Tuesday, August 25, 2020


Margaret Talbot has a long article about boredom research in the New Yorker. 

Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.

In Talbot's account researchers are divided between those who think boredom is a universal human thing, in fact shared by many animals, and those who view it as a particularly modern condition. My reading of history and anthropology is that people have always suffered from boredom, and to the extent that they were less bored than we are it was because they were scrabbling to survive. I do find it interesting that the explosion of amusements – the internet, 500 televisions channels – has not reduced how much boredom people report feeling. I suppose this is because most of what we consume is so unfulfilling as to leave us thirsting 

And this for all the educators in the audience:

A 2016 paper found that, for most Americans, the activity associated with the highest rates of boredom was studying. (The least: sports or exercise.) Research conducted by Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson in England concluded that among the most boring educational experiences were computer sessions, while the least were sturdy, old-fashioned group discussions in the context of a lecture. Mann, in “The Science of Boredom,” makes worthwhile observations about two tactics that help people feel less bored while studying: listening to music and doodling. . . . The boredom trough of school may also be a matter of age: studies that have looked at boredom over the life span have found that, for most people, it peaks in their late teens, then begins to drop.

Personally I understand boredom in terms of a barrier that has to be climbed to get to something I would enjoy doing. For example, I might really enjoy a backpacking trip with my brother or my sons, but that would involved me in a mountain of planning and organizational effort that I don't feel like getting into right now. Even something simple like a family boardgame involves getting enough of my children to agree to 1) play a game, and 2) agree on what game to play. Working on one of my writing projects requires a level of effort that is often insurmountable but sometimes, for whatever reason, trivial and easily brushed aside. 

This, I think, is the connection between boredom and mild or moderate depression: depressed people find even small obstacles between them and pleasure impossible to overcome, so they spend more time doing nothing. I think this also explains teenage boredom: teenagers are restless but lack the organizational and financial resources to arrange to do the things that might distract or fulfill them. 


Mário R. Gonçalves said...

That boredom you write about is more the "individual boredom" kind, why me or you or them are bored. It may have to do with depression or lack of personal purposes or intents.
But I think there is anorher kind: the civilizational boredom. Some say Rome went down from it. In a mainly peaceful world (compared to middle ages, WWI and II...) at least in western countries plus Australia/New Zealand/South America) , and plus with a life standard slowly improving from misery to mild poverty, when you don't have to absolutely fight for life each day and still get almost nothing, when the 'damned' consumism is all around, boredom expands like a virus, among young people and even cultured people. Cultural acivities are both hard to acess and losing quality way down to indigence. What else? The richest, once they get the private plane, the yacht and the paradise island mansion, have nothing alse to expect, not even a voyage to Mars.

We live in a boring civilization. Democracy is boring. Peace is boring. Status quo is boring. There is no more of the Great Explorations fever, through the oceans or the Arctic or the Moon. Movies are boring, books are boring, music is o-how-boring. No wonder Attack and Black Bloc and BLM , etc, are attractive to many: they are a remedy to boredom.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Sorry for misspelled words. I was distracted.

David said...

FWIW, I for one don't find our civilization in the least boring, or peace, or the status quo. Although I am sometimes bored by a boring book or committee report or something like that, I think it's been decades since I've been "bored" as a condition of life. Most of the time, I think there's too much out there that's interesting, and I regret that I won't have enough time to enjoy it all.

David said...

My suggestion, again for FWIW, is that boredom may be more a condition of a person's individual makeup, including their glandular makeup, than of civilization or circumstance. I think that's the reason for the age curve that John cites.

Part of what's at stake is how an individual responds to stimuli. Some people need much stronger stimuli than others.

I suspect I'm deeply satisfied by stimuli that others find inadequate. And the stimuli that others crave, like fighting, athletic competition, and physical risk, are too much for me. I avoid them assiduously.

Mário R. Gonçalves said...

Walls in my neighborhood are graffitied 'Bored Generation'. It's a whole generation. Exceptions of course abound. Myself , I'm neither excited nor bored - just tired. But I guess most of all those pro-nazi or anti-system demonstrators are deeply bored.

David said...


There may be a generational aspect, and it may be that a greater percentage of people are bored today than were, say, a thousand years ago. I guess my point is that we should avoid making generalizations about "people" and what "people" need, or what "we" feel and "we" need, etc.

It also seems to me that "too much civilization" and "too much peace" are only hypothetical explanations for the (unproven) assertion that boredom is worse today that at some other time. Another possibility is that in previous ages young people were much more dependent on the approval of their elders, and therefore they were restrained from making jejune complaints like "I'm bored."

David said...

Another possibility is that those who today complain of boredom would have been bored as well a thousand years ago, because they are they sort of people who need stimulation much more intense than life, even premodern or modern, normally provides.

And those hard-to-stimulate people may have tended to die younger in former ages as well.

Ours is certainly not the first civilization to see young adults as a problematic well of disorder.