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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Saturday, 22 April 2006
Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought
Topic: Backgrounder

Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought

So it's a dark rainy April afternoon in Rochester, New York, in the late seventies, and you're teaching your English class something or other about a key passage in Hamlet, asking questions about what they think is going on with this moody prince and his inability to get his ass in gear and do something about his unhappiness. Does he over-think things, being too smart for his own good? Is he afraid to take responsibility, or, in some smug, self-satisfied way, does he just love thinking there's nothing he can do? The roomful of sixteen-year-olds doesn't care. Whatever they bolted down for lunch has them groggy, and faint pattering of the rain outside has put them in their own moody trance. Some stare out the windows and others draw nothings in their notebooks.

Then it comes. It always does. In a dead spot among the few grudging responses - one or two of them testing if they can actually say the words they think are the words they may be supposed to say - one of the kids, in a fit of frustration and a flash of sincerity, blurts out "but Shakespeare is so boring."

The room comes alive.

You have your stock response - nothing is in itself boring. It would be more accurate to say the you are bored. That puzzles them all for a moment, when they all had thought this was "case closed" - a definitive judgment had been uttered by someone in the class who just cut through all the pretense. Now they have something to think about. And you can do a quick shift in the lesson plan, to a consideration of why some find Shakespeare, or anything else, boring, while others think it's fine stuff. They can dig into that, and discuss punk music and what they watch on television, and you can get to where you were going by the backdoor. It works.

But the sixteen-year-olds were bored. Even back then, thirty years ago, they were overloaded. Too much was going on. In addition to the social-sexual complexity of navigating their world of constant crises, and six or more classes each day in wildly different disciplines (chemistry and French and math and history and all - taught by some very odd adults who for some reason weren't in the "real world"), and after-school sports or music or clubs, their parents had them signed-up for this and that, and too there was keeping up on music and anything else that was supposed to be cool. And that's not even to mention dressing properly - disengaging from what the patents thought was appropriate and choosing what was distinctive and individual, but would be seen as cool within the parameters of the moment, what they saw on television and in the music videos and the ads everywhere. It was all exhausting. And Shakespeare was a pain, and boring.

But then, if the Brits who gave use Shakespeare are to be considered, boring may be good.

An item appeared in The Daily Mail (UK) in early April this year, summarized in Discovery Health thusly -
Psychology lecturer Dr Richard Ralley of Edge Hill College in Lancashire has embarked on a study of boredom - and says that a little thumb twiddling might be a good thing. Dr Ralley said that boredom could be useful because, at times when nothing is happening, humans conserve their energy for when they are able to re-engage. He advised that children should be left to their own devices to recover from a school term - or parents could involve them in their own activities in a challenging way, instead of "overwhelming" them with children's activities during the holidays. He began to collect case studies in 1999, and to date has received information from more than 300 young adults who have written about boredom. He hopes to present his findings this summer. He warned against parents "overcompensating" their children for having so much free time during holidays. Dr Ralley says boredom is associated with guilt about not having anything productive to do, but is a "natural" emotion and exists for a reason.
Okay then - you could have told the English class that, sure, Shakespeare really is boring, and they should be grateful for being in the class, as bored is good for you.

That may not have worked, but it's a thought. Riazat Butt in The Guardian (UK) had more detail on Thursday, April 13, 2006 with Boredom Could Be Good For Children - "It was Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote 'Against boredom the gods themselves fight in vain.' Although the musings of the German philosopher will certainly be lost on the millions of schoolchildren over the Easter holiday, their parents can find comfort in his words as they struggle to keep their kids entertained for a fortnight."

Did Nietzsche say that? Who knew?

In any event, the idea floating around is that boredom is a naturally occurring emotion that should not be suppressed. And this Ralley chap, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, has launched his study of boredom.

Riazat Butt, not a boring name at all, gives us quotes from the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire -
Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they're painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It's the same with boredom, which also has a bad name.

We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we're not productive and that's what boredom is associated with.

"Boredom is something, it's not just switching off. It can be useful. When there's nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy, so that when we want to re-engage we can. There's a balance between doing something that's rewarding and doing something that's rewarding but not being happy about doing it.
So the problem is the result of some emotional need to be productive, and sometimes there is just no need to be productive, and that upsets us.

Here's where we part with the Brits, and the rest of Europe it would seem, and especially the French. Americans worship productivity, all this making and doing. We work more hours per year than anyone else in the world, except for maybe the Japanese. We take little or no vacation. Successful mothers and fathers may seldom see their children, and when home be on the laptop or Blackberry catching up on email, reviewing data or tinkering with the next report. The kids are scheduled for this special lesson or that, or off to computer camp or whatever, so that's no problem. Meals are refueling stops - the idea of a leisurely dinner with friends and four hours of chit-chat is torture - and actually having to sleep is just an annoyance that messes everything up. We don't do bored.

Ralley says "Boredom is natural, so let's deal with it." It doesn't seem natural on this side of the pond.

