The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity – Dorothy Parker
Life is full of ups and downs. Upness is a concept. It’s one we get fairly early on in life and usually about the same time we grasp the notion of downness (and also neither-up-nor-downness) and we get jokes like, “What goes up a chimney down but not down a chimney up?” It’s hard to imagine someone grasping the idea of ‘up’ and yet struggling to understand ‘down’. And the same goes for lots of other things: an understanding of happiness results in an awareness of unhappiness; if you can comprehend ‘counterfeit’ then ‘genuine’ makes sense. These things form a 'conceptual polarity'. Not everything has an opposite though. Slow is not the opposite of fast – they simply indicate degrees of velocity. So what about boredom? What is the opposite of boredom? Is there one?
Bored to death
Boredom is a serious subject. People joke about being bored to death but it’s no joking matter:
For example, a 25-year study of British civil servants published [in 2010] found that some people really can be bored to death: People who complain about "high levels" of boredom in their lives are at double the risk of dying from a stroke or heart disease, the study concluded.
[Also] a survey of more than 1,500 U.S. Marines, published in September in the journal Aggressive Behaviour, suggests that being bored may be a bigger risk factor for such behaviour than war trauma is.
I decided to write about boredom because, as a reader and a writer, I encounter boredom every day. It’s unavoidable. At least I can’t avoid it. I regard it as a thing I need to break through. I’m sent books to review that are not the kind of things I would have bought myself and my friends write posts that say nothing especially new but I feel duty bound to read them and I have to write descriptive passage or expositions for the sake of my readers – stuff that I know already but they don’t – and that can be boring. Sitting hour after hour in front of a computer screen can be boring. But is boredom necessarily a bad thing? The saying goes that necessity is the mother of invention. I’d like to propose that boredom is her sister and she had twins: creation and destruction. The Mail Online reports:
A Filipino teenager has sparked outrage after pegging his puppy out on a clothesline and posting pictures of the helpless animal on Facebook.
Jerzon Senador, from Calamba, Laguna, is likely to face animal cruelty charges after deciding to carry out the stunt because he was bored.
The teenager suspended the struggling puppy from the skin on its back as he took photographs from different angles.
And yet when I typed in “I was bored and so I” into Google I got the following responses:
… made my bloggy BFF a header for her blog
… made some more kaleidoscope images, just for fun
… decided to write an algorithm to find all the numbers possible in the Fibonacci series
… decided to read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
… drew Taemin from SHINee as an anime character!
… got ordained, and now I'm a Reverend
An article commenting on the rise of comfort eating refers to a “survey of 2,000 people [which] showed 47% of adolescents aged 16-24 and 40% of those aged 35-44 had eaten because they were bored.” That said a recent study has shown that bored people are just as likely to engage in prosocial activities such as donating blood as they are to pin puppies to clotheslines or down whole cartons of rocky road ice cream. More so I would hope:
Through a series of seven studies, researchers found that boredom increases prosocial motivations that impact on positive behaviours that last far beyond the length of time of the boring activity itself.
"Boredom makes people long for different and purposeful activities, and as a result they turn towards more challenging and meaningful activities, turning towards what they perceive to be really meaningful in life," said [Wijnand] van Tilburg [from the University of Limerick, co-author of the paper, ‘Bored George Helps Others: A Pragmatic Meaning-Regulation Hypothesis on Boredom and Prosocial Behaviour’].
"Donating to charity or signing up for blood donations could not have increased the level of stimulation, interest, arousal, novelty, fun, or challenge experienced during the boring activity, simply because the boring activity finished before prosocial behaviour was assessed," he said. "Therefore, we show that boredom affects attitudes and behaviour even after the boring activity, if people have not had the chance to re-establish meaningfulness." (italics mine)
Boredom is something that everyone reading this article will have experienced. You may even be experiencing it now. You may have been bored before you began reading this or reading this might be boring you. If the former is the case then I imagine a part of your reason for reading this is an attempt to free yourself from boredom. If the latter is the case then I apologise, but bear with me; it gets dead good later. Perhaps you think that simply being occupied doing something is the answer and this is just what you have happened to opt to do or perhaps you’re looking for something specific here, something interesting possibly, distracting at least and meaningful if you’re really lucky.
The science bit
Boredom is not idleness. It can be a symptom of idleness but it can also be a boring as hell doing the same mundane task over and over again, day in and day out, week on week, year by year. Erich Fromm said that "one of the worst forms of mental sufferings is boredom," which he defines simply as, "not knowing what to do with one's self and one's life." Kierkegaard went even further: “Boredom is the root of all evil.” Bertrand Russell, hedging his bets, believed that “at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.” For most people, at least some of the time, work is boring. That goes for the concert pianist practicing his scales to the IT guy asking someone, "Have you tried turning it off and on again?"
