It is indeed ironic that although we live in an age where we are presented with an unprecedented range of opportunities to satisfy our needs, boredom still affects people like never before. Despite its association with dysfunctional behaviour and health-related problems, boredom is still not very well understood since there is not much research on this topic.
Although there is no universally accepted definition of boredom, most researchers agree that it is not another synonym for depression or apathy. It’s only in 2012 when Dr. John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist at York University in United Kingdom, and his colleagues published their research paper titled The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention in an attempt to explore the nature of boredom.
Their paper argued that boredom is a state in which the person suffering from boredom wants to be engaged in some kind of meaningful activity but cannot. This state is characterized by lethargy and restlessness, which makes it an issue of attention because attention is the process by which we make connections with our world and make sense of it.
Scientists now make a clear distinction between ‘simple’ or ‘ordinary’ boredom and existential boredom. ‘Simple’ or ‘ordinary’ boredom describes a particular mental state that individuals find extremely unpleasant. It involves a lack of stimulation, which makes an individual crave for immediate relief. Research indicates that this kind of boredom is often accompanied by behavioural, medical and social consequences. Existential boredom, on the other hand, is more complex.
According to the German sociologist, Martin Doehlemann, who coined the expression ‘existential boredom,’ it is a malaise that affects a person’s very existence and it may even be perceived as a philosophical sickness. Although boredom has very recently become the focus of research among scientists, its history will indicate that it is not something new. Throughout history, several philosophers have studied boredom. For the purpose of this article, I have selected the few philosophers who have addressed the notion in their works in some detail.
During the Roman era, Seneca addressed the issue of boredom or tedium quite extensively in his essay on Tranquility. According to him, many individuals are”plagued with fickleness and boredom and a continual shifting of purpose” who spend their time lolling and yawning. Seneca described boredom vividly:” Thence comes mourning and melancholy and the thousand wavering of an unsettled mind, which its aspirations hold in suspense, and then disappointment renders melancholy. Then comes that feeling which makes men loathe their own leisure and complain they themselves have nothing to be busy with.”
In the 17th century, French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623- 1662) studied boredom by observing humans in their everyday life. In his book, Pensées, Pascal explained boredom with great insight. According to Pascal, humans always seek diversions to get out of their empty life, which is a major source of ennui or boredom. In the long run, these diversions never work, and we are back to square one ~ a life of boredom.
For Pascal, human life is generally empty, and this is why there’s a pervasive sense of ennui or boredom. Although Pascal paints human life in a negative way, his ultimate message is not so negative. He stated that a bored person was someone without God. He felt that, in order to rid us of boredom, we need to establish a close connection with God who will make our empty lives full again and help obliterate restlessness and boredom from our lives.
In the 19th century, the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1870) made boredom one of the foci of his philosophy. According to Schopenhauer, there are two poles in human life: one is boredom and the other one is human need, want, lack, or desire. We are perpetually in the pursuit of trying to capture what we desire, need, or lack; once we succeed in obtaining our goal, we realize it does not give the satisfaction or happiness we had anticipated. Instead we get boredom; off we go again, pursuing something else to make us happy only to find ourselves back to boredom.
Schopenhauer explained that boredom was the sensation that we get when we experience the worthlessness of our existence. Thus, according to Schopenhauer, human life is essentially without any significant meaning. It is only humans who are intelligent and complex, and who experience the boredom and meaninglessness that Schopenhauer wrote about.
For Schopenhauer, there are individuals who do not suffer from boredom. They are the ones who are engaged in a life of contemplation and enjoyment of music and art. For Schopenhauer, boredom is a source of misery and a scourge on human race, which, can lead to death or prompt someone to commit murders or even launch a war.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) reckoned that boredom is the root of all evil. It is associated with nothingness, which permeates all human existence. He called this” demonic pantheism.” It’s demonic due to the fact that human life is empty without meaning, and it is also pantheism since it is all pervasive.
According to Kierkegaard,”The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored, because he was alone; therefore Eve was created….” For Kierkegaard, boredom makes everything empty and devoid of meaning. It makes life intolerable and unlivable. Kierkegaard described boredom thus:
“ How frightful boredom is ~ frightfully boring; I know of no stronger expression, no truer expression … If only there were a higher expression, a stronger one; that would at least indicate a shift. I lie outstretched, inactive; the only thing I see is emptiness; the only thing I live off: emptiness; the only thing I move in: emptiness. I do not even experience pain.”
Kierkegaard believed that boredom instead of being disabling actually motivates people to act in creative ways to get themselves out of this highly unpleasant state. He even described the boredom’s action-inducing nature as”magical.”
In the 20th century, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) devoted an entire chapter on boredom in his famous book, The Conquest of Happiness. According to Russell, boredom is”essentially a thwarted desire for events.” Besides this thwarted desire, for Russell, there are two other essential sources of boredom: one is a contrast between one’s present set of circumstances and some other more agreeable set of circumstances, which force themselves upon one’s imagination.
The other is that where one’s faculties are not fully occupied. For Russell, boredom has been a motivator for human sins, including wars, persecutions, and quarrels with our neighbors. Since boredom is exceedingly unpleasant, there is always a natural urge to eliminate it and pursue excitement instead, which is a deep-seated desire in humans. Russell believed that not all boredom was bad.
Some, he thought, was necessary for us. In fact, Russell went so far as to say that a certain power of enduring boredom was essential for a happy life. Russell believed that great lives require those who live them to endure a lot of quietness and boredom; and the same has to be endured by those who accomplish great things. Pursuing exciting things that will keep us stimulated won’t work in the long run because too much excitement, Russell argued, will make us want more excitement, which will end our ability to be excited at all; this, in turn, will lead, paradoxically, to boredom.
As Europe entered the twentieth century, melancholia or existential boredom captured the imagination of the French intellectuals such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, who argued quite forcefully that the world where we lived was devoid of meaning. The protagonists in both Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Outsider suffered from what is known as existential boredom that results not from despair in the beneficence of the Creator, but from despair in the beneficence of the universe. Sartre often described the”nausea of ennui” as”leprosy of the soul.”
In contemporary times, modern philosophers have argued that boredom is on the rise due to the overload of stimulation rather than from monotony of life as it did in the past. Modern philosophers regard boredom as something inevitable in a world of trivia. In A Philosophy of Boredom, Lars Svendsen wrote that boredom was on the rise and there was unfortunately no cure. Several leading philosophers who blame the rise in boredom in contemporary societies to the rapid increase in information technology share Svendsen’s pessimistic view.
(To be Concluded)
The writer is Professor of Communication Studies at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles.