Would you tune into a Netflix show where people silently hang up their laundry, or where you can learn about fish farming techniques?
Click start to play today’s Spell It, where you can find the word “ennui” – the intersection of being bored and jaded.
Those kinds of shows exist, and according to the American Psychological Association (APA), psychologists are using them to study boredom in the lab. But what exactly is this state of mind and how do we get out of it?
Russian author Leo Tolstoy defined boredom as “a desire for desires”. In the 2020 book, Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, the authors described it as a cognitive state that is similar to the feeling of having something at the tip of your tongue – you think something’s missing but you can’t pinpoint exactly what.
In many ways, it’s a modern kind of luxury to be bored. Even the word “boring” didn’t come into common parlance until the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s. Before that, people were too busy hunting, building shelters – and basically surviving – to be bored, according to a July 2013 study published by the US-based Monitor on Psychology magazine.
But then again, people have felt the stirrings of boredom in some way or the other for centuries, even if they didn’t call it ‘boredom’. In the first century, Roman philosopher Seneca talked about taedium vitae, a mood that was similar to nausea set off by the relentless cycle of life. And both monks and people from nobility have been known to suffer from this invisible plague of the mind, leaving them restless and sighing, waiting for something to happen.
Today, psychologists have studied boredom enough to know there is a distinction between that, and ennui. The latter is more extreme, and involves a judgment of the universe, while the latter is a response to immediate circumstances.
Here are three techniques you can use to overcome boredom when it strikes:
1. Think about what you want to do
Pausing and self-assessing is crucial to getting over ennui. Self-distancing techniques are particularly useful – ask yourself in the third person what you want to spend your time on, and an answer may become clear. Or use the principle of memento mori – a Latin phrase that means “remember that you will die”. While it sounds morbid, it can help you realise you have limited time, which can be used productively, and get you thinking about what you want to do with it.
2. Change your routine
Break the monotony that causes you to experience ennui. If you work from home, for instance, pack up your work things and head to a café for an hour or two, so you can experience a change of place and pace. Or walk to destinations that are different from your usual haunts, on your evening stroll.
3. Try new things
Actively pursue new experiences and say ‘yes’ to new opportunities when they’re offered to you. You might try your hand at an activity that intrigued you at some point, like pottery or painting. Or you could step out of your comfort zone and do something you never thought you would be capable of, like ziplining or cooking a three-course meal.