Am I B.L.U.E.? (Bored, Lonely, Uncomfortable…Ever)
With a smartphone in your pocket, you almost never have to experience negative emotional states, and that’s a problem. CSO Brad Berens explains.
By Brad Berens
One reason there’s an obesity epidemic is that humans evolved in a world of caloric scarcity: getting enough food wasn’t easy for most of the population for most of human history. It still isn’t easy for many, many food-insecure people.
However, the people who are food secure find themselves in an evolutionary conundrum: our instincts tell us to eat a lot whenever we can because there may not be food later. If we follow our instincts, we get fat. To stay fit, we have to make an unnatural choice: stop eating even though there are still calories available.
This conundrum is relatively new. We’ve had decades to get used to calorie-convenient things like supermarkets, fast food, frozen food, microwaves, and food delivery. We’ve also had decades of fitness gurus telling us to exercise (the first one I remember was Jack LaLanne) and diet after diet, all trying to help us fight our instincts.
Someday, medical science may develop ways to tweak our metabolisms to crave less food as easily as we use glasses to tweak our vision: wouldn’t that be nifty?
The second paradox of choice
Unlike cheap calories, we haven’t had all that long to get used to cheap information. The commercially available internet has only existed since the 1990s. Social Media became popular with Myspace 15 years ago. Smartphones, which made cheap information available everywhere, started with the iPhone just 12 years ago.
Today, we have to choose to be B.L.U.E.– bored, lonely, or uncomfortable…ever. Those are unnatural choices! However, choosing to be B.L.U.E. is just as important as choosing to eat less so as not to get fat and die prematurely.
It’s a paradox of choice: we evolved to seek stimulation, social contact, and comfort, but today having those things can be bad for us.
This is not the same as the paradox of choice explored in Barry Schwartz’s celebrated and brilliant book of the same name. Schwartz talks about having so many options that the pleasure you get from making a choice, any choice, is lower than it should be: you have to subtract what economists call opportunity costs from the satisfaction of making the choice.
Schwartz’s paradigmatic example involves him going to buy new blue jeans and becoming despondent when he has to navigate among skinny, easy fit, relaxed fit, stone-washed, pre-distressed, et cetera… when earlier is his life there were just, y’know, jeans.
Having to figure out which pants to buy is a homework assignment for a class that Schwartz never signed up to take. However, he did start with the goal of buying pants. His frustration came after goal setting, when the proliferation of options made achieving that goal difficult.
In contrast, the second paradox of choice (the choice to be bored, lonely, or uncomfortable) involves having to choose something that both a) goes against our instincts, and b) doesn’t explicitly connect to a goal we have established (like buying pants).
Although boredom, loneliness, and discomfort are all unpleasant states, they all have benefits to our lives and happiness. The smartphone in your pocket comes with an infinite supply of articles, books, music, cat videos, and games. You never have to be bored again! But most great advances in human history came out of somebody’s daydream, and without boredom who needs to daydream?
For most of human history, boredom, loneliness, and discomfort have been inescapable features of our environments rather than things we need to seek out. If this sounds counter-intuitive, then the distinction to make is, for example, between choosing to be alone and choosing to be lonely. People have craved solitude for longer than there have been people (animals like it too), but people don’t elect to feel bad because of a lack of companionship.
We may be over-stimulated and need quiet, but that’s different than boredom, which is, per Merriam-Webster, “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.”
Discomfort is harder to get after because humans have always embraced challenges and hard work to achieve their goals, but that’s not the kind of discomfort I’m talking about. Instead, I’m talking about being in a situation that you did not select (like when parents drag their kids somewhere) and that you don’t enjoy.
How does this connect to the digital revolution?
As I’ve written many times before, digital technologies, and particularly smartphones, are great at dissolving old containers (cameras, notebooks, flashlights) and turning them into apps. Smartphones also dissolve another container: geography. With a smartphone, you aren’t trapped by your environment because you have options that are new to us as a species and as difficult to handle as cheap calories.
Put simply, with a smartphone in your pocket, you need never feel bored, lonely, or uncomfortable again.
Why this is a problem
Although boredom, loneliness, and discomfort are all unpleasant states, they all have benefits to our lives and happiness.
The smartphone in your pocket comes with an infinite supply of articles, books, music, cat videos, and games. You never have to be bored again! But most great advances in human history came out of somebody’s daydream, and without boredom who needs to daydream?
Once you leave school, you’re unlikely to walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself if you aren’t a bit lonely. But with your smartphone, you never need to be lonely because you can endlessly connect with distant people via email, text, and social media.
And with dating apps like Tinder, you already know the other person is at least open to meeting you because he or she swiped right. That raises the stakes for putting yourself at risk of rejection in a face-to-face encounter (it takes practice).
When your parents dragged you somewhere as a kid, it might have made you uncomfortable, but how else would you ever have learned to like anything new? With no other option, you sat through that boring concert or play or movie or family dinner, and in the process of doing perhaps you were surprised to discover that you liked jazz or Shakespeare or foreign film or your Great Aunt Ida.
Today, you have another option: the moment you feel discomfort you can retreat to your smartphone.
Eli Pariser talked about the political implications of this discomfort with discomfort in his book The Filter Bubble, but the problem extends far beyond politics.
This, I believe, is one reason why trigger warnings have become a big deal on college campuses. As people (particularly younger people for whom smartphones have been a part of their lives for larger percentages of their lives) either lose or never developed the ability to sit with discomfort, they become less and less willing to experience it, to the dismay of college professors trying to challenge their students’ thinking.
A 2014 Buzzfeed article says that trigger warnings started to “take over the internet” around 2006 or 2007, and argues that the phrase proliferated because of the rapid growth of Twitter and Tumblr. That may be true, but I think the reason people began to demand trigger warnings in the first place was because of the decline of naturally occurring discomfort that would get them used to being uncomfortable and surviving the experience.
Smartphones, search, social media, YouTube, videogames, email, texting, and more are all highly addictive by design, and we have become addicts. That’s not news.
The part that is news, however, is that another implication of our inability to have our smartphones out of our immediate reach is that we have engineered boredom, loneliness, and discomfort out of existence.
And we need those things to succeed.
Brad Berens is the Center’s Chief Strategy Officer. He is also principal at Big Digital Idea Consulting.
See all columns from the Center.
July 17, 2019