The Problem of Boredom: A Philosophical Perspective

a philosophical perspective on the problem of boredom

We all know what it is like to be bored. It usually strikes when are alone and not engaged in anything in particular. But if we actually try to define what boredom is, we may struggle to do so. Boredom isn’t simply the absence of activity. It is a unique kind of mental state – and one that we strive to avoid. We continually try to stave off boredom in any way we can, grasping for anything – a person, a place, an activity, or an experience – that is sufficiently stimulating.

Boredom has not escaped the purview of philosophy. Indeed, the problem of boredom has featured heavily in the thoughts of many philosophers since it is deeply entangled with the human condition and human fulfilment. By tackling boredom from a philosophical perspective, we may be able to gain a clearer understanding of what it means to be bored and how best to appropriately respond to this psychological state. We should try to relate to boredom in a healthy way and avoid falling into the trap of escapism.

Boredom as Part of the Human Condition

Boredom, as far as we can tell, is a distinct problem facing the human species. When we think of non-human animals, can we really judge that they suffer from boredom? The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, well known for his pessimistic writings, describes boredom as part of the human condition in his book The Trouble With Being Born (1973):

A zoologist who observed gorillas in their native habitat was amazed by the uniformity of their life and their vast idleness. Hours and hours without doing anything. Was boredom unknown to them? This is indeed a question raised by a human, a busy ape. Far from fleeing monotony, animals crave it, and what they most dread is to see it end. For it ends, only to be replaced by fear, the cause of all activity. Inaction is divine; yet it is against inaction that man has rebelled. Man alone, in nature, is incapable of enduring monotony, man alone wants something to happen at all costs — something, anything…. Thereby he shows himself unworthy of his ancestor: the need for novelty is the characteristic of an alienated gorilla.

According to Cioran, as humans, we are incapable of sitting still with naked existence; it is simply far too dull, tedious, and burdensome for us. Unadulterated reality is something we are always desperate to escape from. As Cioran points out, our close cousins in the animal kingdom do not feel this same drive to seek out novelty. Monotony is enjoyable for other species but not for us.

This aspect of the human condition is curious as it raises the important philosophical question of why we are driven by this supposedly innate hunger for novelty, stimulation, entertainment, and engagement with something other than just our own minds and pure being. We could offer an evolutionary explanation for our aversion to boredom; perhaps the desire for novelty conferred a survival advantage for our ancestors – by motivating them to find new resources and create useful technologies – and we are the inheritors of this drive. When we feel the gnawing discomfort of boredom, this may be because our psychology is signalling for us to seek out the novel and innovate, as this is what has accelerated the success of the human species.

Peter Toohey, an Australian professor of classics – and author of Boredom: A Lively Historyasserts that there is, indeed, a positive side to boredom. He proposes that boredom is adaptive; he describes as a form of mild disgust that steers us away from situations and environments that are harmful to our mental health. Boredom, therefore, can function in a similar way to the kind of disgust that makes us avoid disease-bearing environments. Toohey also argues that boredom is often a precondition for creativity – without boredom, there cannot be creativity; in the same way, it may be impossible to experience the heights of joy without the pits of despair.

Arthur Schopenhauer is another famous philosophical pessimist who was interested in the problem of boredom. For Schopenhauer, boredom was an inescapable part of our lives. In his view, we are either trying to fulfil some desire (and in a state of pain) or bored (because we have fulfilled a desire and are waiting in a kind of limbo before the next desire arises). As Schopenhauer states, in his usual dreary manner, “Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom.”

How Do We Define Boredom?

Philosophers and writers have tried to define boredom in different ways. Schopenhauer defined boredom as “a tame longing without any particular object”, the existential novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky claimed it was “a bestial and indefinable affliction”, and the poet Joseph Brodsky described it as “time’s invasion of your world system”. What unites these disparate definitions is that they all attach a negative value to boredom. Nonetheless, for some readers, these definitions are still vague, although vagueness may be central to the essence of boredom.

The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen attempts to draw distinctions between three kinds of boredom in his book A Philosophy of Boredom: situative boredom, sloth or acedia, and existential boredom. Situative boredom is a state of mind we all experience; it is when we feel a longing for something in an everyday situation. When we are restless in a waiting room, for instance, we desire to be seen for our appointment. Svendsen highlights that “situative boredom is expressed via yawning, wriggling in one’s chair, stretching out one’s arms and legs”. This kind of boredom is short-lived and can quickly disappear, although any exact definition of situative boredom proves to be elusive.

