In praise of boredom

The last time I was truly, painfully, bored, in the way that I remember from childhood — watching the minutes tick by as if they were hours; desperately craving stimuli other than the contemptible ones on offer; feeling an increasing urge to somehow vent the frustration physically, vocally, or preferably both — was almost exactly a year ago.

It was during a seemingly never-ending church service held to celebrate the feast of the Assumption in a sleepy village in northern France. The service being led by a man distinctly lacking in charm, not to mention priestliness, and my understanding of ecclesiastical French leaving something to be desired, every long minute beyond the first 30 or so became more and more torturously, tantrum-worthily boring.

This was the kind of stretching-out of time that modern life only rarely affords. But it was only once the ordeal was over — and memories of the Catholic masses I’d been dragged to as a teenager had subsided — that its unusualness struck me, and I noticed that my feelings of pleasure were now intensified. How the river glistened in the morning sunshine! How wonderful to be alive and free and on holiday!

This had been an unadulterated form of boredom — the kind that can find its way into minds used to constant stimulation when the stimulants are taken away. While it can be painful for a period, this is the kind of boredom that can end up creating the space for reflection, creativity and a renewed sense of enjoyment and motivation.

But it is not the sort most of us experience on a regular basis. There is a different, rather more listless strain of boredom that our always switched-on lives lend themselves to. This is the one you might experience while frantically flitting from app to app on your phone, perhaps with the TV on in the background, while also stuffing something into your mouth — maximum stimulation in order to attain . . . something.

A study by Washington State University published in late 2019 found that, despite the embarrassment of digital distractions available these days, boredom had been on the rise among American adolescents for several years, and had increased especially markedly among teenage girls. This mirrors the rise in teenage depression and suicide that has been recorded over the same period, and is widely attributed to the rise of social media.

The study did not examine the root causes of the boredom, nor its precise nature, instead simply asking teens to rate how much they agreed with the statement “I am often bored” on a five-point scale. But its lead author, Elizabeth Weybright, did note the link between increasing levels of boredom and depression and, more specifically, “sensation-seeking”.

This somewhat directionless “seeking” evokes Tolstoy’s description of the boredom in Anna Karenina — “a desire for desires” — that afflicts Vronsky, who is not content despite having had his most burning desires fulfilled.

The French translation from the Russian, ennui, allows for a more nuanced characterisation of Vronsky’s feelings — indeed, our use of the word in English suggests it captures something that “boredom” does not. Patricia Meyer Spacks, a literary scholar, differentiates between the two mental states in her 1995 book, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, thus: “Ennui implies a judgment of the universe; boredom, a response to the immediate.”

The mind that is suffering from ennui is not one that is desperate for stimulation, or to be freed from its current constraints; its problem is that it isn’t desperate for anything at all — it has total freedom and yet it cannot find anything to satisfy it. This is not the kind of boredom a child repeatedly asking “Are we there yet?” on a long car journey is experiencing — this child knows exactly what it desires.

And it is this latter kind that we should spend more time trying to create the conditions for. James Danckert, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo and co-author of Out of my Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, tells me that the argument that boredom itself begets creativity is misguided. And indeed, it has been linked to far more destructive behaviour and violence. But creating space in the mind for at least the possibility of boredom is vital.

Only boring people get bored, goes the old aphorism. These days, it might be more true to say that only boring people do not get bored — at least not in boredom’s more constructive form. By turning to digital devices in order to avoid one of the great taboos of modern times, uncomfortable feelings, we end up suffering a much more profound sense of malaise.

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