Bored in Space

Bored In Space

“With each successive mission, space exploration becomes a little more routine. To the point, incredibly, of boredom,” writes Mary Roach in Packing for Mars. Humans are incredibly adaptable, and that means that we adjust to extraordinary circumstances and accept them as normal once they have been part of our lives for a long enough period of time. In Packing for Mars Roach explains that this has happened with space travel. Riding a massively explosive rocket outside the earths atmosphere and living in a confined space beyond the protective shell of the Earth is an incredible achievement for all of humanity. And it is also routine and hardly thought about by most people. In some ways it is inspiring that space travel is hardly inspiring. It means we have succeeded beyond a level any human could have imagined just a couple hundred years ago. It is also, however, somewhat depressing. It means we don’t recognize just how far our technological innovations have taken us, and we don’t always appreciate just how much we have learned and done through scientific exploration.
Today is an interesting time to be thinking about human adaptability, unprecedented times that become normal and routine, and major discoveries that could reshape our world. We have been dealing with a global pandemic that many of us have simply accepted at this point in time. Many of us just want to ignore it and move on with our lives. We have adapted to the risks of COVID-19, maybe modified our behaviors and life patterns a little bit, and we barely think about the number of cases and deaths from the disease each day. Early in the pandemic I spent an unreasonable amount of time looking at case statistics, charts, and trend lines of what was happening with the virus. Now, with two vaccine doses under my belt (or in my arm) I hardly think about case counts, even though I am aware of breakthrough infections and rising deaths across the country. I have simply adapted and the story of COVID-19 as normal and sometimes boring. I know I am not the only one in this boat, and that is part of why the pandemic hasn’t ended.
The pandemic also brought us breakthroughs with MRNA vaccines in the last year, a big scientific step forward in fighting diseases and developing vaccines for many diseases in the future. This was the key to returning the world to some sort of normalcy and vaccine news was huge for a few months, but now my sense is that many of us expect to get a booster shot, but that it barely registers in our day to day thinking. Vaccines, just as space travel, are amazing, but routine and boring (at least for the 49.6% of Americans who are vaccinated according to the CDC on 8/28/2021).
I think it is important that we be aware of how adaptable we are as human beings. Just as we get used to the idea of people living on space stations and vaccines being developed for deadly diseases, we adapt to our spouses and partners who were once the most exciting sparks in our lives. We adapt to the houses we live in, the cars we  drive, the restaurants we eat at, and everything that becomes a  normal part of our routines. We become bored living lives that our ancestors could only dream of. We fail to appreciate how wonderful some of the relationships in our lives are, we stop being thankful for the nice things we live with, and we become bored with miracle innovations like safe drinking water. When we don’t appreciate these things we don’t give them the attention they deserve, and things can break down and atrophy, only to remind us of how fortunate we were to have that thing. We should pause and think about how amazing our lives may be (recognizing that many of us have serious challenges to overcome in our lives), and we should try to be amazed by even the simple things we have come to take for granted. We are incredibly adaptable and that can help us survive in extreme circumstances, but it can also mean that we fail to appreciate the small miracles that make our lives worth living.
Homeless Boredom

Homeless Boredom

In a recent episode of his podcast, Tyler Cowen interviewed a man experiencing chronic homelessness in Washington DC. He refers to himself as an NFA (no fixed address) and goes by the name Alexander the Grate. He was introduced to Cowen by James Deutsch, a Curator at the Smithsonian who had profiled Alexander in past scholarly work.
One of the questions that Cowen asked Alexander was how he spent his time as an NFA. He responded with a number of free things he could take part in around DC. There are Smithsonian exhibits and events that are free to attend, numerous small film festival events throughout the year, and various  free public events that he could attend. In his response, he stated, “we were all sober. We had something to do to occupy our time. … We had to do something to fill up the spaces of our sobriety and to satisfy our mind as well as entertainment and keep our mind alive, besides the soup stuff.”
His quote shows that the homeless needed something to do to stay occupied, and luckily for Alexander, Washington DC offered plenty of ways to engage his mind and fill his time. However, most homeless people in our country do not live in Washington DC, and don’t have access to the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, and all the free public events that take place in our National Capital. For homeless people across our country, boredom, not an overwhelming number of events and activities, is the norm.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes about the boredom that homeless women face every day. “Along with perennial fatigue,” writes Liebow, “boredom was one of the great trials of homelessness.” Humans are social creatures, but in America the homeless are excluded. People are afraid of them for numerous reasons and don’t want to interact with them. We don’t want to see them around our public events, and we don’t want them to occupy the same public spaces that we occupy. As a result, homeless individuals become outcasts, forced into boredom and isolation. We want them to get a job, to get a place to live, and to re-enter society in an acceptable and respectable way, but we shut them out and leave them with nothing to entertain their minds or fill their time. As Liebow notes when profiling one of the women he met, we leave them to speak with only the birds.
Homelessness, life on the streets, and isolation seems to break people. Once someone is speaking to themselves or the birds they become even more of a social outcast, reinforcing the isolation that has broken them. I think there is an important paradox for us to acknowledge here. We want the homeless to turn their lives around, but we exclude them, force them into crushing boredom, and then criticize them when they break. We can’t expect people to suffer in such boredom and then rejoin society. We can’t expect people to face isolation and then turn things around to re-integrate. Boredom and isolation are not something we should just ignore because people are homeless, they are real problems that make life harder for the homeless, and make it less likely that they will ever become part of society again.
A Craving for More

