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Bored cat

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Currently I have a window of time, about an hour, in which I can do whatever I want. An hour’s free time! Iris is napping, and her light sleeping and the size of our hour precludes us from doing much in the way of housework during this time. Betty is amusing herself with the iPad. I potentially could do anything. There are so many things I want to do, so many books I want to ready, things I want to make. My degree starts in a little over a week and I will have little in the way of free time, and I am back to work tomorrow, so I really need to make the most of free time when I have it.

So I thumbed through a couple of books; there’s a Henry James book on my shelf which looks interesting. I’ve a few things saved on Sky Plus to watch, but I don’t really fancy them right now. I got several notebooks for Christmas just waiting to be filled with scribblings and drawing. But I can’t settle down to anything. I have this feeling a lot. Occasionally, DH takes the kids to his much’s for the day leaving me with the complete freedom to do whatever I want. But instead of the relaxing day this is supposed to be I inevitably end up even more stressed. I’m not going to get all the things done that I want to do. I will feel guilty if I don’t do a bit of housework. I want to make sure I get the maximum amount out of the day as possible, and by the time I have my hour’s warning that the rest of the family are due home I feel unsatisfied and the opposite of relaxed. I just can’t settle to any one one thing.

It sounds a lot like boredom. But how can someone who always wants to do so much and has such little free time, be bored when given the opportunity to do whatever they want? Well, boredom is more than having nothing to do. Some people look down on boredom as an inability to entertain oneself. Kids complain of being bored but how can you be bored when you have hundreds of toys and hours of pure leisure time ahead of you?

A recently published paper reviewed hundreds of studies of boredom, and the authors, John Eastwood, Alexandra Frischen, Mark Fenske, and Daniel Smilek in the September, 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, came to the conclusion that boredom is primarily a function of attention, and is also greatly influenced by our perception of the environment and our feelings about it. They cite a study by Robin Damrad-Frye and James Laird in the August, 1989 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In this study, participants had to listen to a tape recordomg of a person reading anarticle.  In the next room, there was a television soundtrack playing.  For some groups listening to the article, the TV was very loud and distracting, for others it was barely noticeable, and for some it was not playing at all.  After listening to the article, people rated their boredom during the study. Those who heard the barely noticeable TV soundtrack reported higher levels of boredom than the other two groups. The group who heard the loud TV show reported feeling frustrated but not bored. Those who heard the low level soundtrack had difficulty concentrating, but weren’t sure why. They attributed this feeling to boredom. In fact other studies have shown that the more you try and distract yourself to alleviate boredom, the more bored you feel as you recognise that you are trying to distract yourself and realise the situation must be boring.

This is a good explanation as to why the book of magazine you bought just to make a journey go quicker doesn’t hit the spot and you end up putting it down in frustration; a combination of trying to amuse yourself in an inevitably boring situation, and low level noise and distraction.

It seems a trivial matter, but boredom can be dangerous. Boredom and lack of attention can be fatal for military personnel, airline pilots or other people operating dangerous machinery.

Despite the survey of the literature so far, there is very little advice on how to tackle boredom. However one study found that when participants were placed in a boring situation doing a mundane task, those who had been made aware of the boredom inducing effects of mind-wandering felt less bored than those who were asked to think about things they’d rather be doing in the task. Even an awareness of the feeling of boredom helped alleviate the effects. By that measure researching and writing this post should mean I never feel bored again!

Two more things help alleviate boredom; ambient movement can help people stay engaged. When airports moved baggage claims further from arrival gates flyers’ satisfaction increased. The positive, goal-directed act of walking was better than waiting around fruitlessly. Even low level movement can help keep attention maintained, which is why the Tangle Toy was invented, and why I no longer feel guilty for doodling in boring meetings.

Arousal is an important aspect of boredom. Boredom can be a disparity between our arousal and our need for stimulation and the ability of the environment to meet that need. To this end, lowering arousal is a way of alleviating boredom, creating a relaxed rather than bored state. One of the best ways of doing this is mindfulness, being in the moment, concentrating on your surroundings and your feelings.

For me personally, I know my ‘boredom’ stems from wanting to do too much, and worrying that committing to any one thing will not be enough. I feel like everything I do should have a purpose and be working towards making myself a better person, and nothing is good enough. Consequently I feel bored and cannot focus on any one thing, aware all the time that the moments are slipping away. I am very grateful then, that my mum bought me some felt tipped pens and a colouring book for Christmas. Yes, I am a 31 year old with my own colouring book. But as a child psychotherapist my mum instinctively knows the benefits that colouring books, or other such activities, can have. Apart from the creative experience, the repetitive action and and low level of concentration required can induce a mindful state, where thoughts and feelings are not suppressed, but just flow through you. Similar effects can be achieved from the simple act of stroking pets. In fact a team of ‘Comfort Dogs’ were sent to Sandy Hook to help the victims of the massacre there. One girl spoke for the first time in a week while a dog lay in her lap.

So, now my hour has passed, Iris is calling for me, and there is no longer time to feel bored. Tired, frustrated, entertained and all the other feelings that go with having children. But not bored.

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