English first used a word to describe the state of boredom about 250 years ago. It is an emotion almost everyone would have felt at some point in their lives. Even if we did not always have a word for it, it is likely humans have known that periods of excitement were separated by often more extended periods of backbreaking toil or merely waiting for something to happen.
We may be the last generation to say that we knew what real boredom was. Nothing to do while waiting for time to pass. With a fair-sized screen, a good junk of data and a stable internet connection you can entertain and amuse yourself to death.
Millions of Wikipedia entries, billions of news stories, even more videos and audio clips on every subject imaginable, image galleries of every conceivable thing. All the world’s literature and even more self-published stuff.
Puzzles, games, study courses, chat rooms and the most sophisticated means of communication to connect and talk with anyone anywhere in the world.
In the same way that getting lost for those with some basic internet enabled phones is not possible unless you want to get lost. Being bored is no longer a result of there not being something to occupy you, but instead, you choosing not to use it.
For a population that can expect to live longer than any humans that came before us, this is good news. Past generations had a meagre supply of activities to while away the time in their golden years. The future for the elderly looks more than golden now.
For all the new options and the ever lowering cost, there is another potentially worrying trend that may be related. Young people in the US are more lonely than older generations.
Loneliness is not the same as merely being alone. Loneliness comes with feelings of not being connected with others, and it is a complex feeling that may include a lack a purpose and of feeling unnecessary.
Everyone might feel sad sometimes and get a bit lonely, but having access to so much stimulation may be causing an unintended consequence.
Studies to date are not conclusive, and typically from developed countries, but they may point to something that if we address it now, we can avoid it being proved correct later.
We are social creatures, and our devices were intended to enhance that connection. A phone call could connect you with those close and far and, by using the internet, at almost no cost.
But often when you could call someone, you might find yourself opting to send a message instead. Typing and writing is not everyone’s idea of fun so messages have tended to become shorter and the brevity has reduced context and made the tone hard to tell.
Humans have a big part of our brain dedicated to interpreting the facial cues of people with whom we are talking. You can’t do that when all you have are a string of emoji in a text box.
As the amount of time we spend conversing with people face to face reduces, it does not mean we are not still exposed to plenty of communication. Social posts, photos and even voice notes and social messaging keep us informed, but perhaps the mix is wrong for our long-term emotional health.
As we physically disconnect from those around us, we remain fully informed and aware of what everyone is doing, and seemingly not required for their well being which in turn may be what is needed for our own.
This may seem pretty bleak already, but there is one more component that is making it a behaviour that will be hard to change. We may be becoming addicted to it. Not the loneliness, the constant distracting desire to see if we are missing something. Something that may fill that missing sense of connection and we do so because technology in general and our phones/social devices are so very good at keeping us engaged.
While this has the most impact on individuals, businesses should take note and perhaps look to help change this.
In part, the problem was created by businesses. Build a better mousetrap was the old line, and while it no longer applies in many ways, the heart of the idea is that a successful business or product is one that draws you in.
In the business world, casinos have long practised the art of endlessly entertaining us by doing things that are not in our long-term interest.
There must be something ancient within us that responds so compulsively to a challenge to predict the near future. In gambling, it is the belief that you somehow will know if a roulette wheel will land on black or red. Dice will roll in favour, or your choice of dozens of slot machines will be the one to pay the jackpot.
Outside of casinos we call this gamification and have built it into everything. If we ever wondered if it worked, I think we can consider that question settled. Our social media feeds offer the chance for a scoop so we can be the first to reshare in our networks. The thrill of posting a picture to see the like count climb or commenting on anything because it is so easy to do so and you are continually asked for your opinion on everything, with little thought about whether you are in any way informed enough to do so.
Living a long life no longer seems quite so rosy, but it is early days still, and nothing says it has to be this way.
More and more people are advocating downtime from your socially connected world, many phone makers are monitoring and warning users if they are engaging too much. Restricting access is only half the solution though, we need to find ways to get people connecting again.
In the same year Mark Zuckerberg was setting up Facebook in his dorm room, Paul Sinton-Hewitt was arranging the first Parkrun. 13 runners took part in a 5km fun run in Bushy Park, London. Sinton-Hewitt had created an antidote to virtual connections; real ones. The free volunteer managed runs have taken place every week since October 2004. Word spread, and the Parkrun movement now has over four million taking part in over 1000 locations around the world.
Those who are part of the billion-strong Instagram community can join a photo walk. An opportunity to join fellow shutterbugs and go for a walk capturing the moments you chance upon as you walk through your neighbourhood or, better yet, someone else's.
If you do enjoy playing games, the original Ingress community laid the foundation for the Pokemon Go crowds and more recently the Jurassic Park dinosaur hunters. From July you can play a version of the Walking Dead or, if you prefer, something from Harry Potter.
The games are designed to not only get you out into the real world; they actively encourage you to collaborate with your fellow gamers.
Rather than looking only at creating experiences that are best enjoyed alone, there is an opportunity to create ones that are best done collectively. You could have people dress up to watch a movie together, the Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music was one of the first. Recently the call to have Wakandans all over South Africa dress up to watch Black Panther made for a great night out. Despite all the challenges of life, we are happiest when we are having fun with others.
So don’t knock the benefits that an always-on-connected-world has given us, make sure you don’t lose touch with the very real and wonderful world you live in with those around you.
Now arrange to go for Parkrun this weekend or get some friends to go for a photo walk or a dress-up movie night. It does not matter what you do really, just make sure you do it with some friends or family and do it as often as you can manage.
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