The Early Church Fathers defined acedia as something similar to depression or sloth, the latter being one of the seven deadly sins in Christianity. Acedia, defined as a state of listlessness or torpor, afflicted many practitioners of Christianity in the middle ages, including priests, monks, and hermits. The early theologians of Christianity considered acedia a vice, as it impacts society, thwarts the interests of people, and goes against the commandments of God. Svendsen, however, doesn’t view acedia as an ethical issue. He prefers to simply view it as a state of mind; not an illness as depression is, nor sinful like sloth.

Svendsen draws on a multitude of philosophers in order to illuminate the nature of existential boredom (or profound boredom). For example, he refers to Martin Heidegger and his belief that boredom is metaphysical, an immutable fact of the world. The upside of this profound boredom for Heidegger, though, is that it can allow us to access the essence of being, which is normally hidden from us due to our preoccupation with stimulating activities and experiences.

For existential philosophers, the lack of objective meaning in the world – which calls for us to create our own meaning – opens up the possibility of deep boredom. If existence were inherently meaningful, then how could we ever become bored? Reality would always nourish us, whether we were engaged in some activity or not. But alas, boredom is like a looming spectre, waiting patiently to consume us as soon as we stop being busy.

In his book, Svendsen differentiates situative boredom from its existential counterpart by arguing that the former involves a longing for something specific, whereas the latter “contains a longing for any desire at all”. Existential boredom can be characterised by the need to feel some sort of striving, some energy or motivation to direct us. Starved of desire, we are bored in a very deep sense. You’ll recall that situative boredom shows itself in the form of restless bodily expressions. Svendsen contrasts this with existential boredom, which he says “is more or less devoid of expression”. He adds:

While the body language of situative boredom seems to signal that one can cast off this yoke, squirm oneself free and move on, it is as if the lack of expression in existential boredom contains an implicit instinct that it cannot be overcome by any act of will.

Nevertheless, Toohey doubts that existential boredom actually exists. Instead, he believes that existential boredom is depression, misidentified. Indeed, one of the core aspects of depression is profound, crippling apathy. In a depressed person’s mind, there is a persistent lack of desire and motivation. On the other hand, it is also possible that depressives see the world more clearly and may become depressed, partly at least, due to the fact that boredom is an inescapable part of existence.

How Should We Live With Boredom?

However you define boredom, you still need to come to terms with the fact that it exists, and it can be difficult to contend with, even if it is something quite nebulous. One way to deal with boredom is to just think of it like the weather, as a fact of life that we just have to accept. We can’t control unpleasant weather but this doesn’t make life unbearable. In the conclusion to his book, Svendsen takes a stoic approach to the problem of boredom. He writes:

To become mature is to accept that life cannot remain in the enchanted realm of childhood, that life to a certain extent is boring, but at the same time to realise that this does not make life unliveable.

The truth is that we have a lot of freedom in terms of the value we attach to boredom as a mental state. When you start meditating, for example, one of the challenges you will often encounter is that you will feel bored. You may feel so bored simply sitting and being left alone with your own mind that you will be thinking of what you could be doing instead.

Part of the practice of mindfulness meditation involves sitting with boredom, noticing it as an experience without attaching any judgements to it. By being bored without resisting it, hating it, or trying to escape it, you can view it matter-of-factly as part of the rich tapestry of life, and you will see how it arises and passes like any other state of mind. Mindfulness is an effective technique for managing depression – and it may likewise help you to achieve greater peace of mind when you experience boredom.

But perhaps merely accepting boredom is a way of selling ourselves short. After all, it is certainly possible to be confronted with pure existence and feel joy, awe, and gratitude in response. The basic fact of human existence is that we are alive, breathing, conscious, thinking, perceiving, and in the world. The nature of being could be a cause of elation rather than restlessness. Of course, boredom is not a state of mind you can switch on and off as you please. But it doesn’t have to be ceaseless. For instance, the joy of simply being alive can, on the one hand, be cultivated but it may also manifest spontaneously, in brief moments or for more prolonged periods of time. Regardless, the possibility of feeling fulfilled by sheer existence means that boredom is not an intractable problem. A mindful, stoic, and joyous attitude towards inactivity can help to ease boredom and allow us to experience more happiness in our everyday lives.

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