And too, the fellow thought of this study, which he thinks he'll call "Boredom," six years ago, in 1999, and he's only now getting around to collecting case studies. Now he has more than three hundred from "young adults" who say things about boredom. And he "hopes" to present his findings this summer. So he may not. Or he may. Yep, he's not like us.

And the comments in the UK have been mixed, like Caitlin Moran in the Times (London) on April 21 with this -
All goes well in the halls of academia. Presumably reflecting a world where our major problems have been solved and nothing bad has happened for at least 50 years, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College, Lancashire, is embarking on a study of boredom. Dr Richard Ralley hopes to present his eventual findings over the summer - traditionally a time when teachers experience great boredom themselves, what with there being no marking, or small boys to remove from big bins.

Dr Ralley, it seems, believes that boredom has been underestimated. While humanity has acknowledged its enjoyment of other negative emotions - blind murderous fury, say, or the kind of moping self-pity that involves wearing unwashed bed-socks for a week - it seems that boredom, like communism or Supertramp, is one of the few things not to have enjoyed a modish rediscovery trumpeted by Dazed and Confused.

"Boredom is something - it's not just switching off," Dr Ralley is quoted as saying, presumably in a perversely excited tone of voice. "Boredom has a bad name ... but it can be a good thing. It can be useful." He is particularly concerned that the large, grey estuary-like stretches of boredom that characterised the childhoods of previous generations might be lost to the modern child.

... Of course, however laudable Dr Ralley's aims, the layman can observe a few flaws in his project. First, one wonders how he will actually find any bored subjects to study. As he suggests, the combination of PlayStation, Sky+, contraceptives and skunkweed have surely eliminated the pockets of ennui that previous generations will have so readily not-enjoyed. Sunday trading alone has irrevocably altered the current generation. I can recall being so bored on Sundays - empty streets, tolling bells, a million identical roasts slowly drying in their ovens - that I had competitions with my seven siblings over who could hold their breath the longest. Often we passed out and fell to the floor whilst the others looked on, purple-faced and impassive. On other occasions we tried to eat small snacks with pugilistic slowness.
And it goes on, suggesting "any number of swimming lessons, activity schools and instruction on the piano would have been more useful." Being bored, is, of course, boring.

And the British bloggers have taken up the topic, as in this, and review of others who seem to agree with the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire.

That item concludes with this -
Lack of purpose leads to boredom; boredom leads to the discovery of new purpose. Boredom is therefore a mechanism (which, like most mechanisms, doesn't work always but does work sometimes) for turning no-purpose into purpose.
Oh. That clears it all up.

See also Zoe Williams in The Guardian on April 14 (Good Friday) with this -
Strictly speaking, you should not have a newspaper yet. You should not even be out of bed. It is a holy day. You should be lolling about on that tightrope of boredom where you are at a perfect equipoise between getting up and going back to sleep. Oh, you have children, you say. They are on holiday. You need to teach them Greek, and fast, because they've got kayaking in the afternoon, and the interactive "What Does The Inside of My Intestine Look Like?" exhibition at the Science Museum closes at a quarter to midnight.

Parents worry a lot about keeping their children entertained. In the holiday season especially, the thought process goes: we are a lot older than their fun little friends, plus we both have a hangover. Must entertain little bleeders. Must entertain and improve.

In fact, you could not be more wrong.

... The interesting thing about boredom, Ralley says, is that: "Boredom is unpleasant. You would expect an unpleasant emotion to have a really straightforward motivational effect, so being bored would make you get up and do something. But that doesn't seem to be the case - where people have written about being bored, they describe just sitting about more. You withdraw from things, so maybe there's an energy-conservation function going on. But at the same time, it is still unpleasant, and the unpleasantness could be a protection against your withdrawing completely." What a delightful emotional knife-edge.

Naturally, you don't need an academic to tell you there's a causal link between being bored and sitting about not doing anything. My office friend used to describe this as the Three Bs: Busy, Bored and Behind. Interestingly, neither of us has a job anymore.

... And ha! I haven't even got to school, which I genuinely, at 13, thought was designed, not for learning, but as some kind of preparation, some breakage of the spirit, for the appalling boringness that would later constitute the world of work.

I was totally wrong, of course, since school is way more boring than work will ever be.
That is a taste of what they used to call a "rollicking good read." But the real point is this -
What I would say, though, is that boredom is like olives, or antiques, or green vegetables, or black-and-white films. Children might get force-fed with boredom just in the run of things, and it might actively be good for children, but only adults will really appreciate it. Only adults realise what a valuable place it is, this emotional state of not actually being asleep that is to all intents and purposes, being asleep. Only adults realise that the 70s chant "Why don't you just switch off the television set and go out and do something less boring instead?" was actually meant ironically (like, why on earth would you?). Expecting a child to understand is like expecting it to have a mature and thorough grasp of Freud, or agricultural policy. Though possibly, the more bored you make your children, the quicker they will pick this stuff up.
Good point. Bore them. They'll acquire a taste for it. And it'll do them good.

And make them discuss Hamlet.

Posted by Alan at 15:41 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006 15:42 PDT home

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