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Is boredom bad? And the holiday paradox

The way we experience time is subjective. It is something we know intuitively as children. One thing that puzzled me very early in life was that on long car trips the journey to the place would always feel significantly longer than the journey back home. I remember asking my mother why that is, and she would say it’s because you know what to expect when you come back, you have taken the path before, you are not anticipating the unexpected– something along those lines...The same expansion of time occurred when I was waiting for things to happen, (which I did a lot, or every child does a lot). If you would have asked the younger me what the longest day of the year is, I would’ve definitely told you it's Christmas. Essentially, we understand early that two things elongate subjective time: novelty and waiting.

Recently, I read about a funny paradox of our perception of time:

Remember the phrase: “time flies by when you are having fun”?

Well, turns out that in hindsight, the moments that fly by at the moment, are perceived as longer and more intense in our memory. I’m sure the memory of a trip you took somewhere is filled with detail and the more details the longer it takes you to recall the memory, the longer the time spent at that moment feels to you subjectively in the now. This is what neuroscientists and psychologists call the “Holiday Paradox”.

And vice versa. The days that felt endless at the moment, the days spent doing nothing, retrospectively feel very, very short. All the months of lockdown felt like one long (yet, kind of short) day to me. The holiday paradox is basically just the simple mechanism of novelty; novelty expands time. As children, the percentage of things we can experience for the first time is much higher and therefore occurs more frequently: expanding time.

One day, a character appeared in my mind. This personage’s ultimate life goal was to subjectively live the longest life possible. Their plan was not to objectively live longer by outliving the average age expectancy but to subjectively manipulate their experiences in such a way that they felt longer. This was before I had learned about the paradox of time perceived vs. time remembered. And I thought that in order for the character to achieve this, they had to do nothing at all: be bored or be in a situation of chronic waiting, to elongate time. Perhaps, I also assumed so because the German word for boredom literally implies that boredom = a long time. Langeweile (lange= long, weile = while / a longwhile = boredom). So, I imagined this character trying to expand subjective life by fostering boredom. At first when I encountered this “lifestyle”, I felt a bit of despair. Boredom has always been perceived somewhat negatively. The word for boredom in romance languages etymologically stems from a state of hate and annoyance, (ennui (French) / noia (Italian) / abburrimiento (Spanish), etc.). What’s up with the vilification of boredom?

We know that boredom and dull tasks often lead to new insights and random connections: Eureka moments.

I recently read one of the top quotes (in my opinion) which poetically describes the power of boredom: according to Walter Benjamin deep boredom is a

“dream bird that hatches the egg of experience”

Byung-Chul Han elaborated the following: “Benjamin laments that the dream bird’s nests of tranquility and time are vanishing in the modern world. No longer does one “spin and weave.” Boredom is a “warm gray fabric on the inside, with the most lustrous and colourful silks; in this fabric, we wrap ourselves when we dream.” We are “at home…in the arabesques of its lining.” – Byung-Chul Han Burnout Society, page 13.

Boredom is not bad, it creates an environment for development and incubation, it creates a buffer zone for the mind to drift away from daily anxieties and activities that might inhibit it from thinking unrestrained.

With regards to the personage, I mentioned above, it’s called a paradox for a reason.

Would you rather experience a long present but be bored, or live a short present and only be able to elongate these experiences through reminiscing, i.e. when these moments no longer exist.

Most adults choose the second option, but then they wonder where the time goes...

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