The war on boredom

“Boredom is the beginning of every authentic act. […] Without boredom, there’s no creativity. If you are not bored, you just stupidly enjoy the situation in which you are.”

— Slavoj Žižek

Panem, circenses, inertia

At its height under the Roman Empire, the city of Rome had a population of over one million people.

To the ancient world, this was unheard of.

No other city in the West ever managed to reach a population of over a million until London underwent the Industrial Revolution… a millennium and a half later.

With this in mind—as well as how bloodied and unstable the history of the city was—the Roman elite was forced to come up with a couple of tricks to keep the herd of plebeians under control.

First came the Cura Annonae, one of the earliest instances of a “social safety net” the world has ever seen. Every month, around 200.000 Roman citizens were allowed to buy subsidized (often free) grain and bread directly from the state.

The fuller the bellies, the duller the people.

Then came the Ludi (from which we get words like ludopathy), public games financed directly by the emperor’s deep pockets: chariot races, gladiatorial fights and even naval combat (yes, they filled up the damn Coliseum with water) that could last for as long as 100 days.

The busier the minds, the tamer the people.

Now, I don’t want this to be a critique à la Frankfurt School, denouncing how our current culture industry has replicated—and elevated—what the Romans did.

Instead, I want to bring your attention to one of the most powerful forces this infamous practice of bread and circuses has always tried to suppress: boredom.

Mental whack-a-mole

We hate being bored; our brains can’t stand it. It’s uncomfortable, irritating, and somehow makes us feel both anxious and lazy all at once.

In a famous 2014 Harvard study, participants were left alone in a quiet white room with only one button which they knew would give them an electric shock if pressed. A few minutes in, around 25% of women and 70% of men were so bored that they pressed the button and received the shock.

Some even pressed it twice.

In other words: they favored receiving a harmful stimulus over none at all.

Consider how boredom is nothing other than mental hunger. Your mind, just as your body, craves food too. We both know that eating too much is unhealthy: if you always snack on low-quality foods, your body will get fat and sluggish. Well, the same thing is true for your mind: if you always snack on low-quality content, your mind will get dumb and lazy.

That’s exactly what the Roman elite wanted.
That’s exactly why they gave them bread and circuses.

When there’s no interesting external stimulus to entertain us, our own thoughts are forced to pop-up and scout for food. Unfortunately, as soon as they do, we usually smash them back down with the hammer of distractions. That’s right: we are playing whack-a-mole with our minds, not letting anything worthwhile ever come out of them.

Start chasing boredom

Our most brilliant ideas come up when we let our thoughts wander: when we drive to work, take a shower, go out for a walk or are about to fall asleep. The same could be true of many other moments in our lives if we didn’t constantly restrict them through chronic distraction.

Instagram. Twitter. YouTube. Netflix. Books. Audiobooks. Podcasts. News. Noise. Noise. Noise. More noise. So much damn noise you can never even hear your own thoughts. So much coming in nothing ever comes out.

If this sounds a lot like your day-to-day life (I know mine does) and the Foucauldian idea of being your own Roman elite—both victim and perpetrator—scares you to death, I invite you to shake things up and go the opposite way: start chasing boredom.

  • Schedule 10 daily minutes for some anti-meditation: just sitting and thinking.
  • Stop checking your phone every time you wait in line, sit on the toilet or eat lunch.
  • Try having a quiet morning with no screens or news; just you and your coffee.
  • Go for a walk without music or audio-books.
  • Stop reading.
  • Start writing.

These seemingly trivial changes will rewire your brain into producing instead of just consuming. In fact, if you decide to implement them, I highly recommend you carry a little notebook and pen with you—the number of interesting thoughts you’ll suddenly come up with will overwhelm you.

Hunger is the great motivator of men. Back in the day, it forced us out of the caves and into crafting, hunting, and cooperating.

Today, it’s our intellectual hunger—our boredom—that’s waiting to make our lives and ideas flourish, if only we give it a chance to do so.

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