Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey was published last year to critical acclaim, and is now available in paperback from Yale. In the first book to argue for the benefits of boredom, Peter Toohey proves that it is, in fact, a necessary and constructive part of the human experience. In this exclusive extract the author introduces us to our most maligned of emotions.
Extract from the Preface to Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey
Who cares about boredom? It’s trivial, and it’s something that children suffer, isn’t it? Yet boredom is one of the most unexpectedly common of all human emotions, and for that reason it shouldn’t be ignored, or trivialized. It’s part and parcel of ordinary life, something that Hanif Kureishi caught brilliantly in his novel about 1970s’ London, The Buddha of Suburbia. Karin Amir, its half-Indian, half-Anglo hero is upbraided by his activist lover, Jamila:
‘You’re moving away from the real world.’
‘What real world? There is no real world, is there?’
She said patiently, ‘Yes, the world of ordinary people and
the shit they have to deal with – unemployment, bad
housing, boredom. Soon you won’t understand anything
about the essential stuff.’
Boredom may be a simple thing and it may be as basic as unemployment and bad housing, but it’s a real emotion that’s been felt throughout history. As Jamila says, it’s essential. In more recent years, boredom has become the object of social and scientific analysis. One, slightly ironic, attempt at quantifying the incidence of boredom 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 – or, to put it differently, more than one twentieth of an average Briton’s waking life is spent in a state of boredom. It’s not possible to ascertain how reliable this statistic is, but a report in early 2009 by the London think tank the New Economics Foundation also made some startling claims for Britons’ boredom. It asserted that UK citizens were the fourth most bored of the twenty-two nations in Europe. Britons were also reported as having the second lowest energy levels in Europe, which may help to explain their boredom: they simply lack the energy to amuse themselves. Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation, writing without the hindsight of the bank collapses, reasoned that Britain was so bored and tired because ‘the UK’s long-hours culture and record levels of personal debt have squeezed out opportunities for individuals . . . to . . . pursue activities that would best promote personal and social well being’.
It’s not so different in the USA. One recent survey of approximately 400 secondary school students in the New England area reported that 9 per cent of these young people say that ‘boredom is a real or serious problem in their lives, and 17 per cent note they are somewhat or completely dissatisfied with their lives’.
Rather than relying on what test subjects admit about their state of mind, other scientists have tried to find an objective scientific basis by which boredom can be measured. In 2009, neurologists at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, led by Daniel Weissman studied the interactions that occur between different areas of the brain when an individual falls victim to boredom. Several volunteers were placed inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) room and subjected to tedious tasks for prolonged periods of time. They were asked, amongst other dreary things, to identify letters as they appeared on a screen. They had to do this for a full hour. Daniel Weissman and his team decided to direct their attention to those intervals when the concentration of the volunteers slipped. They hoped to be able to use the MRI data to see what happens inside brains when concentration attention fades and boredom takes over.
When the focus of the volunteers did begin to waver, Weissman and his collaborators noticed that areas of the brain closely related to self-control, vision and language processing seemed not to communicate with one another. They discovered that, as concentration ebbs, the intensity with which nerve centres link up also fades. ‘This is equivalent to those regions disconnecting,’ claimed Weissman, which seems to be linked with the feeling of boredom. What was particularly interesting about the experiment was that when the cranial crosstalk died down, particular regions of the cortex ‘lit up’.
Daniel Weissman’s experiment may have pointed towards boredom’s headquarters (as it were), and provided a fascinating means by which the incidence of boredom can be tracked, but it does not explain what boredom is. So, what is it? My friend, the philosopher David Londey, once suggested to me that there might be no answer to this question. He suggested that boredom might not exist at all. Better, David speculated, to think of boredom as a grab bag of a term covering emotions such as frustration, surfeit, depression, disgust, indifference, apathy, and that feeling of being trapped or confined. When conditions like all of these are blurred together, he argued, people end up with a false emotion of boredom. Perhaps boredom is one of those old-fashioned terms, like consumption. It’s a term that masks a constellation of independent disorders. David certainly had a point.
