The Science of Time Explains Boredom and Stress, and How to Deal With Them

Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 11:06 PM

All rights reserved. Boredom--Agonizing Time and Self A memory of mine from Hong Kong: on one of the picturesque mountains over which the city extends -- overlooking the bay, the sea of skyscrapers, and the forested islands -- stands a park; here, there is a ordinary cage, maybe five by five meters.

The Science of Time Explains Boredom and Stress, and How to Deal With Them

Excerpted from Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time by Marc Wittmann published latest mo by The MIT Press. All rights reserved.

Boredom--Agonizing Time and Self

A memory of mine from Hong Kong: on one of the picturesque mountains over which the city extends -- overlooking the bay, the sea of skyscrapers, and the forested islands -- stands a park; here, there is a ordinary cage, maybe five by five meters. A lone chimpanzee is the occupant, sitting on a rubber floor with nubs. I can number longer recall the details, but the cage contained few objects for the animal'south entertainment. I watched the chimpanzee for a few minutes. He seemed to be lying down more than he was sitting. His fingers toyed apathetically with torn nubs, performing repetitive motions. His eyes stared listlessly at the floor. I thought I heard a sigh. I was filled with empathy, for I understood that the chimpanzee was bored.

There is always a risk of anthropomorphizing animals, that is, conferring human traits on them. However, research conducted in the latest few years indicates that the chimpanzee, as a self-aware animal, is capable of feeling a kind of boredom, experiencing the passing of time in a way that approaches what human beings feel.

A human prisoner who spends his days in an overly predictable routine with monotonous surroundings feels boredom to an extreme degree. That said, for many, a Sun afternoon can lead to a similar state. Time passes much too slowly. In a negative sense, to perceive bored is to perceive acutely the proximity of time that refuses to pass. Nothing is stimulating. One experiences an uncomfortable proximity to oneself but doesn't know what to do with oneself. Boredom involves becoming directly alert of the fact that one is trapped in time. This description brings together the perception of temporality and subjectivity. As a matter of self-regulation, the condition itself practically screams: "Do something!" Indeed, boredom frequently leads one to avert or abandon activities that are boring. The only problem is that, on this sluggish Sun afternoon, I cannot abandon myself. Even the idea of going to the movies or meeting with friends holds no appeal.

My boring Sun afternoon makes me become alert of myself and time. Neurobiological findings and phenomenal analysis of self-consciousness propose that the feeling of boredom correlates with pronounced action in the anterior insular cortex. All the phenomenal factors that have a demonstrated relation to the insular cortex also occur in boredom: in common terms, physicality and emotionality, and, in particular, a heightened sense of subjectivity and temporality. To keep things in the terms of the philosophical dictum above, one might say: through boredom, nature achieves wholly unpleasant self-awareness. The feeling is attended by intensified self-perception, but also by a feeling of emptiness. It's as if the object of reflection (my ego) were empty, even though subjectivity intensifies as this void is perceived.

Acceleration -- How We Can Maintain Control Over the Pace of Life

If boredom means too much time, what does too tiny time mean? If boredom, as time that's felt, is accompanied by an intensified sense of self that proves unpleasant, then the feeling that there isn't sufficient time should lead to a less intense experience of the self. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who equated time and self in his philosophy and focused on the subject of boredom in a lecture, addresses the common complaint of "having number time":

This not having any time is ultimately a greater being lost of the self than that wasting time which leaves itself time. Maybe there lies in this having time a distant greater balance and thereby security of Dasein -- a being-alongside-oneself [Bei-sich-selbst] that at minimum has an intimation that what's fundamental in Dasein cannot be forcibly brought about by any busyness or crazy rush... The "having number time" that looks love the most rigorous seriousness is maybe the way in which we're most lost in the banalities of Dasein.

In essence, this means that if one has number time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we're number longer alert of ourselves. If we rush from one thing to another and don't miss a single event scheduled for our free time, we'll accumulate many experiences. Yet if we never authorize ourselves to peaceful down but always set out immediately for the following activity, the danger emerges that we'll lose ourselves senselessly in a mad rush. In keeping with the philosophical reflections offered above, this means: number time, number self. Most recently, this topic -- as well as the issue of a "time crisis" -- has been discussed in the context of society and technology; see, especially, Social Acceleration by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa.

... through boredom, nature achieves wholly unpleasant self-awareness.

