In praise of boredom
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. According to research by Dr Richard Ralley, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, boredom is valuable for children. It is an evolutionary necessity, like rage and fear. It might or might not constitute some kind of emotio-intellectual recuperation. Dr Ralley does not know yet, but he hopes to have some results soon. He had this idea, you know, in 1999, but didn’t start researching it until the beginning of 2006.
I asked him about this hiatus yesterday, and a curious meeting of minds occurred, wherein he was slightly too bored to give me a proper answer, and I was slightly too bored to listen to the partial answer he did give. So I don’t know, but I do know that it has something to do with Americans.
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.
What Dr Ralley is forgetting, of course, is that whether or not you get taken to Alton Towers and fed chocolate on a Good Friday, childhood is and will always be full of the most unbreachable, yawning, demonic chasms of pure boredom – there you are, minding your own business, and your mum says, “Do you want to come to the shops?”. You think, “Why not, it’ll break up the day a bit, and maybe there’s a Curly Wurly in it for me,” and you’re innocently trotting alongside her, you might be holding her hand, when bam. She meets some “friend”; they barely even sodding know each other; they decide to rectify this by talking for 40 minutes, except that, of course, since they hardly know each other, they’re talking rubbish. And that’s before you factor in advert breaks, which are unbearably tedious for children, and baths, whose interest palls after the thorough cleaning of two or three digits.
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. I was misled by the works of Martin Amis, specifically London Fields, which you should never read until you’re old enough to know not to take people like Amis too literally. Its heroine, the only proper femme fatale of his oeuvre, is Nicola Six; she does an acting class at one point in which they’re all asked to cry, and while all the other chicks are thinking of dead parents/pets, Nicola is thinking of seminal moments of boredom – lost plane tickets, administrative tedium … she hates nothing more than to be bored. She can conjure tears out of hypothetical boredom, that’s how much she hates it.
How cool, think I (13. Idiot!). That’s what a real woman is, someone who can’t, can’t, can’t stomach a moment’s ennui. I hope I’m like that when I grow up. And lo, I’m not like that at all. I love being bored. I can stay in a bath until my fingers look like toes. I’ve stared out of my window for so long, on occasion, that I’ve seen every member of a six-strong household set off for work, and one of them had already come back by the time the last one left, though maybe she’d just been to the Spar. I’ve made some of the major discoveries of my life while bored: how long you can chew any given nail, before you make your finger bleed; the best possible angle to position a millet pillow (my mature advice is, never buy a millet pillow. Or anything else made of millet. I don’t think you can eat it, either).
I’ve read instruction manuals to items I don’t even own, just because it was the nearest reading matter to hand, and I couldn’t be fussed with moving. I would say categorically that, yes, it is emotional recuperation. Often, after a period of solid and unbroken staring, I feel my emotional batteries have really been recharged, and I wouldn’t put it past myself to have the most florid tantrum later that evening.
And yes, Dr Ralley is quite right – the staring is never so good that I think, “I’d like to sit and stare for the rest of my life”. It’s always got a sting in its tail, catatonia.
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.
Start today; respond to their every request by just staring. In 10 or 15 years, you might see some fractionally diverting results. Autor: Zoe Williams