Is boredom a challenge for affluent sections of humanity, whose material needs have reached a point of satiation? Some authors think so. In a March 2009 article, Bradford De Long of the University of California, Berkeley, makes the point that more than half the world now has enough food, shelter, clothing and medical care. “A big problem for most of humanity will be to find enough conceptual puzzles and diversions in their work and leisure lives to avoid being bored.”
I submit that boredom is not a problem; rather, it constitutes an opportunity. It holds huge potential which seeks to break out constructively in several different ways.
First, boredom is a significant trigger that leads to the birth of new businesses. The causal link between boredom and entrepreneurship is strong, but one that behavioural economists have not studied deeply enough. Consider the case of Anita Roddick, who founded one of the world’s finest and most successful retail chains, The Body Shop. Roddick was greatly bored when her husband, Gordon Roddick, went away on a horse trek from Beunos Aires, Argentina, to New York, which lasted several months, leaving her alone at home. Driven to desperation, she created cosmetics out of every ingredient stored in her garage.
Closer home, I know of several bored and affluent housewives in large Indian cities who weave handbags for sale, set up small catering outfits, or engage in designing and tailoring dresses which are sold through informal networks and exhibitions. These ventures often grow into medium-sized, prosperous businesses.
Second, there is opportunity for an entire range of industries that specifically target the conquest of monotony and ennui. These include video gaming, gambling, fancy cigar lounges or single-malt bars and clubs of various hues. The single-minded objective of these businesses is to relieve people of their boredom, and they do so either by providing their consumers thrills of various kinds, or by engaging them in “intellectually stimulating” experiences.
These businesses are very often commercial successes because of the pricing power they enjoy, since they cater to a segment that is really willing to spend in areas that add value to their lives. For instance, classes in wine tasting, conducted by French oenologists, are priced at several thousand rupees per edition, yet places on many of these events are fully booked.
A third opportunity lies in the area of brands and marketing. Brands relaunch themselves with enhanced packaging primarily to prevent consumers from getting bored with their existing avatars. Very often, this is old wine in new bottles, but is essential to retain consumer interest. This is also the reason that the advertising industry flourishes. Brands also offer consumers increasingly complex products with multiple features, such as the iPhone. These functions keep consumers constantly engaged in so many interesting ways.
Fourth, boredom is one of the key triggers for many professionals who, having already built financial stability and credibility, seek a second career as they reach their 40s and 50s. Such career shifts are increasingly visible in our cities today, and the professional either moves into an entirely different industry or establishes a firm of his own or enters non-traditional spaces such as microfinance or academics. This is an excellent opportunity for these growing spaces of social importance, which otherwise are unable to attract the best talent.
Harish Bhat is chief operating officer, watches, Titan Industries Ltd. These are his personal views. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org