According to an article in The Daily Mail:
Scientists (inevitably) have conducted their surveys and apparently the average person spends six hours a week being bored.
Medical research has found that bored workers have three to five times the usual incidence of cardiovascular disease; four to seven times the incidence of neurological disorders; twice the incidence of gastrointestinal disorders; and two to three times the incidence of musculo-skeletal disorders.
I would love to see how they came to those figures because how do you measure something essentially abstract like boredom? Additionally, according to The New York Times:
There are actually a variety of tests for measuring boredom:
- Grubb’s Job Boredom Scale
All of these prove if we are bored (and how bored we are) but why do we get bored in the first place?
If we’re not sufficiently occupied and stimulated, dopamine depletion makes us listless but is listlessness the same as boredom? If we don’t get enough sunlight this disrupts the body’s circadian rhythms – simply stated, the circadian rhythm is your body's natural clock – and this creates a malfunction in the normal distribution of hormones which results in a loss of alertness (selective attention, vigilance, and attentional control) and an increase in levels of fatigue (subjective reports of loss of desire or ability to continue performing); boredom inevitably follows. But, again, is that boredom or just something we’re calling ‘boredom’ because we can’t think of a better word for it?
Now I’m not saying that these aren’t factors – the growth of the fast food industry is a factor is the increase in obese children – but the reason is they’re eating too much of the wrong stuff and not exercising enough. It’s easy to allow ourselves to look to blame others for our own failings. I’m bored because…
… sitting in traffic is never fun
… I’m on Facebook, I’m on Facebook because I’m bored.
… http://pixiehollow.go.com/www.PixieHollow.com is closed
… I have no weed
… I have no life
Yes, all these things may be contributory factors but what is the common factor? What is missing in our lives that boredom rushes in to fill the gap when it’s gone? Schopenhauer developed a theory of boredom, suggesting that if people failed to meet their desires they felt unfulfilled, and if they did meet them they became bored. In other words a vicious circle. Personally I think not getting something is often more enjoyable than actually getting it. Beforehand you have whatever you can imagine and if you have a good imagination then no reality can ever live up to it and not getting something can keep you entertained if not exactly happy for a long time before boredom sets in. In my experience. But nothing is boredom-proof. Not even happiness.
Overcompensating for misery
“If I was happy I wouldn’t be bored.” Sounds reasonable enough. This is one of my all time favourite quotes. It’s from Brave New World:
Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn't nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.
Huxley could just as easily have written that actual happiness looks pretty squalid in comparison with our overcompensations for boredom. In his fascinating book-length study, A Philosophy of Boredom, Dr Lars Svendsen had this to say:
[A]ll sorts of diversions have to create a substitute [meaning] – an ersatz meaning. […] Boredom is not connected with actual needs but with desire. And this desire is a desire for sensory stimuli. Stimuli are the only ‘interesting’ things.
The word ‘boring’ is bound up with the word ‘interesting’; the words become widespread at roughly the same time and they increase in frequency at roughly the same rate. […] The ‘interesting’ always has a brief shelf-life, and really no other function than to be consumed, in order that boredom can be kept at arm’s length. The prime commodity of the media is ‘interesting information’– signs that are pure consumer goods, nothing else.
Boredom can make us miserable but what’s the cure? There can only be so many ‘interesting’ things out there for us to buy or try. Dr Richard Ralley, of Edge Hill University, is currently researching how boredom affects people, to determine whether some personality types cope better than others:
People assume that the opposite of boredom is excitement, so parents take their children to a theme park. Similarly, the information contained on the internet was what everyone expected to relieve people's boredom.
But quite obviously what humans want is social interactivity – so parents would be better off taking their children on a picnic than to a theme park. And with the internet, people want to engage with each other – that's where the blogs and the chatrooms came from. The other stuff is seen as nerdy now.
Now that is all fine and well if you’re suffering from situational boredom:
Situational boredom is defined by the presence or absence of something in a situation. This can be listening to a boring lecture, or waiting for a plane in an airport. Then there is repetitive boredom, where something that in itself is fun becomes boring through repetition.
but that is not always the cause and even where it is, you can’t (or at least society says you shouldn’t) simply saunter out of your office or factory when your job starts to bore you. Running away is never the answer unless you have somewhere to run to, i.e. another, better (less boring) job.
Adam Phillips, a psychotherapist, has this to say about boredom:
Clearly, we should speak not of boredom, but of boredoms, because the notion itself includes a multiplicity of moods and feelings that resist analysis.
