Even though the modern world is full of constant demands on our attention and an ever-increasing choice of on-demand food and drink, media and experiences, boredom is still a common and arguably important part of our lives. In one U.K. survey, the average person claimed to suffer from boredom for 6 hours per week, which would add up to 2 or more years of an average lifespan.
The English word boredom derives from the French bourrer (to stuff or satiate, or more literally to be fed up) and first appeared in English language in 1853. At that time, factories and offices were beginning to create a new way to divide up the day, splitting leisure time at home from work time as industrialization took hold. This also led to a growth in the entertainment and tourist industries, as well as consumerism and increasing demands for novelty. Erich Fromm argues that boredom is a reaction to industrialized society, in which people are alienated and traditional structures of meaning have been lost.
With so much availability of distractions, even more so in the 21st century, finding yourself at a loose end or in dreary company, or feeling at a loose end or in dreary company, can be seen as a mark of inadequacy. But having said, boredom can also have a positive effect on human life and progress. In the words of Ralph Linton, “the human capacity for being bored, rather than social or natural needs, lies at the root of man’s cultural advance”.
Boredom was a common theme in culture, even before the mid 19th century, with Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and Nora in A Doll’s House. Again, these characters, and others like them, come from the leisured middle classes with lots of time on their hands but nothing to do. It is a theme that appears consistently in French literature, more recently in Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Outsider.
Such stories show the type of boredom known as ennui. This is a more complex and existential boredom that can infect a person’s whole body and being (a kind of philosophical sickness). A more common form of boredom is the result of predictable circumstances that are hard to escape such as long speeches and Christmas dinners among others. In these situations, there is a kind of satiation from something long, predictable and inescapable causing time to slow to a grinding halt.
Thus, boredom is associated with predictability, confinement and monotony, when a situation stays the same for too long. Another way of looking at boredom is as an unpleasant state of unmet arousal, where there is nowhere to direct our interest because of lack of imagination, concentration or motivation, or an absence of stimulus or opportunity in the environment around us.
When we are bored we have a vague idea that we want something to change but we are not really sure what. Perhaps that is why clocks are often used to symbolize boredom and yawning is a common sign?
Those who score highly on boredom scales often have relatively high levels of anger and aggression, showing feelings of pent up frustration. Schopenhauer even suggested that boredom is evidence of the meaninglessness of life, claiming that it would not exist if life was intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling. But is there more to boredom than this?
Ian Miller suggests, “boredom … is the name we give to a less intense form of disgust … Boredom stands in relation to disgust as annoyance does to anger”. Similarly, Robert Plutchik, disgust is an evolutionary response to danger in the environment (his theory posits that all emotions are adaptations to the environment).
Plutchik argues that boredom is derived from the primary emotion of disgust, although milder and more inward-looking. In his model, all emotions exist at different levels of intensity and boredom is the mildest version of disgust, while loathing is the most intense version. If disgust protects us from infection, then boredom protects us from infectious social situations (i.e., from situations that are confined, predictable and monotonous). Thus, boredom is good for us, providing protection from (social) disease and harm.
A better definition of boredom is “a social emotion of mild disgust produced by a temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstance”. This would explain the link between boredom and the reward system of the brain, caused by a lack of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain.
The reason that boredom is a universal experience and beneficial to our lives is that is providing an important service in promoting social health. We may want to avoid it, but the experience is a useful prompt. The best advice I can offer to those feeling bored is to walk away from the situation provoking it.
Emotions and Life: Perspectives from Psychology, Biology, and Evolution by Robert Plutchik
The Book of Human Emotions: an encyclopedia of feeling from anger to wanderlust by Tiffany Watt Smith
Boredom: A lively history by Peter Toohey
The Anatomy of Disgust by Ian Miller