According to Rosa, the omnipresent acceleration of processes represents a fundamental principle in our society that the individual cannot escape. First and foremost, there is technological acceleration. Prime examples comprise washing machines and dishwashers -- devices that should actually relieve people of temporal burdens. Likewise, instead of voyages taking days or weeks -- as was still the case in the mid-nineteenth century -- modern means of transportation have shortened travel time to anywhere in the world to a matter of hours. But the situation proves paradoxical. All this time gained doesn't result in the feeling that we've more time. On the contrary, the universal lament is that we "have no time." This is surely the result of technological advances that enable us to undertake more and more activities per day; the time we've freed up is filled with even more activities and deadlines.

In addition to technological acceleration, the pace of life is speeding up. Tasks should be performed within certain periods of time. The sentiment voiced on all sides, however, is that these periods are getting shorter and shorter. The universally expressed feeling is that the segments of time demanded are becoming shorter. Pressure is mounting. It's challenging to relax during coffee breaks at the office if work will only resume at a breakneck pace. Accordingly, the crack frequently gets slice brief so that we've more time to attend to various duties that stay unmet. You perceive you're constantly below pressure to obtain things done quickly. More still, expectations modify through technological acceleration. It used to be that I'd reply letters after a few days -- if not weeks. Today, email demands a response within minutes, or at very minimum on the same day.

A corollary of accelerated cycles of life is the sheer abundance of information available all at once -- as well as the array of options for action that this entails. We might be able to do more and more things simultaneously, but nothing gets done properly. While we prepare a meal, the television demands our attention; we dash off our emails during phone conversations. Activities are switched into parallel mode. The simultaneity of activities results in inadequate processing depth.

Critical views of modern society characterize a wide conceptual arc. They begin, on one end, with philosophical analyses of temporality and the self. They finish with diagnoses of social conditions. Critics of acceleration support that accelerating patterns of life are the reason for a commonly voiced sense of unease -- the feeling that one isn't "really" living. Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet number personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one'south own self. We also number longer perceive "at home" with ourselves and discover it challenging to persist in any given action because we're available at every moment; the phone always rings at the worst possible time.

In view of this diagnosis, it's certainly not a error to attempt to relax one'south relationship with the culture of acceleration. At any rate, this is preferable to falling prey to frenzied action yet again and then booking an expensive meditation retreat! Chapter three discussed a opportunity for acquiring mindfulness: living in the moment. Tiny changes in the attention we pay to what's happening to us proposal the key to having a sense of control over patterns and cycles in everyday work routines. My point is hardly to proposal an instruction manual for how to utilize one'south time; suffice it to declare that time-management is, in essence, and contrary to suggestions of many books on time-management, making wise utilize of oneself and one'south feelings. Work to be done as quickly as possible, which seems love a mountain, sometimes shrinks, upon closer inspection, to a hill that's easier to climb -- if we recognize that our emotionally colored associations are the genuine burden. Might it be my coworker -- and not the difficulty or quantity of work -- that makes me uneasy about tomorrow'south deadline? The powerful discrepancy we perceive between an unpleasant situation anticipated tomorrow and relatively relaxed circumstances presently is what creates the sense of temporal overload. Our imagination -- not just reality -- can also create us perceive pressed for time. Love the social inhibitions most people experience when they go to a party where they don't know anyone, feeling pressed for time professionally frequently breaks down into emotionally charged ideas about the work to be done.

... time-management is, in essence, and contrary to suggestions of many books on time-management, making wise utilize of oneself and one's feelings.

One can train oneself in mindfulness to experience the moment more intensively and memorise the genuine reason for emotional reactions and automatic thoughts. Via the feeling of emotional self-control, we can attain a sense of "deceleration." The process is similar to learning a foreign language: at the beginning of our studies, when we hear the speech spoken by native speakers, it seems terribly fast. Later, as our competency increases, the pace we perceive lessens considerably. An increased feeling of control when dealing with the demands of a situation can unhurried down the perceived pace of processes.

