While riding in the car with my family, I mentioned something to my 9-year-old son about the fun and excitement of school. I don’t remember the entire context, but it didn’t take more than a couple of seconds for my son to reply with what he deemed an important reality check for me.
“Dad, everyone knows that school is boring.”
“Everyone?”, I asked.
“Yes, everyone knows this about school, dad. School is boring for everyone.”
I challenged his assumption. “So you are saying that your Tae Kwon Do class is boring? Your hip hop dance is boring? Your Lego club is boring? How about your explorations and hikes in the woods? Or what about…
“Those are not school”, he explained.
“Why not? Why can’t they be part of your school? Isn’t school just a place where you learn?”
The interesting part is that my son does not go to a traditional school. He is home schooled. He was describing his impression of the traditional school as he experienced it in previous years, as he heard about it from friends, and as he saw it represented on various media. School is something that people do to you. You have limited choice. You do what others say. You work hard. You focus on things that are neither fun nor interesting. That is his impression of school.
I didn’t feel that way about school. I loved school, even the “boring” classes. I didn’t always enjoy the classes and I was not sure why some teachers persisted in being teachers when they seemed to be so unhappy with it. I wished that we could have more rich conversations, do research, conduct experiments, and do lest test preparation (and I had very good school experiences). Nonetheless, school was where could feed my insatiable curiosity. Plus it was a place where I got to be around other people my age.
Yet, this idea of boredom is obviously not limited to my son and a few of his friends. Depending up the study that you review, somewhere between 25% and 75% of students think school is boring. This is true on the college level as well. In a study reported in 2016 in the Journal of Media Education, over 85% of the students surveyed reported checking their phones during class for non-class purposes, and one of the main reasons for doing so was boredom. In fact, 63% of those surveyed reported using their phones to “fight boredom.”
Boredom is not only in school, of course. Just do a quick online search about “boredom in the workplace” and you will find a long list of articles and studies. Plenty of people go through school bored. Then they get a job and are bored. As such, I suppose that, as the cartoon at the beginning of this article indicates, maybe school is preparing students for all of those boring jobs.
Yet, there are debates about the cause of boredom. Some point to the environment. Others point to the person. In this chapter on Burnout, Boredom, and Engagement, the author explains this.
…it is suggested that the experience of boredom at work is due to an internal need for high stimulation; the greater this internal need, the more susceptible one would be to feeling bored (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). Both perspectives define boredom in terms of its antecedents, so these definitions are circular: employees feel bored because they work in boring (monotonous) jobs or because they are boredom-prone by nature. In order to avoid this circularity, Loukidou, Loan-Clake and Daniels (2009, p. 383) define boredom simply as an ‘unpleasant and deactivated affect’. However, this description is rather narrow and unspecific because it limits boredom to a mere affect and does not refer to the work context. We therefore propose to follow Mikulas and Vodanovich (1993, p.3) and define boredom at work as an unpleasant state of relatively low arousal and dissatisfaction, which is attributed to an inadequately stimulating work situation. For a description of boredom see the story of Geoff – a bored assistant (Work Psychology in Action box).
Schaufeli, W. B., & Salanova, M. A. R. I. S. A. (2014). Burnout, boredom and engagement at the workplace. People at work: An introduction to contemporary work psychology, 293-320.
People care about this because boredom can lead to any number of negative outcomes. People are not engaged. They are less productive. They don’t stick around. It puts a damper on the culture. And let’s not forget about the story of The Little Boy Who Cried Wolf. Yes, maybe the main point is about telling the truth, but why did the little boy lie in the first place? In many versions of the story, he came up with the idea of crying wolf because he was sitting out there alone, with a bunch of sheep, and he was bored. So, boredom conceived and gave birth to lies, and we all know how that story ended.
