The Virtues of Boredom

What’s going on under the surface when people feel bored?

Prince Charles looking bored at the 1953 coronation of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II.
Prince Charles with his Aunt, Princess Margaret (right), and his Grandmother, Elizabeth the Queen Mother, at the 1953 coronation of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II. (Hulton Deutsch / Getty)

Boredom is in many ways an emotion of absence. The absence of stimulation, of interest, of excitement. But as Mary Mann reveals in her new book, Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, what’s lacking when we feel bored is often something much deeper than entertainment. She writes about her “fear that there was no overarching purpose for my time,” how boredom can paper over feelings of powerlessness or meaninglessness. It’s easier to label that itchy sensation “boredom” than it is to consider the feeling one gets sometimes that the train of life is stopped on its tracks, that the narrative is going nowhere.

Feeling bored “doing work that didn’t mean anything to me in San Diego, a place I’d never meant to live,” Mann writes, “felt as if I’d slipped out of the role of protagonist in my own life, just fallen right out of the story altogether.”

Of course, we can’t be plucky protagonists every moment of every day; there have to be lulls in the story. And as Mann talks to soldiers bored with war, and artists bored with art, and many slices of the 70 percent of Americans who find their jobs boring, she loses some of the shame she feels in being bored. Maybe the need people feel to act out when they’re bored reveals something about what their lives are missing. Maybe monogamy doesn’t need to be “spiced up.” Maybe it’s not a crisis if things aren’t always interesting.

“It’s a pleasant surprise to be delighted by sameness,” she writes.

I spoke with Mann about what boredom really means, and how it manifests in our relationships and in the stories we tell ourselves about our lives. A lightly edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.

Julie Beck: What do people even mean when they say they’re bored? You mention that we use that as an umbrella for a lot of different emotions. Is it a glossing over of deeper issues that people just don’t want to deal with?

Mary Mann: It can be a lot of different things. The way that researchers study it is as this feeling of irritated restlessness. You’re cranky, you’re sort of like, “Ugh, I gotta get out, I gotta do stuff.” It’s a very motivating force, which is what differentiates it from depression.

But I think there can be a lot of stuff wrapped up in that. Maybe we’re not happy with what we’re doing and that’s why we feel that way. Maybe we’re feeling trapped because of circumstances outside of our control. Maybe we’re feeling angry at someone but we’re trying not to feel angry with someone. One of the things about boredom that researchers have found is that its function is as an alert system. It could be alerting you to all kinds of different things.

Beck: I was thinking about the connection between boredom and loneliness—both being emotions that everybody has, but can’t really admit to having. If you do, it makes people uncomfortable. Both boredom and loneliness make you seem toxic.

Mann: Toxic is a great word for it. There’s an idea, I think especially with loneliness, that it can be contagious. You see someone super lonely and you think “Oh they’re going to glom onto me and I’m never going to escape.” I’ve moved a lot and when I move to a new city that’s something I always worry that people see in me.

But with boredom I think it’s also embarrassing. People don’t want to admit that they feel bored because there’s a judgment about it, right? “Only boring people get bored.” It’s a sign that maybe you’re not as creative or as great or as fascinating as you would like to seem. So we just don't talk about it.

Beck: Is there some kind of a shift with that as you become an adult? Because I feel like when you're a teen, it's totally cool to be bored. You're bored with everything. It’s a dismissive judgment on the world; it's not reflecting on yourself.

Mann: I think there is a shift in it. That’s partly how people talk dismissively about boredom. They say, “Oh you sound like a teenager,” and that’s such an insult for grown ups.

Beck: There’s that old curse, right? “May you live in interesting times.” I think it would be fair to say the current times are extremely interesting, and many would perhaps like them to be less interesting. So there is an acknowledgement out there that interesting is not necessarily good. And yet … people don’t like the times to be boring.

Mann: When things are going really well in the world it feels like some people—some writers, some artists, moviemakers—have this desire to stir up visions of trouble. Because it does make it seem more interesting, in the moments when the world feels more stable. I’m thinking about entertainment and how much of it is war-centered, conflict-centered, because I guess that’s just more interesting.