Others believe the same, that there are different kinds of boredom, and some have tried to produce a typology of it:
Most psychological and sociological commentators on boredom distinguish two varieties: “One is a responsive feeling and the other is a malaise.”
[T]here are three kinds of boredom: passive boredom: the girl dancing and yawning; active boredom: kite-lovers; and rebellious boredom: young people burning cars and smashing shop windows. (bold mine)
There seems to be two forms of today's boredom: one is temporary, while the other is more ongoing and settled. The temporary form is what we all experience when talking with someone at a party who only speaks of themselves, or in a tedious sermon, or during a long afternoon meeting. This form is easily remedied by moving on to something of interest. The longer-term form of boredom, however, settles into one's life and becomes a vapour carried with us, regardless of the current activity; a lens through which everything is viewed, until nothing is interesting. Life begins to annoy and irritate such a person. Life appears futile and purposeless. (bold mine)
I think boredom has three sources … “I just don’t belong here” … “I’ve become invisible” … “I need more space”
Boredom is something of a catch-all term. It is used for simple boredom (the product of temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances—being stuck in one of my lectures, for example!) as well as for “existential” boredom (an unrelieved sense of isolation, emptiness, alienation and even helplessness). The main relationship between these two conditions is probably the loose use of the term “boredom”. The third term, chronic boredom, is, I guess, rather like simple boredom, but it is not temporary. If simple boredom is the result of the circumstances we find ourselves in (stuck in a traffic jam, for example), chronic boredom is a symptom of a lower than normal level in the system of the neurotransmitter dopamine. (bold mine)
Martin Doehlmann’s typology … distinguishes between four types of boredom: situative boredom, as when one is waiting for someone, is listening to a lecture or taking the train; the boredom of satiety, when one gets too much of the same thing and everything becomes banal; existential boredom, where the soul is without content and the world is neutral; and creative boredom, which is not so much characterised by its content as its result: that one is forced to do something new. (bold mine)
The one I feel the greatest affinity to is Lars Svendsen who says:
Boredom is practically indefinable because it lacks the positiveness of most other phenomena. It is basically to be understood as an absence – an absence of personal meaning. […] Meaninglessness is boring. And boredom can be described metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal. (italics mine)
Many writers analyse boredom in relation to time and the subject’s perceptions thereof and often link the concept to monotony and repetition. Specifically, boredom is discussed as a state of being where the experience of time dissolves or stops being of relevance. In some respects though boredom brings about an acute awareness of time – the German word for boredom is langeweile (literally ‘long while’) – even if, as in the case of someone undergoing sensory deprivation, their perception of that time is way off.
In his 1969 Ph.D. thesis On the Experience of Time that became his first best-selling book, Robert Ornstein … maintained that whether time passes slowly, or worse, drags for us (and by implication, whether it is boring or not) depends on two things:
- Whether it is experienced immediately and in the short term, or retrospectively in the long term;
- How much recallable data, detail and information was packed into the time and its experiences—with implications for the associated information storage and (subsequent) processing requirements.
Heidegger said that “we pass the time in order to master it, because time becomes long in boredom. Time becomes long for us. Is it supposed to be short? Does not each of us wish for a truly long time with ourselves? … Boredom, long time: especially in Alemannic usage, it is no accident that 'to have long time' means the same as 'to be homesick'.”
No word for ‘bored’
If there is one place in the world where you might imagine people would be bored out of their skulls it would be Australia, specifically the Australian outback, and yet, the concept of boredom was not known to the indigenous people until fairly recently. It was something Westerners brought with them along with measles, smallpox and TB. To illustrate, in a study entitled ‘Boredom, Time and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia’, the writer looked at a community of some 800 aborigines in the settlement of Yuendumu located about 300 kilometres northwest of the town of Alice Springs in central Australia. The language spoken there is Warlpiri and they have no word for boredom. The closest is jukuru but that denotes an active disinterest in something:
When Warlpiri people referred to boredom, they used the English word, usually embedded in otherwise Warlpiri sentences, for example: “Nyampurla punku, boring, junganyiarniyi” (this [place] is bad, boring, very true). Exclusively, boring was the term used; I never heard mention of boredom; and bored was only used in all-English conversations between young Warlpiri and nonindigenous persons.
Apparently the lost tribes of Borneo, have no word for boredom either. The same goes for the Nepali, the Inuit, most Native American tribes and the Danes it appears. Language both influences what we think and what we think influences language. In an INReview comment thread I ran across, someone called tangybutsweet had this to say:
In my first language there is no word for boredom. But as I became fluent in English, I started to complain "I'm bored" a lot. And, I'm pretty sure I've never felt bored before. Or perhaps I did and I never paid attention to it and just found something better to do with my time, because I didn’t realize that’s a valid feeling. Does that make any sense?