Fundamentally, the key to a relaxed attitude involves controlling external demands. Stress doesn't chase from the quantity of work per time-unit so much as from the fact that the work is imposed -- without our being able to control it. This is evident, for example, in the fact that work-related stress is experienced more acutely the lower one stands in the professional hierarchy. Even though the quantity of work and demands on time tend to expand the higher the position held, physical and psychological stress reactions reduce the more one ascends professionally. This is because, at lower levels in the hierarchy, the work is more frequently imposed by others. It's easier for the boss to divide his time according to the motto of organizational psychology: "One thing at a time." In contrast, a secretary, although still active completing an earlier assignment, will frequently be given a new work to do right away. The situation is only worsened when people in leadership positions display deficient social skills; this entails an extra emotional charge to the way the work pace is perceived.

At the risk of seeming to allow a how-to manual on gaining control over the pace of one'south life, I proposal a few tips. A tiny "timeout": a necessity for smokers -- stopping work every presently and then for a cigarette outside -- should be taken advantage of by nonsmokers. For a few minutes, one can escape the hamster wheel of contacting clients, making calls, reading and answering email, and working on spreadsheets. Get a deep breath; let thoughts arrive and go. Ritualized pauses during the day'south business assistance one regain one'south bearing. Breaks can also function as a latency period for thinking. The best ideas always arrive when one isn't thinking about the problem directly. Breaks proposal a break for reflecting in the back of one'south mind. It just might become clear what one'south genuine priorities should be. All of a sudden, the hulking mass of work becomes manageable.

Business people sometimes speak about how, on their frequent travels, they wake up in the morning and don't know which city they're in. Thanks to airplanes, it takes only a few hours to come anywhere on the globe. Then, after a day or two, another ride leads somewhere entirely different. Leaving from London, after a mere ten hours, one finds oneself beyond the Grand Wall, headed toward Beijing -- a veritable technological ponder of speed. Still, this leaves ten hours for the traveler to modify to a new world. One necessity not look the mediocre film on the tiny onboard screen; this time may be spent intensively studying the culture at one'south destination. Likewise, traveling from Philadelphia to Boston leaves plenty of time to focus on the journey and the destination: a chance to concentrate.

Another load factor is the temporal overlapping that occurs between work and free time. Magazines frequently report that the separation between professional obligations and free time number longer holds for creative and independent people. This circumstance doesn't necessarily seem taxing (at minimum for a while), since it entails self-determination, and every working min can imply more recognition and money. However, for those of us with fixed schedules and pay, it's healthier to switch off the business phone when the working day is done and to read professional emails only at work. At home, with work over and done, what reason is there -- once the children have been keep to bed -- not to spend an hour, every evening, doing x? X might stand for whatever holds personal interest: reading Proust'south In Look for of Lost Time, spending time on a collection of fascinating objects, taking a nighttime stroll on one'south own or with one'south partner. Do one thing, with full attention, for an hr a day. Or just spend fifteen minutes sitting on the sofa and don't do anything for a change: How'south my posture? Does anything hurt? How do I feel? We can give free rein to fantasy and observe how we may arrive to terms with the acceleration of the world that we experience.

Of course, overly strict directions for managing time may be counterproductive. They might wind up setting a course for everyday life that exerts too much pressure ("Presently I just necessity to relax quickly and concentrate before I obtain the laundry"). A relaxed attitude toward life'south demands doesn't start from one day to the next. It might even turn out that a weekend retreat devoted to meditation, wellness, and gastronomy stands in the way of acquiring a different outlook on the rhythm of life. After all, the aim is to survive the reality of the everyday work environment. The learning process can succeed only in tiny steps: "learning by doing" in a relaxed manner.

We profit from the conveniences that more efficient and rapid cycles entail: a book can be picked up at the store mere hours after we order it; government forms can be filled out online while seated comfortably on the sofa; doctors on call are only minutes away. These are the advantages that technological and organizational acceleration affords. At any rate, it surely is the case that we cannot simply withdraw from the social pace of life. If we "disconnect" from everyday routine and get a week'south vacation, one hundred forty-three emails have piled up in the inbox when we return. We cannot modify the speed of operations in our society. Nor can we modify the no of new assignments the boss hands us. However, we can memorise to deal with potential stressors. Negative stress reactions needn't result. The point is to perceive that we're in control of the demands we face. Technology and social patterns proposal opportunities for us to shape our lives autonomously. At the same time, they pose the risk that we'll simply be dragged along by the accelerated pace and burn out. In many fields today, a professional skill that's implicitly required is subjective control of the accelerated speed of life and work. If we manage to stay in control, we can discover time for other things -- and for ourselves.

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