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February 20, 2019

Reflections: With boredom comes great feats

Inside Nakumat supermarket,the supermarket is on crisis of closure /Elkana Jacob
Inside Nakumat supermarket,the supermarket is on crisis of closure /Elkana Jacob

Who knew boredom comes with benefits? I didn’t, not until I came across research that says boredom begets creativity, followed by great achievements. You see, I get bored easily. Invariably this means I get bored often. 

Top on the list of things that bore me the most is going to the supermarket (more on this in a second). For now, we take a closer look at boredom, and as it turns out, to quote professor emeritus of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.’ 

Boredom. It is the mental weariness caused by repetition and lack of interest in a task. Any experience that is predictable and repetitive becomes boring. In other words, too much of the same thing and too little stimulation (mental or otherwise) can cause in a person an absence of desire, i.e., boredom. A common misconception about boredom is that people get bored because they’re unoccupied. Not the case. Boredom is not having nothing to do; it’s having nothing to do that interests you. 

Which brings us back to me and supermarkets — talk about having nothing to do that interests me. First, there’s the way supermarkets move stock from one aisle to another every second week. Every time you go in there, you have to ask the staff where such and such a product has been moved to; every single time! Then comes the other irritant, the checkout counter.  

I’m referring to the express counter specifically. You know, that counter that has a big sign right there that says, ‘Express Counter: Five items or less.’ Funny thing about this sign is I’m the only one who sees it because there’s always a long queue at this counter, and shoppers on this queue with shopping carts filled to the brim, evidently with more than five items. It doesn’t end there. You have cashiers making mistakes at the till forced to yell ‘password’, for the supervisor to casually stroll over and sort the error. 

Then there are the shoppers who pay for Sh96 worth of items using mobile money, a transaction that takes considerably longer than if one just paid in cash. To put it mildly, supermarkets bore me to tears. 

All this boredom, though, psychologists say, has a purpose. Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations that, ‘The greatest part of what we say and do is unnecessary… On every occasion, a man should ask himself, is this one of the unnecessary things?’ This is what boredom asks of us. Is this (task) one of the unnecessary things? The primary function of boredom being to make us search for and do something else. 

It is boredom, says Professor Heather Lench, that stops us from ploughing the same old furrow and pushes us to seek new goals or explore new territories or ideas. 

And from research, psychologist Sandi Mann found that tedium encourages our minds to wander, which in turn leads to more creative ways of thinking. When we seek stimulation to escape boredom, we turn to our minds, where leaps of imagination take place in daydream. Without the capacity for boredom, Mann states, we humans may never have achieved our artistic and technological feats.  

Sandi Mann is right. Without boredom there would be no daydreaming, and without daydreamers most of our greatest achievements would not have come to pass. 

So, thank God for boredom.

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