This is not the first time that I’ve written about boredom, but now I’m extending the reflection from school to work because I can’t help but wonder about the connection between the two. Could it be that schools conditions people to settle for boredom in work. Or, maybe students don’t learn the many secrets to move from boredom to engagement in school, and so they are stuck in what sometimes turns into a lifelong cycle.
Whatever the case, I see no reason why we would need to settle for boredom, especially in the long-term. I don’t get bored. I decided not to get bored over twenty years ago. It isn’t that I don’t find myself in situations that many might consider boring. It is just that I choose not to let the situation determine my mood. Perhaps that is what some students are doing when they pull out their phones for a distraction, but there are more productive ways to get at this too.
At the core, however, I tend to agree with the quote often shared on the web and attributed to Ellen Parr (which, by the way, sparks my curiosity since I can’t seem to find any definitive information about an Ellen Parr…now that is a mystery to be solved). “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
Okay, I confess that, after finding that quote, I just spent thirty minutes searching the Library of Congress, Worldcat, Google, and a library meta search engine to find out something about this Ellen, but I was definitely not bored, just a little distracted.
This reminds me of an experience from a graduate course years ago in interpretive methods in research. The professor invited two others to co-teach the class. So, we had the professor who was an expert in qualitative research. There was a philosopher. Then there was a Baptist minister from the Caribbean. Add the fact that you had me, an elementary school teacher, a young student who identified with Marxism, and a few other curious students; and it made for quite the learning community. Now back to the story… We were discussing phenomenology and at point, the professor made a declaration that he and I were an unusual sort because both of us could probably be content studying toll-booth-ology. It was his way of suggesting that we can be interested in pretty much anything.
Maybe that is just a genetic or largely fixed trait. Maybe it is that some people are curious and others are not. Curiosity is my go to way of living well beyond boredom and it works for me. Yet, I’m pretty sure that there are a dozen other ways too. It is just a matter of finding it, embracing it, and living it. Yet, I don’t think we are wise to just let boredom take over. It is too destructive of a force…in school, in work, and in life.
Yet, not everybody agrees with this. Or rather, some warn about the dangers of striving to avoid boredom at all costs, filling our minds with whatever entertainment might save us from that moment of boredom. In the Nicholas Carr’s The Shadows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, he warns that media can be like a drug that we use to numb ourselves from pain, boredom, or any other unpleasantryof the mind. Bertrand Russell argued for the virtue of boredom in his book, The Conquest of Happiness. He wrote:
We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.
Many point out that the effort to avoid boredom can lead us into bad habits, it can dull our minds, and it can prevent us from achieving many rich and rewarding goals. Some goals and efforts in life are not easy. We sometimes have to learn how to persist through the monotonous to reach the glorious, and that is an important life lesson as well.
Some things that are less interesting are nonetheless important and worthy of our effort. Some tasks are tedious but persisting though them can be worth it. What I don’t accept is that we should settle for boring, that we should lift it up as a virtue. Boredom itself is not admirable so why settle for it? Instead, why not learn how to see the meaning and value in sometimes less than interesting tasks, therefore removing the boredom? Meaning, like curiosity, defeats boredom with ease.
Then there is the relational angle. Sometimes we engage in activities that some might consider boring when they are alone. Do it with a group and it takes on new meaning. Sometimes things spoken are more interesting because of who says them and our connection with them. As such, if we build rich and positive relationships with the people around us, boredom also has a way of losing its hold on us. That is because we are relational beings, and the experience of being in community with other people enriches us in countless ways. So, now we have a third means of escaping boredom.
There are plenty of other paths and I’ve already spelled out at least four ways through and beyond boredom. We can be curious. We can see the daily in terms of how it helps us achieve personally meaningful goals. We can see and find meaning in what we are doing and/or why we are doing it. We can cultivate positive relationships and a sense of community with the people in our school or workplace. So, how about if we don’t settle for boring in school or in work? How about if we instead set our eyes on curiosity, meaning, personal goals, community, truth, beauty, and goodness?