Speaking of our current political moment, at one point during the election campaign, I was getting all these Google alerts of different times that Donald Trump had said things were boring. And I made a list of all the different things. It was just so many different disparate things he had just dismissed offhand as boring.

Beck: Like what?

Mann: They include: other people’s campaign events, his own emails, The Amazing Race, the NFL, Samuel L. Jackson, Jeb Bush, a whole bunch of different Fox employees. It’s a downer but also funny. You gotta laugh, right?

Beck: Maybe it's a bummer that people need blood spattered on their faces to be entertained. But how does that translate to wanting our lives to be interesting?

Mann: I spoke with a soldier, Brian Turner—he’s a beautiful poet and he’s written a lot about his experience as a soldier in Iraq. And he was saying that while a lot of actual war is pretty boring, you’re patrolling, you’re in the barracks, you don't have a ton of entertainment, there’s also this thing about it that appealed to him. He said something like: When you’re in civilian life, you have to climb trees to find meaning, while at war it’s just kind of falling from the trees onto your head. There is such a long history of war as this epic thing that creates this ultimate narrative of good versus evil and lives are at stake. So as much as he believes that war is kind of a boring thing, he acknowledges that there’s also this aspect of meaning to it that’s harder to get, for him, at home.

Beck: You have a chapter about “spicing things up,” which is a terrible phrase that is mostly used in the context of the sex lives of long-coupled people. And it’s so interesting to me that we’re so anxious as a culture about long-term relationships getting boring, at the same time as we valorize monogamy, because monogamy is literally a commitment to sameness. Do you feel like those things are in tension?

Mann: I guess the problem with boredom in monogamy has been around as long as monogamy has. I did interview a polyamory expert and she had a theory that there’s something called "new relationship energy" that gives you this rush in the beginning when you’re first falling for somebody and that naturally fades.

There’s a funny aspect to this that’s almost competitive. I was thinking about that when I was reading Esther Perel's Mating in Captivity. There are so many different tools and resources for us to keep things fresh, and so many statistics about how other people are keeping things fresh and how fresh are they keeping it? It gets to be very exhausting and very unsexy, actually, to think about sex in that way. It feels to me like there’s something interesting to be explored and experienced after the novelty wears off—to find out what are the other pieces that make up happiness and love.

Beck: I was thinking about all those Tinder people who are all on the top of a mountain. I swear to God, everybody’s always on a mountain or with a tiger.You point out that the people who want thrills are easily bored. For people using dating apps to try to find long-term monogamous relationships, presenting themselves this way, as thrill-seekers, is a weird strategy, right?

Mann: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a weird paradox. The people who present as most interesting are also the ones who are most easily bored. Because boredom is such a motivating force, you’ll do whatever to not feel it. You’ll climb a mountain, you’ll go wrestle that fish away from a bear or whatever. Statistics can show what people click on, and we do seem to be attracted to people who profess to love new things and new experiences.

Beck: I'm like, you seem exhausting. Hard pass.

Mann: Me too! If you actually think about the reality with that person, they’d be like let’s go kayaking now! Today!

I wonder if there’s this idea that if you’re with someone who’s always doing interesting things, you will become more interesting, too. Your life will be more interesting and more stimulating. When people talk about being bored in relationships, that also seems to have a contagious aspect. Like “Oh he just wants to watch TV every night, we are getting boring.” The “I” becomes a “we” really fast.

Beck: Yeah but what were you doing before? You were watching TV every night, I know you were.

Mann: I did get a chance to talk to the ad man behind the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World.” That whole campaign is really funny because the Dos Equis guy is a person who would be so exhausting to hang out with, but he is compelling to think about. He’s humorously interesting. And the ad man had an ex-girlfriend who would jokingly tell him he was boring, and it made him madder than anything else. He hated being told he was boring. I get it! It’s a painful thing. It’s a mean thing to be told.

Beck: Just like how we were talking about being bored can mean kind of anything, who's to say what you really mean when you're like “This person is boring”?

Mann: I agree with that. It could just mean they’re not to your taste. Or they’re annoying you.