Before trying to address David Londey’s worries, I’d like to look at what is normally meant by ‘boredom’. Despite its ubiquitous usage there seem to be two main instances that the word describes. The first form of boredom is the result of predictable circumstances that are very hard to escape. Long speeches or long church services or long Christmas dinners are typical examples. This sort of boredom is characterized by lengthy duration, by its predictability, by its inescapability – by its confinement. And, when you feel like this, time seems to slow, to the point that you feel as though you stand outside of these experiences.
There are other characteristics. When an experience is repeated and repeated and repeated until the person undergoing it is utterly ‘fed up’, they will exclaim that they are bored. Too much baklava can produce this sort of effect. There is usually a flavour of distaste or, more precisely, of disgust that comes about when one is satiated with a situation: so it is that terms such as nausea and biliousness are often used as other names for boredom. Boredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body: like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.
Boredom becomes worse when a situation seems valueless. A boring task, conversely, can become much more tolerable if it’s aimed at what’s thought to be a good end. Ironing and cooking, for example, can be pretty dull, but much less so when you do them for your children, rather than just for your solitary self. This relates to choice and to your little community. A boring task is always a boring task, but if you choose it (for some reasonable, communitarian end) its boringness is somehow mitigated.
There seems to be a stigma attached to experiencing this sort of ‘simple’ boredom. Perhaps this is because it is so often associated with children. I’ve often wondered if this stigma of childishness has given rise to the second form of boredom, occasionally termed ‘complex’ or ‘existential’. (It was the German sociologist Martin Doehlemann who seems to have coined the expression ‘existential boredom’.) This form of boredom is said to be able to infect a person’s very existence and it may even be thought of as a philosophical sickness. It is no easy thing to characterize. Its complexity can take in many well-known conditions. These often go under such evocative names as melancholia, depression, ennui, mal de vivre, world-weariness, tristesse, taedium vitae, the Christian ‘demon of noontide’ or spiritual despair (named acedia or accidie), the French ‘existentialist’ nausea and despair, and many other comparable terms and conditions. It is the subject of most of the books written on boredom.
While this second form of boredom has caused the expenditure of a very considerable amount of black ink, very little has been devoted to the first form because it is dismissed as ‘trivial’. But to my mind, existential boredom is a hotchpotch of a category, and one whose basis is more intellectual than experiential – it is a condition which seems to me to be more read about and discussed than actually experienced. Boredom: A Lively History will unapologetically give simple boredom an equal billing.
My late colleague David Londey was both wrong and right to suggest that boredom does not exist. To be fair to David, he didn’t stick with his intuition, but he had made, as he always did, a very compelling and a very quirky point. Boredom does exist, but it exists as a much simpler, more normal and more useful emotion than most critics will allow. Existential boredom often seems more of an impressive intellectual formulation than an actual emotion. Simple boredom has a direct bearing on our ordinary emotional lives, keeping company (as I hope to show) with depression and anger while protecting us from their ravages.
But what boredom is and what it isn’t is just the tip of the iceberg. Boredom lurks behind a surprising array of artworks, literature and films, as well as sociology, biology, psychology and philosophy. Neglecting to juxtapose these various manifestations of boredom, or privileging one over all others, risks losing some of the subtler shades of boredom and its remarkable history. Painters and novelists have an uncanny ability visually and descriptively to depict emotional states that puzzle or defy logic or reason. Through figuration and metaphor, art can grope beyond the limits of clarity and non-connotative language which quite rightly constrain the scientific disciplines, and tell us something about boredom without the need for a transparent linguistic term. But it also works the other way around: the science and theory behind boredom can re-illuminate certain very famous pieces of art and literature.
A confession. I’ve been bored for very large tracts of my life. Habitually bored. I suspect and I hope, but I cannot prove it, that boredom has done me no harm. That’s beyond, perhaps, a lingering, but perfectly tolerable sense of uneasiness. But one thing I hope this book will illustrate is that boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish. In that sense, I can’t help but feel that boredom has in some ways been a blessing. I do hope so. And I hope that I’ll be able to demonstrate this in the pages that follow.
Peter Toohey is a professor in the Department 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.
Boredom: A Lively History is available now in paperback from Yale.