By: Denny Tan (Grade 12)
The philosophical and psychological take on boredom
Have you eaten all your snacks? Do you feel the need to engage in mildly self-destructive activities? And does being bored make you smarter…somehow? Hopefully, this part-philosophy part-psychology article can answer some of your burning questions on the nature of boredom.
In the 19th century many philosophers have occupied themselves by laying siege to boredom. For example, the german philosopher Schopenhauer, used boredom as proof that existence was worthless. If boredom was the medium between periods of activity, then Schopenhauer argued that the little bit of meaning we had in our lives wasn’t from life itself, but because of those periods of activity. Schopenheauer also thought that intelligent people were more likely to be bored, because the feeling itself was a kind of realisation that existence was worthless and painful. If that makes you feel down, remember that Schopenhauer was the same person who first suggested that everything we do was because of an irrational, voracious (though perpetually hungry) “will to life” so make of his assessment on boredom what you will.
Would you go live in a cabin in the woods with no service, internet, or TV for 2 years for million bucks? American author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau lived by Walden Pond for 2 years, 2 months, and 2 days, with nothing more than his writing, musings, and books. (He wasn’t paid, either.) If you are wondering how he fended off boredom for so long, remember that Thoreau could write about his bean fields for chapters in his book “Walden”. It’s easy to see how he could disagree with Schopenhauer’s theory that boredom was a sign of intelligence: for Thoreau, the smartest people could find wonder in the most ordinary things or everyday experiences.
Two philosophers who further contemplated boredom are Soren Kierkegaard and Bertrand Russell. Interestingly, both suggest that there was something insidiously evil in boredom: Kierkegaard has dubbed it “a demonic pantheism” while Russell has even gone as far as to suggest that “more than half” of our sins, arguments, wars, and atrocities stem from a fear of boredom. I found this hard to believe at first, but recalled that I vexed my brother multiple times during quarantine just because I felt like doing something. Russell, however, concedes that certain kinds of boredom can also produce action, and action can produce fulfillment. For him, boredom isn’t the problem, but modern society’s profound fear of it just might be.
There has been little consensus on exactly what boredom is. Psychologically, though, causes and effects of boredom can be identified: it’s caused by a lack of (or low) mental stimulation, which results in a conflation of lack neurological excitement and a desire to exit that state which we identify to be unpleasant.
Similarities can be drawn between boredom and depression. Both are states of low neurological activity, but where boredom tries to escape that state, depression (or melancholia) turns inwards, away from reality to focus on its emotional work.
Also, in a particularly Schopenhauerian fashion, there seems to be a biological reason for boredom that arises in more intelligent mammals. When researchers placed minks that had been exposed to little environmental stimuli in habitats with more food or perception of risk (bobcat urine), the minks ate much more than needed and engaged in riskier behavior. Taking and organizing images, signals, and stimuli from the outside world helps us survive, and when we aren’t consolidating information, we feel like we aren’t engaging in useful activity. This may even lead to self-destructive activities like seeking thrills, being confrontational, or… eating all of my snacks in the first week.
But although boredom is unpleasant, it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to bad outcomes. It’s a proven fact that when we can resist the nagging need to stimulate ourselves, we can enter a state of aimless daydream that can render us more creative. Half of the boredom (and all of the discomfort) after all, comes from thinking about how bored we are.
One might even go as far as to suggest some intrinsic good in boredom. We are surrounded by more stimulus than humans ever have before. And in everyday life, the volume of information could be both overwhelming while its value to our fulfillment is underwhelming. Sometimes, we actually need boredom to shelter ourselves from this paradox. (This would be different from simply practicing mindfulness and yoga unless you find these activities more boring than relaxing.) Perhaps boredom is a luxury. Until the postmodern period, the rich were often characterized by idleness, lounging and walking when the poor had to work to make a living. When confronted by the mounting stress, we often recall the good times when we were bored.
Psychologists have suggested finding the “optimal flow” when our priorities are to be productive more than creative. This flow refers to accomplishing a series of tasks arranged in such a way that we will never feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed, but producing enough of a sense of accomplishment to sustain the next task. The intensity flow may differ from person to person or task to task.
Boredom: is it a curse? A blessing in disguise? A spring of inspiration or a pitfall of unproductivity? Whatever it may be, boredom is a constant we need to live with in the coming weeks.