Archive for December, 2010

Curing Boredom



Ruth Minshull


Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with

themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” ~Susan Ertz


The first goal of all living things is to survive.  Staying alive includes making a living, mating, providing ourselves and family with food, shelter, clothing and a flat screen TV.  It’s all part of the initial urge to live and, if possible, live well.

But what comes after that?  We’re on planet earth.  We’re surviving.  We have a home, a vehicle or two, a spouse, two and a half children, a grill on the patio.  Life is good.  But, now what do we do?  Is this really enough?

In most cases, it probably isn’t.

As I see it, the second goal in life is to keep from being bored.  And, to this end, people are infinitely inventive.

When we’re not engaged in matters of survival, we might play a game of golf in the morning, weed the garden in the afternoon, then chat with a friend, take a nap, read a book or watch a movie.  We’ve kept “busy” but do we feel satisfied?

“Nothing is so intolerable to man as being fully at rest, without a passion, without business, without entertainment, without care.” ~Blaise Pascal


Our anti-boredom activities seem to fall into different levels which delineate how well these endeavors succeed in pleasing us.  The results range from self-destruction to joyful fulfillment.

“Boredom is a vital problem for the moralist, since at least

half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.”

~Bertrand Russell


At the lowest level of this anti-boredom scale we find various forms of ruinous activities.  These diversions range from mild indulgences to compulsive, self-destructive behavior—which, obviously, sabotage our first goal, to survive.

Here we find people who are so desperate for sensation that they seek thrills by excessive drinking, doing illegal drugs, having illicit affairs, gambling, over-eating,  fast driving, and taking daredevil risks.

Buddha had a handle on all this when he said, “Ennui has made more gamblers than avarice, more drunkards than thirst, and perhaps as many suicides as despair.


Here we are not physically destructive, we’re just killing time.  We’re inactive, non-participating.  We read newspapers, magazines, books, watch sporting events, go shopping, listen to music, attend plays, movies, concerts; we cruise the internet and watch television.

Some folks make a second career out of devouring the tabloids and other media in order to stay current on the latest antics of the Hollywood twinkies, well-known athletes and cheating politicians.  And, of course, even in this country, there’s the British royal family to keep an eye on.  (I don’t know if a passive activity can reach “fever pitch” but I expect something of the kind as the forthcoming royal wedding approaches.)

At this position, communication is little more than idle chatter, pointless phone calls, gossipy exchanges.  Parents nag their children, kids provoke spats with each other, husbands and wives pick petty quarrels—just to add a little drama to their lives.

We argue over politics or philosophical issues.  Nothing is resolved.

Also at this echelon are the daydreamers.  I once read that only a small percentage of Popular Mechanics’ readers actually construct the projects that are meticulously detailed in the how-to articles.  Such readers will dream about, talk about, think about making a cabinet—but they will never actually make the cabinet.

At one time I did this with gardening. Devouring colorful books and catalogues, I fanaticized about developing a huge floral showplace—a horticultural masterpiece.  I’m somewhat off the hook on this one, since I now live in the middle of a sand dune.  (Well, OK, I was never really going to do it anyway.)  Eventually I realized that I didn’t actually want to garden; I wanted to have gardened.

In this digital age, many of our hours are consumed by electronic diversions.  Teenagers are chattering on cell phones, playing games on handheld gadgets and texting thousands of vital messages per month:  Hi! gr8 c-ing u last night. What r u doing? (If this trend keeps up, we could evolve into creatures with useless fingers and long triple-jointed thumbs.)

The Millennials (the generation born after 1980 and the first to come of age in the new millennium) are the largest group to escape boredom by always staying connected.  Born to the digital technology, they cherish their handheld doodads as if they were vital body parts.  Many of the younger ones even take their gizmos to bed with them—lest they miss “important” calls or text messages.

We explore the world through our computers to get information, to be entertained and to communicate, but the internet is a double-edged sword.  While it enhances our lives immeasurably, it shouldn’t replace them.  An increasing number of rabid netizens are slipping into the lower (addictive) realm, as they become so preoccupied with their online diversions that they neglect their health, lose touch with the real world and alienate those who care about them.


On a more involved level we may turn to playing games, making scrapbooks, taking photographs, solving puzzles and other intellectual challenges.  Many individuals enter competitions such as bridge, poker, backgammon, pie-eating contests and the potentially destructive chili cook-offs (where the apparent objective is to create a peppery concoction that’ll turn a hapless victim into a human flamethrower).

Many energetic individuals bestir themselves to a greater degree by going for physical sensation in the form of bird watching, sports, dancing, playing musical instruments, walking, running, riding bikes, horses, motorcycles.

Others get their kicks by throwing themselves into group activities with a church, a club, a political campaign or some charitable cause.

Another engaging pastime is collecting—everything from ceramic skunks to costly works of art.  Each collectible category is often a world in itself with its esoteric language and critical criteria for establishing values.  Collectors can cheerfully spend hours studying, seeking, acquiring, sorting, cataloging, displaying and losing themselves in the minutiae surrounding their acquisitions.


At the highest productive position, we avoid boredom by working with our hands, perhaps sewing, knitting stringing beads or refinishing furniture.  We may build things—from small craft projects to whole houses.  At the top end of this category are the imaginative ones:  the writers, composers, playwrights, artists, architects.

Most people at this level are more satisfied with their lives because learning, growing, creating and producing something can be the most exhilarating of all experiences.