A Craving for More

There are two traits of humans which were great for ensuring our survival as a species tens of thousands of years ago that combine today in ways that don’t always have good consequences for our lives. The first is that we are highly adaptable. We can adjust our lives and our focus to survive in such extremes as the isolation of zero-gravity space-station environments or in the unimaginable density of Kowloon Walled City. We are geared toward adaptation for survival in many unique, diverse, and challenging circumstances. The second trait, which once complemented but perhaps now is more of a problem given our adaptability, is that we become bored. We are not content to sleep for 20 hours a day like a lion, and as social creatures we are compelled to engage with others in a pursuit of construction and growth.

 

The dangerous result of these two traits is a constant craving for more. We adapt to the lives we have, become bored, and desire more. It is hard to be content and feel as though our lives are enough. We could always have more stuff and bigger and better things. We could always do something different, something new and exciting, and interact with different people. While we might be able to survive in a small space with few items and few of the modern technologies that we take for granted today, once we have those things, we quickly begin looking around at what else we could have, what other things we could use, and what could be better about the time and space we occupy.

 

Our pursuit of more is in the spirit of ensuring our survival and improving our lives, at least evolutionary there is reason to believe that this is where the pursuit of more originates. But, rather than actually making our lives happier, richer, and more fulfilling, the pursuit of more can leave us feeling hollow and insufficient. As Seneca wrote about indulgences in Letters From a Stoic, “you will only learn from such things to crave still greater.”

 

So while we may recognize that having wealth, money, and stuff isn’t necessary for our happiness, our brain is pushing against that reality. Our brain becomes accustomed to the nice things we have, and starts to look for more, even if we thought we were content with the lives we have. It is important to be aware of how these two separate positive impulses (adaptability and boredom)  that evolved with us humans combine in a way that can be quite negative today. It is important that we recognize and think about how grateful we are for the things we have, and that we consider whether we really need more, bigger, better, and newer things, or if we are just being driven toward an impulse for change. By pushing back against these two impulses when we have reached a reasonable level of success and security, we can do more with our lives to have a positive impact for the whole world, rather than just doing things that will give us more stuff. We can still channel our ambition, but we can do so wisely, in a way that is as likely to benefit all of society, and not just benefit our own lives until we get bored again.
The Value of Boredom

The Value of Boredom

How often are you bored? How often do you actually experience boredom without instantaneously having something to do that will keep your mind at least somewhat occupied, even if not occupied by anything important? You have probably had a boring work training that you had to sit through without nodding off, but outside of that, there probably are not too many pure moments of boredom in your life.

 

Instead of having to live with boredom, we live with distraction. In line at the grocery store, on an airplane, and in a doctor’s waiting room we have an easy distraction available. We might not be thoroughly entertained and might not enjoy our wasted time, but we are not exactly bored. Because of our phones, our minds are trained to expect that that any moment of potential boredom is a moment of distraction instead.

 

Cal Newport thinks this is a problem. In his book Deep Work he writes about the value of boredom, “to simply wait and be bored has become a novel experience in modern life, but from the perspective of concentration training, it’s incredibly valuable.”

 

The value of boredom doesn’t come from any particular insight you might have when it is only your thoughts that keep you occupied and entertained. The value of boredom is instead in what it doesn’t let slip into your brain: bad habits of distraction seeking expectations. Newport continues, “to succeed with deep work you must rewire your brain to be comfortable resisting distracting stimuli.” This is where boredom comes in.

 

Being bored allows us to get used to an absence of distracting stimuli. It helps our brain accept that at some times we are not going to have new news articles to scroll through, we are not going to have red notifications telling us that someone has acknowledged our existence, and we are not going to have something flashing on a screen to keep our brain engaged. If the brain becomes comfortable with boredom, it will be better at deep work, and we will be more productive.