a form of restlessness that glorifies constant stimulation to avoid being bored. And, by avoiding being bored at all costs, it builds upon a worse type of blandness—the feeling of being mentally knocked out, cognitive burnout.

Though boredom and ennui are confused, neither their intensity nor their root causes are the same. There is a good way to be bored, by consciously knowing that we can choose at any moment to put a remedy to boredom by, for example, trying to reign in the moment of pause, tedium, or divagation. We feel we have the agency to change the situation, and, to some extent, boredom is the first step of activity periods, ideas, moments of sociability, etc.

Ennui is closer to nihilism, helplessness, pessimism about the world, a lack of agency, and depression. We could define it as an existential malaise that arises from a breeding ground of meaninglessness in the world.

Marcello Mastroianni in Luchino Visconti’s The Stranger (Lo straniero, 1967)

Nietzsche referred to universities and to those that we now call knowledge workers as bureaucrats of knowledge whose scientific impulse “is their ennui,” as if what they do were some sort of tedious, meaningless task that builds upon inertia and doesn’t seem to be propelled by causality, and therefore is devoid of meaning.

If self-reinforced tedium and ennui can lead to apathy, inaction, or nihilism, boredom can lead to unexpected moments of inspiration and creativity, or even works of art, scientific discoveries, inventions, etc.

Productive introspection

In 1941, George de Mestral went on a hunting trip with his dog in the Alps, perhaps pursuing what Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset called the code of ethics of true, solitary hunters:

“The sportsman who accepts the sporting code of ethics keeps his commandments in the greatest solitude with no witnesses or audience other than the sharp peaks of the mountain, the stern oak, and the passing animal.”

Like fly-fishing and other solitary activities involving skills, observation, patience, and expectations management, solo hunting in the mountain also embraces boredom —and enchantment about our own very spirit and the way we have interacted with our surroundings since our origins.

After returning from his hunting trip, George de Mestral had the mental predisposition to engage with reality from a perspective full of possibilities. He felt probably physically exhausted, though mentally recharged. He noticed that the burrs of burdock plants were sticking on his clothes and on the fur of his dog.

Instead of fighting the burrs in annoyance, De Mestral examined them under a microscope. He noticed that they were the perfect hook for anything with small loops, such as clothing, animal fur, or human hair. He went ahead to develop a hook-and-loop mechanism we call velcro today.

Means and ends

How much of famous literary passages, scientific theories and discoveries, or inventions came from embracing a positive, optimistic take on solitude, mental divagation, and boredom itself?

As for cognitive hooks and loops: screen content has evolved to reinforce cognitive gratification, becoming more engaging than the TV and early videoconsoles experienced by the middle-aged adults of today. If overscheduling isn’t a response against boredom, relying on screens for “quiet babysitting” shouldn’t be, either.

Responsible (and limited) screen time can prompt our children to explore the importance of being bored on their own.