With the rise of mass production during the Industrial Revolution, another phenomenon was also on the rise: boredom. Historically, we could see this coming as mass production demanded people perform the same repetitive task for 12 hours straight, all day, every day. Shifting from what was being done before to this suddenly brought a wave of people who were bored at work.
Even with automation in full swing these days, people can and do experience boredom in their own distinct way. You’re still going to the same place and generally doing the same thing. You might be doing something more purposeful than being an assembly line worker, but our brain doesn’t care. Being productive on an assembly line is akin to being in Zoom meeting after Zoom meeting today.
It’s no wonder that roughly half of US workers are not engaged at all in their work. This is on top of 15% finding their jobs utterly miserable to work in.
All of this has led us to believe that boredom is something relatively new. It harkens back to our parents saying that today’s kids have it good because they have all these gadgets. They should not be bored now, or even as adults.
But the reality is that boredom has always been around. Sure, as kids, we might be more distracted, but it builds up over time. In fact, even our ancient ancestors could get bored with the work they did before the Industrial Revolution.
Imagine back then working as a turnip farmer, philosopher, or artisan. Back then, those individuals had to learn to struggle and find a flow and fascination with the work they were doing.
Boredom is far from something we’ve been dealing with in the past few centuries. Rather, it’s something much older. And as much as it might seem like a negative (or at least undesirable) part of humanity, it’s actually a vital evolutionary function.
It’s a warning for you to change your situation, or there might be consequences.
What Boredom Looked Like In Older Times
The first establishment of boredom was in ancient Greece, where they expressed it as acedia. It represented a whole-body languidness that resulted in apathy and self-neglect.
Centuries later, Christian monks would use the same phrase to describe the monotony of monastery work life. Their lives were terribly boring since every waking hour was spent on abstinence and prayer.
The medieval monks, though, went a step further. To them, boredom was a spiritual battle. This gave rise to sloth as one of the seven deadly sins. and that wasn’t exaggerated.
Suicide was not uncommon, but the largest perpetrators of medieval suicides in Catholicism were the monks at that time.
By the Middle Ages, it had transformed into being called the “noonday demon.” Lethargy and agitation—typically around noontime—were the reasons that the name stuck.
And that is merely one pathway. There are other iterations in German, French, and Russian history too, amongst many others.
What Boredom Means Today
Today, boredom has evolved as people have spent more time contemplating what it means. We’ve grown past thinking it’s a cultural trait, a mental illness, or a demon. Rather, we consider it to be very much like any other emotion that we experience.
Even though we understand it’s an emotion now, emotions are still very complex and can’t all be easily described. Simple explanations, and even what I’m providing only scratches the surface of what boredom is. After all, it’s a complex combination of our behaviour and psychological response to stimuli and experiences.
Boredom could look differently from person to person and across multiple contexts.
But in the context of work, we can narrow it down to particular stimuli. You might be bored by repetitive work, seminars, company dinner gatherings, or having the same conversations around the water cooler.
Boredom has evolved further than that, though, to engender feelings that prompt specific responses from us. Like a fear alerts us to something dangerous or joy from a rewarding experience, boredom produces uneasiness and discomfort.
That signal informs us that the current situation is not in line with our desires and what drives us.
Another way to look at this is that boredom reveals that we have a strong urge to be engaged with the world around us. When that isn’t fulfilled, we create boredom.
Based on what we know above, boredom is universal, but it’s not exactly a major issue compared to feelings of loneliness. Boredom at this point isn’t going to drive us to suicide or further isolation. Rather, the logical conclusion is that it leads us to feel unsatisfied with our lives.
This is the fuel we need to make changes in our own lives.
Of course, like with any emotion, boredom is complicated. There are many sources, and types of boredom in the world. But in terms of boredom being an overall bad thing, that is not the case. In fact, a lot of it can be leveraged.
The goal of never being bored is a dream. Similar to how we can’t be positive at all times, we’re not going to be fully engrossed in everything we’re doing.
We all need those mental and emotional breaks to decompress. And beyond that, there are always going to be those tasks that we have to do but don’t really care that much for. In those situations, the boredom we might experience during those times is fine, or even optimal.
Where it does become a problem is when boredom is a persistent theme in everything that you do at work. Similar to a droning background sound, it’s steady and consistent. And in the case of boredom, it degrades both our mental and physical health.
When you’re experiencing chronic boredom like that, then it can mean a few things:
- You’re anxious.
- You’re not getting the right nutrients.
- You’re taking on too much risk.
- You’re not paying enough attention to things.
- You’re stressed out.
Boredom has also been connected to other ailments like burnout, social withdrawal, and various cardiovascular diseases.
How We Can Leverage Boredom
Like with any positive or negative emotion, boredom can be leveraged to serve us. Similar to worry, boredom is one of those emotions that signals something needs to change. Of course, if you know it’s a short-term thing, then there isn’t anything to worry about.
But if you’re feeling this on a regular basis or you’re dealing with chronic boredom, then it’s worth asking, “How can you make yourself filled with determination and connect with the world once more?”
The blanket answer is to find something to keep you engaged, mentally occupied, and able to express your skills and talents. This will look differently to every person, of course, but some more narrow suggestions have been:
- Dedicating more time to existing projects. If you don’t have any projects, make one that allows you to experiment or play towards your strengths.
- Look for novel or challenging opportunities. These will activate your ventral striatum which helps your brain release dopamine.
- Gain more depth to your work by exploring why you work in this particular position or industry. There’s a psychological paper that demonstrates how boredom at work can be squashed through the power of meaning.
At the end of the day, boredom is something we’re not going to eliminate entirely. There will be days when we experience boredom. But it’s during those moments that we create an opportunity to grow. Whether it’s from work or from life itself, boredom is a sign we are human and that we need to tap into our curiosity, meaning, and agency.
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