Why boredom is really quite interesting

ANYBODY WHO has shared a house with a teenager knows what the state of being bored looks like from the outside: the rolling eyes, the lolling head, that visceral, stretched-out cry of ‘it’s sooooo boring’ or ‘I’m sooooo bored’ or perhaps just a weary ‘meh’. 

When my only-child was bored in a head-lolling, eye-rolling kind of way, I used to tell her that whatever the ‘it’ was, it wasn’t boring - she just hadn’t yet found the interest in it yet. Boredom, for most of us, is a self-induced state.

If you find yourself waiting in a queue or stranded at an airport, you can choose how you respond. You can be bored and frustrated, or you can accept the situation and take it as an opportunity for people watching, or for writing a poem or sending an email to a long-lost friend. There are those unfortunates for whom boredom is a symptom of mental illness: but the rest of us get to make a choice.

A curiosity noted by psychologists is that to be bored you actually have to be in a state of high alertness: you have to be sufficiently present to know that nothing in the immediate environment is interesting. And one of the cures for boredom is meditation - a focus, perhaps, on the simple act of breathing, and the opposite of that wired alertness. It’s a paradox because many would regard meditation - sitting still and concentrating on your breath - as a classically boring activity.

Three types of boredom have been identified by psychologists:

  • The response to those times when we are prevented from engaging in a desired activity.
  • The response to those times when we are forced to engage in an unwanted activity.
  • Or the response to those times when for no apparent reason, we are unable to maintain engagement in any activity or spectacle.

Most teenagers have experienced at least the first two, at school if not at home.

The words boring and boredom come from the verb ‘to bore’ - to pierce or grind down. I’ve seen a feature in quite a serious magazine insisting that the word was invented by Charles Dickens and that the phrase ‘bored to death’ was first uttered by Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. But the word as a noun - to be a bore, for instance - has been around since 1768, which precedes Dickens by a century or so.

I’ve also read learned articles that argued that boredom didn’t exist before the industrial revolution because everybody was too busy sorting out food, clothing and shelter for themselves and their families. This is clearly nonsense: you can allow yourself to be bored when you are milking a cow or digging up turnips, if you’re that way out. And throughout history there have been wealthy people who didn’t need to work, and must have sometimes been jaded.

To return to the etymology: the French word ennui - which gives us the first half of the word ‘annoyance’, out of the old French anoiance - has also been around since at least Georgian times.

But it is the German word Langeweile that captures it for me: it means, simply, ‘long while’ - a reference to the way in which time seems to slow down when you’re bored. 

Boredom is usually presented as a negative state - but this capacity it has to slow down time (the opposite of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s state of 'Flow', which speeds it up), can have positive benefits.

Dunbar, a character in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, did boring things so that his life seemed longer (and how many times must we all have said ‘where did the time go’?) And the state of being bored has often been the spur to creativity. Lars Svendsen in his Philosophy of Boredom argued that it was important to see boredom as a ‘call to action’.

And the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche agreed, suggesting that that ‘men of rare sensibility’ value boredom as an impetus to achievement. 

Nietzsche also wrote eloquently of boredom’s reward: “One receives as reward for much ennui, despondency, boredom … those quarter-hours of profoundest contemplation within oneself and nature. He who completely entrenches himself against boredom also entrenches himself against himself: he will never get to drink the strongest refreshing draught from his own innermost fountain.”

And the Nobel Laureate, essayist and poet, Joseph Brodsky actually wrote a speech In Praise of Boredom in which he described the state as a window on infinity. Time is endless, he argued, boredom gives one a mere taste of it.

“For boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility. The former, it must be noted, breeds the latter. The more you learn about your own size, the more humble and the more compassionate you become to your likes, to the dust aswirl in a sunbeam or already immobile atop your table.

If it takes will-paralysing boredom to bring your insignificance home, then hail the boredom. You are insignificant because you are finite. Yet infinity is not terribly lively, not terribly emotional. Your boredom , at least, tells you that much. And the more finite a thing is, the more it is charged with life, emotions, joy, fears, compassion.”

As I said earlier, echoing the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, we usually have a choice as to how we respond to situations. But if you do find yourself slipping into boredom, Brodsky’s advice is to go with it: 

“When hit by boredom , let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: the sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface.”

As an experiment, a friend and I decided to have a Most Boring Photograph competition on Facebook. We discovered two things. The first was that it was impossible to take a genuinely dull picture, because the act of choosing to take it made it more interesting. The second was that we might find our photograph dull in the extreme, but we were not in control of how other people received it. Nearly all of our boring photographs were thought to be quite interesting. Proof that boredom lies in the brain of the beholder.

Another couple of friends launched into a slightly semantic critique, arguing that - since boredom is a mental state that takes at least some time to develop - a photograph seen for only a few seconds could not be boring. My view was while the noun 'boredom' had a very specific meaning in psychology, the adjective 'boring' had become detached from its parent and was often used as a synonym for dull or tedious - as in 'boring old fart', which is what I might be on my way to becoming right now.

So, I'll leave you with a final observation from Dorothy Parker, the writer, critic and satirist: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."