Author Article by Peter Toohey: The Benefits of Boredom

PETER TOOHEY’s Boredom: A Lively History dispels the myth that boredom is simply a childish emotion or an existential malaise. Here the author demonstrates the reasoning behind writing the book, a rare argument for the benefits of boredom, illustrating how it is, in fact, one of our most common and constructive emotions and is an essential part of the human experience.

Article by Peter Toohey

Why write a book about boredom?  Isn’t boredom something trivial, something that children suffer – something that’s not quite appropriate for adults?  And doesn’t entitling one’s work ‘boredom’ run the risk of eliciting the very same emotion in potential readers before they’ve even opened the book?

Maybe not, for boredom is one of the most unexpectedly common and under-examined of all human emotions – and for those reasons alone it should be treated seriously.  Boredom shouldn’t be trivialized or viewed as something to be confined to children.  It’s part and parcel of all our lives.  One, slightly ironic, attempt at quantifying the incidence of boredom – and that may demonstrate my point – appeared in September 2009.  According to an online survey conducted by the curiously titled commercial organization www.triviala.com the average Briton suffers from boredom for approximately six hours per week. That equates, over an average life span of 60.5 years, to more than two years of being bored. An emotional state that occupies more than one twentieth of an average Briton’s waking life isn’t something that deserves to be treated lightly.

Carl Spizweg, Der Kaktusliebhaber (The Cactus Lover) © Schäfer

There are two forms of boredom and both point to its importance.  You can say that a very long speech is boring – this first sort of boredom is something that’s long, predictable, and that feels inescapable.  The second way of using the term is often denoted as “complex” or “existential”. This form of boredom is a very serious thing indeed.  It is said to be able to infect a person’s very existence. It takes in many well-known conditions, evoked by such names as melancholia, depression, ennui, mal de vivre, world weariness, tristesse, taedium vitae, the Christian “demon of noontide” or spiritual despair, and the French “existentialist” nausea.  It is the subject of most of the books written on boredom and it’s easy to see why.  If the first form of boredom tends to be associated with children, this second sort is strictly for well-read grown-ups.

Or for most of the time.   The childish form of boredom, when it really persists, is deemed to be chronic and it can be as oppressive as the existential version.  Anna Gosline reports alarmingly in her 2007 Scientific American article ‘Bored to Death’ that the chronically bored “are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, hostility, anger, poor social skills, bad grades, and low work performance.”   How does this happen?  Flirting with the drugs, alcohol, and gambling produces heightened dopamine activity in the brain  – dopamine offers a chemical reward for the performance of such activities.   Research suggests that risk takers and the chronically bored may be the victims of a brain that is chronically short of dopamine.  Risk-taking increases dopamine production and counteracts a person’s sense of chronic boredom.

So it may come as little surprise that boredom, a very serious emotion, has the most lively of histories. One of the most bizarre examples from boredom’s past that I know of is a Latin inscription from the Italian city of Benevento, a place now more famous for the camorra than for boredom.  The inscription dates from the late third century of our era:

For Tanonius Marcellinus, a most distinguished man of the consular rank and a most worthy patron as well, because of the good deeds by which he rescued the population [of Beneventum] from endless boredom, the entire people [of this city] judges that this inscription should be recorded.

Adam Jones, 'A Woman Sells Souvenirs outside Red Square', Moscow, Russia. June 2008

This may be the only public inscription in Western history that praises a public official for rescuing the citizens of his town from boredom.

What’s the point of this well historied emotion?  I believe that boredom exists as an early warning signal indicating that certain situations may be dangerous to our well being. It’s not unlike disgust, another emotion that exists to help humans prosper.  Just as disgust stops you from dipping into that barrel of rotting anchovies to add to your salade niçoise, so boredom, in social settings, alerts you to situations that can do no psychological good.  Boredom, interpreted properly, might act as an alarm, for the dopamine depleted, not to indulge in risk taking.  So, perhaps boredom exists to encourage people to adapt their behavior and to protect them from social toxins, just as its first cousin disgust is designed, biologically speaking, to cause people to adapt their behavior to real physical toxins.  Maybe boredom should be viewed just as sometimes are gout or angina – as signs of worse things to follow unless there’s a change in life style.

There is no need to dismiss boredom as childish, as the sign of laziness or an idle mind.  It’s is a normal, very useful, well pedigreed, and fascinating part of human experience. That many of us suffer from it – and that I like to write about it – should be no cause for embarrassment.  Boredom deserves respect for the, well, enabling experience that it is.

More About the Book

Peter Toohey’s informative and entertaining investigation of boredom – what it is and what it isn’t, its uses and its dangers – spans more than 3,000 years of history and takes readers through fascinating neurological and psychological theories of emotion, as well as recent scientific investigations, to illustrate its role in our lives. There are Australian aboriginals and bored Romans, Jeffrey Archer and caged cockatoos, Camus and the early Christians, Durer and Degas. Peter Toohey also explores the important role that boredom plays in popular and highbrow culture and how over the centuries it has proven to be a stimulus for art and literature. Toohey shows that boredom is a universal emotion experienced by humans throughout history and he explains its place, and value, in today’s world. Boredom: A Lively History is vital reading for anyone interested in what goes on when supposedly nothing happens.

Boredom is available in to order now from Yale University Press

About the Author

Peter Toohey is Professor of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary. His previous books include Melancholy, Love and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature.

Useful Links

Article on Boredom in Scientific American by Anna Gosline

Boredom Book Page

More Philosophy Books from Yale

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