The psychologist Sandi Mann recently interviewed Peter Willis to understand why he aims to photograph Britain’s 150,000 postboxes. As she explains in this extract from her new book on boredom, his insights were far from tedious.

Would you identify yourself as a nerd, a geek, or an 'anorak'? We have visions of these people – a trainspotter, perhaps, sitting alone with a notebook in one pocket and a flask of tea in the other – and we assume that their hobby reflects something deeper about their whole personality. But is that a fair judgement?

As a scientist studying the psychology of boredom, I have been interested in what defines a “boring” person, and after having spoken to the “most boring man in Britain”, I feel that our definitions need a little rethinking.

For one thing, some people are proud to be a little dreary. The Dull Men’s Club is an international web-based group made up of men (and some women) who are proud to be anoraks. Their website celebrates all that is boring with ‘dull-lights’ (rather than highlights) being discussions of park benches, airport carousels and roundabouts. Their motto is: “It’s OK to be dull.” The Club began as a real group in New York with 17 members (that was the number of chairs available in the meeting room) but at the time of writing, their Facebook page now boasts 3,386 likes. That’s a fair number of people who are not ashamed of being boring.

One man who knows all about being labelled boring is Peter Willis, whose unusual hobby has earned him the title of “the most boring man in Britain”. This unenviable (perhaps) title was bestowed on him by the mass-circulation newspaper, the Daily Mirror, and has since been reported in various media outlets across the world. The hobby that earned him this title is taking photos of letter-boxes across the length and breadth of Great Britain. The Daily Mirror explained that “if there was a competition to have the dullest-ever ambition then Peter Willis might just have pipped everyone to the post... The former postie dreams of taking a photo of all of Britain’s 115,000 postboxes”.

Certainly this might well be the sort of narrow interest that could rightfully earn the label of ‘anorak’, but is Willis really the most boring man in Britain? And, if so, how, I wondered, did he feel about this? In an effort to find out, I tracked Willis down to his home in Worcester; his initial reluctance to talk to me clearly reflected an unhappiness with the title and indeed, the media officer of the Letter Box Study Group, Robert Cole, who reluctantly passed my details onto him warned me that my request “could cause at least mild offence”. Robert went on to explain, somewhat defensively,“others may think Peter is boring. Others may think our hobby is boring. Neither is true.” Clearly the Letter Box Study Group does not view the labelling of their hobby as ‘boring’, as a positive descriptor.

Willis did agree to talk to me and this led to a series of (not at all boring) email discussions about his hobby and the subsequent ‘honour’ bestowed on him by the world’s media. Willis, 68, explained:

There are lots of postboxes, some never seen before, in different places, some good, some really terrible - Peter Willis, postbox aficionado

“I think the title given to me of ‘most boring man in Britain’ is unfair. Other people might find my hobby boring but then I find horse racing or angling boring. Postboxes are more interesting than you might think. I do know about boring – I have had many boring jobs in my time; in one job when I was young, my day was so slow and uninteresting, that I was constantly watching my watch, umpteen times each hour. The highlight of my working day was making a cup of tea, That type of inactivity, both within the brain, and not being able to use one’s thinking processes much or at all, is what I sum up as boredom. So, I know what it is to be doing boring things and in my view, boring things are characterised by inactivity. Yet my hobby is a very active occupation and definitely not boring. There are lots of post boxes, some never seen before, in different places, some good, some really terrible. The boxes are also different anyway, with many styles, but they are also in different state of repair and condition. I have a database and I have acquired a list from Royal Mail of those 115,000 boxes, so one can carry out some research beforehand, using the splendid digital mapping from Ordnance Survey. Like stamps, some types of boxes are more scarce than others, so all in all this hobby is, to me, anything but being boring”

In talking to Willis, it does become quickly apparent that he may well have been unfairly labelled as boring. For example, in our conversations, it became clear that Willis has a wide range of interests (including theatre as well as other more quirky ones such as drain covers, mile stones, inn signs and war memorials) and is clearly sociable and well able to talk about a range of topics in an engaging and humorous way. But his story does raise the interesting issue of why we tend to label a hobby as 'boring'; and whether having a 'boring' hobby means that you are a ‘boring’ person, as the Daily Mirror so charmingly assumed. 

Tedious delights

If you feel like being part of this boring revolution, here are some special interest groups that you might wish to consider joining:

‘Boring’ hobbies tend to be those that demand obsessive attention to details that are too technical, obscure or narrow in range to interest very many people. This leads to the hobbyist having excessive knowledge about something which only a small minority of people share even a passing interest in. Often the subject of their interest tends to be something rather mundane and everyday, such as letter-boxes, park benches or bandstands in the park. 

I thought it would be interesting to ask people what hobbies they consider boring. I decided to ask my students (always a captive audience for an academic’s research) but I didn’t want to give them a list of hobbies – I wanted to see what hobbies they would pluck from thin air themselves. 58 students took the time to answer and the most commonly mentioned boring hobby was stamp or coin collecting (mentioned by 43% of respondents), followed by train, plane or bus spotting (19%) and fishing (16%). Others included birdwatching, knitting, politics, collecting objects such as stones or shells, ‘taking pictures of pylons’, ‘making things out of matches’ and ‘metal detecting in areas where there is nothing to find’.

Many of these "boring" hobbies are characterised by their being predominantly solitary activities (or those where other people’s input is not required), or, as one respondent put it “collecting things that have no use – there is no point to them – and having long periods of waiting in between adding something to the collection”.

It is highly likely that enthusiasts of any of these hobbies are likely to object to either they or their hobbies being described as boring (as Peter Willis and Robert Cole did) simply because if it grabs their interest and engages them, it cannot be boring to them. So, maybe it is time to stand up for trainspotters, stamp collectors and yes, people who photograph letter-boxes and reclaim the "boring" label. After all, what is boring to one person, might be fascinating to the next; indeed, this is the theory behind the annual Boring Conference which is held in the UK as a celebration of “the mundane, the ordinary, the obvious and the overlooked”; subjects which, according to the Boring Conference website, are "often considered trivial and pointless, but when examined more closely reveal themselves to be deeply fascinating". Previous topics discussed at the conference, which has been running for four years now, include sneezing, toast, IBM tills, the sounds made by vending machines, the Shipping Forecast, barcodes, yellow lines, and the features of the Yamaha PSR-175 Portatune keyboard. Boring topics? The events are a sell-out each year, with over 500 people happy to pay £20 each to attend. Perhaps there is more to these 'boring' topics after all.

The point about "boring" hobbies, and perhaps even people labelled as "boring", is that they do focus on the mundane rather than the grandiose. Perhaps in our fast-paced world where nothing seems to sustain our attention for long unless it is "exciting", there is something charming about taking the time to appreciate the beauty and joy of simple, everyday life. (As my other research has shown, taking time out for a mundane task can even make you more creative.)

In fact, as a mental health practitioner, one piece of advice I always give to depressed clients is to look for the pleasure in simple, ordinary things. Perhaps if more of us stopped to appreciate the small stuff, fewer of us would feel depressed or stressed in the first place.

--

Sandi Mann is a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire. Her latest book, The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom is Good, published by Robinson, is out now.