Like all words ‘boredom’ is a made-up-word like ‘pescetarianism,’ for example. Before 1993 no one ever used that word but plenty of people did it, i.e. survived off a diet that includes seafood, and excludes other animals. Now that the word exists people can go around saying they’re pescetarians and the same obviously has happened with boredom. I’m not saying that no one ever suffered from angst before Kierkegaard – the word had been around since the 8th century – but he made it fashionable. More on fashion in a bit.
Boredom is so endemic to our culture, particularly among youth, that we imagine it to be a near-universal default state of human existence. In the absence of outside stimuli we are bored. Yet, as Ziauddin Sardar observes, boredom is virtually unique to Western culture (and by extension to the global culture it increasingly dominates). "Bedouins," he writes, "can sit for hours in the desert, feeling the ripples of time, without being bored.”
The origins of boredom
I was surprised to learn that boredom is a fairly new concept. Dickens invented – or perhaps discovered? – it whilst writing the 800-page long Bleak House; it appears six times in the 1852 novel. The Online Etymological Dictionary attributes the sentence, “The secret of being a bore is to tell everything,” to Voltaire saying it appeared in a poem by him dating from 1734 but when you look at the poem in the original French the line is, “Le secret d'ennuyer est celui de tout dire,” and the root word that’s being translated is actually ennui. Before the nineteenth century no one knew what it was to be bored. Let me illustrate:
I was happy when tea came. Such, I take it, is the state of those who live in the country. Meals are wished for from the cravings of vacuity of mind, as well as from the desire of eating. I was hurt to find even such a temporary feebleness, and that I was so far away from being that robust wise man who is sufficient for his own happiness.
A twentieth-century reader has no trouble understanding Boswell’s condition. He was, we might say, bored…
Before this the Early Fathers of the Church considered acedia to be the worst sin, since, they asserted, all others derived from it. If you thought there were only seven deadly sins then think of acedia as a kind of sloth.
A crucial difference is that acedia is first and foremost a moral concept, whereas ‘boredom’, in the normal sense of the word, more describes a psychological state. Another difference is that acedia was for the few, whereas boredom affects the masses.
The sin of acedia is a failing to tackle spiritual boredom.
The general idea here is that God is perfect and therefore cannot be boring. If you are a bored cleric then you have lost touch with God. Without God, man is nothing and boredom is an awareness of this nothingness. There is another way to look at this which gives us a clue to what modern-day boredom is. It is God who gives the lives of the faithful meaning: he tells them what to do, how to do it, when to do it and just how bad you should feel if you don’t do it or do it in the wrong spirit. In other words God, if you allow him, gives life meaning. I will come back to this.
In the Renaissance the concept of acedia was superseded by something new: melancholia which Wikipedia has this to say about:
The name "melancholia" comes from the old medical belief of the four humours: disease or ailment being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily liquids, or humours. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humour in a particular person. According to Hippocrates, melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile, hence the name, which means 'black bile'…
In other words it was a disease with causes, symptoms (both mental and physical) and cures – supposedly. By the seventeenth century, however, melancholia had been romanticised and it became fashionable to be seen as experiencing melancholy. In music, for example, the post-Elizabethan cult of melancholia is associated with John Dowland, whose motto was Semper Dowland, semper dolens. ("Always Dowland, always mourning"). What is amusing is that new fashions are often seen as an escape from boredom. Hence the rise of retail therapy. I’m bored with my…
… LR throw pillows
… tried and true brands
… pink and marigold living room
So even back then boredom was not something one really associated with the man in the street. Arty-types came down with it; poets in particular were particularly susceptible.
In part two: ‘The boredom epidemic’, ‘A boring conference’, ‘Boring art’, ‘The positive effects of boredom’ and ‘Even the gods get bored...’
The Boring Institute
 Gautam Naik, ‘Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation’, The Wall Street Journal, 28 December 2010
 Eric Fromm, The Sane Society, p.253
 Bertrand Russell, The Conquest of Happiness, p.47
 Ben Agger, Understanding Human Motivation: What Makes People Tick?, p.97
 ‘Britain Now So Unremittingly Awful You Need Therapy Just To Live Here’, The New Filter, 24 January 2009
 Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, pp.27,28
 Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, p.82
 Milan Kundera, Identity, p.15
 Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, pp.41,42
 Ibid, pp.45,30
 Martin Heidegger, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics, p.80
 Yasmine Musharbash, ‘Boredom, Time and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 109, No. 2, June 2007
 Dr Lars Svendsen, A Philosophy of Boredom, pp.49,50
 Erica Brown, Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism, p.18