I once knew a man who loved to build houses—and he was good at it.  His wife also shared this interest.  They would buy a piece of property, design a “dream home” together, then he would build it while she made selections for the interior finishing work.  They would live in it for a year or two, then find another property and begin again.  Each time they sold a house they made a substantial profit—and, equally important, they both loved what they were doing.

When people can turn their diversions into a vocation, they probably experience the greatest fulfillment of all.  Mr. L was a natural horticulturalist from childhood.  He developed a profitable plant and gardening business and became an expert in growing rhododendrons, perfecting cultivation techniques and creating new plant varieties.  After he retired, he bought a suitable parcel of land and began to create a spectacular rhododendron garden that was the showplace of the region.  While he often sold his prize creations to landscape architects, he was satisfied with simply working among his bushes—pruning, weeding, clipping, grafting and planting.

A woman I know is a successful artist.  She teaches courses and seminars and runs her own art gallery—selling her work and that of other artists.  And she always makes time for painting—her favorite activity.  A forever youthful, enthusiastic person, she has never lost the passion for her work.

Some people turn to their favorite interests after retirement.  One former architect built and continually maintains a miniature village as a setting for an elaborate train set.  It is so beautifully crafted it could be featured in Architectural Digest.

Another friend has a hobby of woodworking. When he retired, he built a house, complete with splendid custom-made woodwork, cupboards and cabinets throughout.  After constructing a smaller attached house for his parents, and adding a charming gazebo, he built a remarkable sailboat, importing special woods and parts from all over the world.  Made with skill and precision, the finished craft continues to give him pleasure by winning countless regattas.  I don’t know what his current projects are, but I’m sure he has some.

Whether we sink into a default mode from inertia or whether we’re kept motivated by strong interests, we are all trying to escape boredom.  It behooves us to seek the most rewarding way to do this, not only for the enjoyment but for our mental and physical well-being.

British scientists, in a study of 7,000 civil servants over a period of 25 years, found a definite link between heart disease and boredom.  They advised:  “It is important that people who have dull jobs find outside interests to keep boredom at bay, rather than turn to drinking or smoking.

I think all of us have creative abilities—whether or not we have tapped into them.  We don’t need to strive for success in our anti-boredom undertakings, but if we’re drawing, painting, refinishing antiques, composing or writing, the criterion is not whether our finished product is good or bad (by anyone else’s standards) but whether it is satisfying to us.

It’s in the doing that we find the most pleasure.

The activities that most enhance our survival seem to be those that originate within us—where we become so engrossed that we lose track of time and ascend above the weight and the cravings of the body into a creative realm that is almost spiritual, where our worries and pains, are forgotten.

Charlotte Bronte summed up the need for escape quite well when she said, “I find monotony and death to be almost the same.”

Much as we might proclaim that we long for peace and tranquility, what we really want is something to do.  Something that challenges our intellect, stimulates our brains and engages our interest fully.

Our choices among these many means of escape will ultimately be powered by our interests.  And when we find the best ones, they will not only banish malaise, they will enable us to achieve a natural “high” that we’ll find no other way.

To discover the best use of our time, we needn’t think we have to write “War and Peace” or invent the wheel.  If the activity engages our interest, that’s an achievement in itself.

A few years ago a friend of mine retired from a very busy job as an engineer.  He soon became bored, so he decided to putter with an antique clock he and his wife owned.  It hadn’t worked in years, but they had never found anyone who could repair it.  After discovering that a part was broken, he proceeded to craft a new part himself.  It worked, and he soon had the clock running again.  Before long, neighbors and friends were bringing him old clocks to fix; others followed.  Within a year he had a thriving business repairing antique clocks for people who could find no one else to do the job.  “I’m having more fun than I’ve had in years!” he told me.

It amazes me to discover that while we have all been looking for a new “high”, a thrill, it’s been right in front of us all the time.  It’s work.  (Or, maybe to remove the onus that word has, we should call it “doing something we love.”)

Sooner or later, most of us discover that having stuff—even lots of stuff—doesn’t do it for us.  Something is missing.

We so often hear of celebrities (famous actors, musicians, writers, politician, rock stars) drinking, doing drugs, cheating on their partners, behaving badly and even committing suicide.  Why? we might wonder, they seemed to have everything going for them.

They wanted fame and fortune, but they learned that these things did not bring the expected happiness.  After the initial triumph, if they did not continue creating something, there was a letdown that they couldn’t understand or handle.

The big secret is that “being” a well-known somebody and “having” oodles of riches are not enough.  Our happiness comes from “doing” something.

The soul is made for action, and cannot rest till it

be employed.  Idleness is its rust.  . ~Thomas Traherne

Whether we’re writing songs, directing a movie, knitting baby booties or building a chicken coop, the key to fulfillment is productivity.

This is a wonderful cure for the blahs.  There are no nasty side-effects, it’s perfectly legal and you can’t OD on it and kill yourself.

I’ve heard that boredom can even lead to madness in parrots. When caged by themselves and neglected for long periods of time, these intelligent, sociable birds can easily become mentally ill. Many inflict wounds upon themselves, develop strange tics, and rip out their own feathers. The birds need constant interaction, affection, and mental stimulation.

So do humans.  But we need to choose our escapes from boredom carefully.

It just wouldn’t do to start ripping out our feathers…

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©2010 by Ruth Minshull


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