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IDEAS

The difficulty of doing nothing

As the coronavirus stay-at-home orders dramatically limited our ability to engage with the world in the usual ways, the ominous possibility of idleness and boredom surfaced. What did we do? We filled as much of our time as possible.

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Years ago, researchers at the University of Virginia recruited hundreds of college students and staff and asked them to spend six to 15 minutes in “thinking periods,” alone in a room with no distractions. They could think about whatever they wanted, but were offered some prompts. Afterward, most said they felt very uncomfortable and the boredom was comparable to physical pain.

The scientists then slightly modified the experiment, giving the participants the option to get electric shocks during the thinking periods. Many asked for the shocks.

Timothy Wilson, the social psychologist leading the study, was surprised, and a bit disheartened, to see that the human mind, “stuffed full of pleasant memories” and equipped with the unique ability to look inward and create imaginary worlds, seemed incapable of handling a few minutes of boredom.

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“We really thought this [thinking time] was something people would like,” he said. Instead, participants found a temporary disengagement from external activities almost unbearable. “Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative,” the study concluded.

The lockdown measures for the COVID-19 pandemic turned that same premise into an involuntary social experiment on a massive scale. And guess what happened? A lot of electric shocks. As stay-at-home orders dramatically limited our ability to engage with the world in the usual ways, the ominous possibility of idleness and boredom surfaced. All of a sudden, many people intuitively understood what the philosopher Blaise Pascal meant when he wrote that “all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” and planned some distraction strategies to avoid being too much with themselves. The electric shocks came in many different forms: news doomscrolling; massive live streaming; compulsive gardening; sourdough starters; back-to-back webinars; pornography consumption as a coping mechanism. Overworking, of course. Anything but falling into the long-lost art of doing absolutely nothing.

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During my more than two months in lockdown in Italy — the first country in the West to shut down, and one of the last to approach an extremely confused reopening phase — I had virtual drinks with people I wouldn’t hang out with in real life (no offense). I attended seminars I wasn’t interested in. I received countless invitations to things I couldn’t care less about, and I was quite sure even the people setting them up weren’t really into them either. Not only did I dive into the incessant flow of well-meant and totally unnecessary activities in a time of forced inactivity, but I couldn’t refrain from commenting on the dynamic in group chats with people who, just like me, struggled to sit quietly in a room.

As parents of two little children, my wife and I were physically exhausted just by attending to our daily tasks, but I still managed to preemptively avert occasions of tedium and fill potential moments of silence. I video chatted a lot with my parents, who live in a different part of the country. Those conversations provided essential emotional connection and support, but after a while, I didn’t have much to add to what I had told them the day before. Our days looked eerily alike. My quarantine began with Zoom FOMO and is slowly ending with Zoom fatigue.

Part of my discomfort is the result of the guilt-ridden realization of having repeatedly violated a dogma of contemporary life: busyness. Our world values not just productivity but also the feeling of being productive, always engaged in activities whose stated purpose is to provide something objectively measurable, but whose actual goal is the engagement itself.

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“Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy,” said Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher whose popularity spiked during the pandemic.

In the hard-to-recollect life before COVID-19, most of us were always swamped with stuff, constantly juggling impossibly jammed schedules, and quietly hurting at the prospect of the intensity of it waning. Multitasking is a state of the modern soul. The lockdowns didn’t alter that notion, they just constrained it in a much more limited set of possibilities.

The author Andrew Smart termed this mood the “culture of effectiveness” in a book praising idleness and non-industriousness as vehicles of positive social change. A self-described “survivor of the corporate-mandated ‘Six Sigma’ training to improve efficiency,” Smart claimed that the culture of effectiveness is, in fact, ineffective. Drawing from the scientific literature on neuroscience, he made the case that filling life with activity harms the brain. The human mind is made to be unplugged frequently.

At a deeper level, my anxious attempts to keep up with the pre-pandemic shares of self-administered electric shocks revealed a mindset in which fulfillment occurs only through some active engagement with things. In modernity, human satisfaction rhymes with action. But it wasn’t always like this. For centuries, people not only survived without the incessant distractions that characterize the contemporary condition but considered the absence of diversions a key part of a fulfilled life. “Happiness does not consist in pastimes and amusements, but in activities in accordance with virtue,” wrote Aristotle, adding that the highest virtue is what pertains to the “divinest part of us,” that is the intellect. Therefore, the ancient philosopher concluded, perfect happiness lies in the “activity of contemplation.”

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In contemporary parlance, “the activity of contemplation” is almost a contradictory phrase. Certainly, I initially struggled to consider those dreaded moments devoted to just thinking during the lockdown as “active” in any possible sense. But as the weeks passed, the possibility emerged that in boredom and silence might be enshrined a kernel of truth about oneself. In fact, a growing body of research even suggests that boredom makes us more creative. That creative process hinged on inner life is an inherent part of our humanity.

In his thoughtful critique of big tech, Franklin Foer argued that the most subtle danger it poses is not the massive concentration of power, but the relentless erosion of the spaces for self-reflection. “To me, the destruction of contemplation is the existential threat to our humanity,” he argued. The trouble is that the contemporary mind is not well trained to value its contemplative side. “The untutored mind does not like to be alone with itself,” concluded the study on the electric shocks. Understanding the value of doing nothing is a lot of work.

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Mattia Ferraresi is a writer for the Italian newspaper Il Foglio. Follow him on Twitter @mattiaferraresi