Beck: Or they’re shy.

Mann: Yeah, absolutely.

Beck: So I really appreciated your savage roasting of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, this idea that if you can’t fulfill the basic needs at the bottom of the pyramid—shelter, food, whatever—then you don’t care about attaining the other aspects of human experience like love and purpose. Do you think there’s a notion in the culture that purpose or meaning or being interesting is just something that the well-off get to chase?

Mann: I do, actually. People do talk about boredom so much as a privilege, and it’s like, you’re just not thinking. Look at people on factory assembly lines, look at people in refugee camps, their lives are not luxurious by any means, but they’re dealing with these very boring conditions and they still want purpose in their lives. One of the things that felt really crazy to me was, when looking at people’s responses to refugees who said that they were bored in refugee camps, how mean people could be about that. Some of the comments on these articles that would quote refugees saying, “We have to wait in line for hours and hours to get stuff, it gets boring.” Just that word alone would trigger comments like, “Hey if you’re bored, go home.” People were just so upset by it.

Beck: How often does boredom come from a desire we have for our lives to have a narrative? Putting aside the fact that life is only narrative in retrospect, I think that’s one way to think about boredom that your book is really getting at. Like boredom is the parts of life that don’t advance the plot in any way.

Mann: One thing I thought was really interesting in researching this was talking to Martin Demand Frederiksen, who had spent all this time with these young men in Georgia, the country, studying how they were feeling boredom. He was talking about this one man he interviewed, who hated being in the country. He thought it was boring to the point of depression, and he really wanted to be a musician. He didn’t have any outlets, he was sort of trapped where he was. And feeling trapped is a big part of boredom. People feel boredom a lot when they feel trapped and vice versa. And this particular guy, he preferred to do his interviews with Martin in the past tense. He preferred to pretend with Martin that they were in the future looking back at his current life as part of this trajectory that led him to whatever success he was going to find. So this boredom would be part of the story, it would be the struggle that then leads to the glory. It was a really good example to me of how things that are really good narrative aren’t necessarily things that anyone would want to live through. No one would want to be in this guy’s situation. He was really unhappy. But it did make for a good story.

When I was talking to Martin about it, he was like, “I had to struggle not to make the book too interesting,” because it really wasn’t interesting there. But it’s interesting to read about people getting into trouble, doing drugs, drinking, whatever, because they’re bored.

Beck: Another aspect of this is control, right? In the book you mention how most elevator door-close buttons don’t do anything; they are just placebos there to manage people’s antsiness and let them feel like they have some kind of control. How much of the stuff we do when we’re bored is just trying to grab back some sense of control, to push the narrative forward, to feel like a protagonist again?

Mann: I do definitely think that a lot of it is about regaining control, because it is so much a feeling about being trapped. And you would not be trapped if you had control over what you could and couldn’t do and what you could and couldn't be. And that's partly why I think boredom can be especially frustrating for people who do have a lot of options. Maybe this is how it gets connected to privilege, because you can’t blame it on anything as easily. If you’re Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald wandering around the world and still kind of bored, it becomes this big huge existential crisis. Whereas if you’re this guy in Georgia who very clearly is physically as well as emotionally trapped, the things confining you are more clear. In that sense you can see the things that if you could grasp them and control them, would help your situation.

Because boredom is such a motivating, annoying, irritating force, boredom can be kind of useful. Now that I’m a lot more comfortable talking about boredom and thinking about my own boredom, it’s easier to make certain decisions instead of trying to fight the feeling or pretend I’m not feeling it.

Beck: Do you think you’re better at identifying what under the wide boredom umbrella is actually going on with you when you're feeling bored in different situations?

Mann: I do. I wouldn’t say I’m perfect at it, but it’s definitely helped a lot. Through the process of writing the book, as I was learning more and more about the connections between boredom and depression, I ended up going and looking into the history of it in my family and ways that boredom manifested for me. And I ended up getting some good help with depression, which was something I’d never done before. Working on this kind of opened me up to being okay with that. Understanding that this is the thing that I’m trying to get away from or bury.