Ask an older person, “So when are you going to retire?” The reply you often get is: “Never! I’d get bored.”
If that’s your stock answer, you should check out the revisionist view of boredom that has emerged in recent years. According to research and expert opinion, getting bored has its up side. In fact, boredom may contain the seeds of happiness – especially as we grow old.
People who are bored and dissatisfied with accepted ways of doing things are liable to come up with new ways of doing them. Creativity is the antidote to boredom.
– Peter Toohey, the author of Boredom: A Lively History
A professor of Greek and Roman Studies, Toohey reminds us that getting bored is nothing new. He cites Latin words written on a wall (with whatever was used 2,000 years before paint came in spray cans) unearthed in the ruins of Pompeii.
Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.
– 1st century graffiti artist
Experts on the psychology of boredom advise us not to fight it, but rather to embrace it.
If boredom is a window on the fundamental nature of reality, and by extension, on the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling the curtains. Yes, the night outside is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.
– Psychiatrist Dr Neel Burton, The Psychology and Philosophy of Boredom
By stopping ourselves from ever being bored, we risk feeding our curiosity with constant tidbits of intellectual junk food and blunt its appetite for the sustained curiosity which is the lifeblood of great literature, science and innovation. Researchers in England showed that workers given a very boring routine task to do were much more creative immediately afterwards than workers who were not bored. This makes sense because the boredom prevented their attention from latching onto a mind-occupying goal like watching a Youtube clip or reading tweets. Boredom is the psychological equivalent of fallow fields in agriculture – where they are left without any crops for a while to allow them to regenerate.
– Neuropsychologist Dr. Ian Robertson, Embrace Boredom to Become More Creative
If we’ve been too busy to get bored in our youth, our golden years could be a good time to follow these recommendation to welcome boredom into our lives. As we age we may appreciate the opportunity to gain a perspective on ourselves which boredom apparently offers.
I must confess that the virtues of boredom are not new to me. Decades ago I remember experiencing a feeling of relief upon reading a study showing that overscheduling children with after-school activities can be detrimental to their development. I reveled in the reassurance that I was not a derelict parent for failing to chauffeur my children to endless extra lessons and sporting events. On the contrary, research has shown that it can be draining for children to be overly busy. Worse yet, it can interfere with their need to – you guessed it – get bored.
Now, years after this revelation about boredom’s benefits for kids, it seems it’s time for me to focus on my needs as I get older. I used to worry about dying of boredom. Now I’m advised to worry more about dying before experiencing the joys of boredom.
I’ll confess that it was with a sense of relief that I learned that one of the best things I can do to stimulate my aging mind is to indulge my inner bore. I was worried that the punchline on this all this boring boosterism was going to be that I needed to start doing some new brainbuilding exercise.
I once read that doing crossword puzzles helps prevent Alzheimer’s, so I went from never having done a crossword in my life to struggling through what is annoying labeled the Easy Crossword. Only to find a later study that showed that doing crosswords is beneficial in one arena only: in improving crossword skills. Of course the jury is still out. Any day there’ll be a new study which could prove crosswords’ anti-Alzheimer’s effect. Or maybe not. In which case all that work on crosswords is just more time I’ll never get back.
So I’m thrilled to learn of the scientifically proven benefits of indulging boredom. It’s something I can easily fit it into my schedule at this time of my life. And how exciting it will be when all that creativity stimulation starts kicking in.
This may seem counter-intuitive given the widely held fear about aging, ingrained back when we ourselves were agist youths. That is the fear of becoming a Boring Old Fart.
I’m afraid of being boring (because) the old carry around the potential to bore like a red warning light; I know, I have shied away from it myself.
– author Penelope Lively in her memoir on aging, Amonites and Leaping Fish
It’s interesting to compare the latest studies on the great merits of boredom with recent research into happiness. A team of psychologists analyzed how perceptions of happiness change with age and impact our choices in life. They examined the different ways that emotions are expressed by young and old.
My layperson’s understanding about their methodology is that it did not involve listening to people talk. The researchers apparently checked out blogs. I don’t know how they chose the 70,000 they reportedly sampled from the hundreds of millions on the internet. Or how they kept current, with a new blog reportedly created every half second. It’s not clear if these psychologists read all the blogs themselves, or if they had algorithm to research their question.
However they searched, what they found was that people describe their happiness differently, depending on one factor: time. Notice they said time, not age.
Young people described their happiness with words like excited, ecstatic and elated. The researchers saw this as anticipation of future enjoyment, a focus on what youths still hope to discover: love, work satisfaction, a new home.
Whereas older people used words like peaceful, relaxed, or relieved to describe our happiness. And another word: calm.
If there’s one thing that might possibly keep me calm about getting older, it is definitely not that Keep Calm Old is the New Young poster. However it could possibly be this idea of older people enjoying a particular kind of happiness that is described as calm. I never would have thought this years ago, but right now I like the sound of it.
The calm type of happiness is most associated with a focus on the present moment. The excited type of happiness is most associated with a focus on possibilities in the future. As a result, young people are more likely to experience the excited kind of happiness than older people. Older people (who are generally less focused on the future) are more likely to experience the calm type of happiness.
In addition to Calm, another C-word seems to be Content. We tend to be more content with what we have as we get older. We may even – to use another lovely C-word – cherish what, and who, we have.
We knew that as we grow older, our priorities change. But what we haven’t known is that our definition of happiness also changes — in systematic and predictable ways — over the course of life. We now think that individuals’ views of happiness depend far more upon their sense of time than their age per se.
It seems like a yin-yang relationship between boredom and joy develops over time. So you may want to reconsider your work-til-you-drop non-retirement plan – if indeed its main function is to combat boredom.
If you make a bucket list of Things to Do Before You Die, you may want to add: Get Bored.