Consider any public place where people used to enjoy a spot of silent contemplation – from train carriages and beauty spots to our local streets – and these days you’ll see people plugged into their seductive electronic sources of constant stimulation. All this information overload seems like a very contemporary problem, but one unique thinker actually stumbled upon a neat solution nearly a century ago: radical boredom.
In 1924, a German writer called Siegfried Kracauer wrote despairingly of the massive over-stimulation of the modern city, where people listening to the radio were in a state of ‘permanent receptivity, constantly pregnant with London, the Eiffel Tower, Berlin’. His answer was to suggest going cold turkey on stimulation – to cut ourselves off for controlled periods to experience ‘extraordinary, radical boredom’.
‘On a sunny afternoon when everyone is outside, one would do best to hang about the train station,’ he wrote. ‘Or, better yet, stay at home, draw the curtains and surrender oneself to one’s boredom on the sofa.’ Kracauer believed that actively pursuing boredom in this way was a valuable means of unlocking playful, wild ideas far away from workaday reality and, better still, achieve ‘a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly’.
‘Boredom can be good for us,’ agrees Dr Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire who is an expert on the subject. ‘People forget that it’s just an emotion that can be both positive and negative. It doesn’t necessarily occur when we haven’t got anything to do – but more often when there’s nothing to do that interests us right now. Using boredom positively is about creating new opportunities when your mind isn’t occupied and there isn't anything else to focus on.’
Three practical ways to practise radical boredom
- Feet first. During the day, leave your workplace for a 10-minute walk without destination or purpose, where you can just notice what’s happening around you. And leave your phone behind.
- Carriage calm. Resist the temptation to check your email on the daily commute and look out the window fo the train or bus instead. ‘This can be a lovely way to let your mind off the hook and just daydream,’ says Mann.
- Embrace dull tasks. Research shows that people are more creative after doing dull tasks. So tackle the washing-up before writing that big proposal, or try getting some tedious admin tasks completed before your next important meeting.