I’m bored, therefore i am
IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN IMPULSES, BUT BOREDOM IS BECOMING AN INCREASINGLY ENDANGERED SPECIES.
WHAT'S TRULY AT STAKE IN THE WAR AGAINST BEING BORED?
IT WAS A WARM AND INTOXICATING SUMMER IN 1986 WHEN CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT, A 20-YEAR-OLD FROM
THE SMALL TOWN OF WALTHAM, MASSACHUSETTS, DECIDED TO LEAVE HOME FOR GOOD. ARMED ONLY WITH A BACKPACK OF CLOTHES AND A THIN NYLON TENT, KNIGHT DROVE A HIRE CAR DEEP INTO THE WOODS, LEFT THE KEYS IN THE CENTRE CONSOLE AND THEN SEEMINGLY WALKED RIGHT OUT OF EXISTENCE. NO NOTE, NO WARNING, NO TRACE. HIS FAMILY AND EVERYONE WHO KNEW HIM ASSUMED HE WAS DEAD.
Until, that is, the morning of April 4, 2013, when the same Christopher Knight was caught stealing food from a nearby house. When asked why his speech was slurred, Knight explained that the officer who arrested him was the first person he’d spoken to in 27 years. For that entire time he had simply been alone in the forest, a solitary adventurer discovering what mysteries lay on the other side of boredom. “I lost my identity,” Knight would later tell the journalist Michael Finkel. “With no audience, no one to perform for, I was just there. There was no need to define myself; I became irrelevant. The moon was the minute hand, the seasons the hour hand. I didn’t even have a name. I never felt lonely. To put it romantically: I was completely free.”
There was a time when experiences like Knight’s were, if not commonplace, at least not unheard-of. A time when people felt the pull of boredom and leaned into it, in the hope they’d emerge on the other side. The 2010s are not that time. We are, to put it mildly, at an interesting point in our relationship with ennui. “We’re certainly less bored than all the people who came before us, just because we have so many options presented to us day after day,” says Mary Mann, author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom. “To paraphrase the philosopher Bertrand Russell, while we might find ourselves in the position of being bored less often, we are far more scared of it.”
Our new post-boredom society is not merely an academic concern. For as long as people have roamed the earth they have been infected and animated by a sense of boredom. That uneasy stirring, the glimmers of anxiety and creeping lassitude – these are the symptoms of a distinctly human phenomenon, an impulse that has led us out of the caves and into the gleaming megacities of the 21st century. While other animals can exhibit a sense of boredom, it is only humans who transform it into change, exploration, creativity and violence.
Mann’s fascination with the topic grew out of her own tendency to boredom. “There’s this thing called the Boredom Proneness Scale,” she explains, “which was developed by some researchers in the 1980s. I score pretty high on that.” Over time, Mann started to look critically at why this “innocuous, frankly dumb thing has so much power over us.” Her research led her all over the globe, discovering the stories of hermits, refugees, prisoners, couples, tourists and soldiers, all united by their sense of existential torpor and defined by their desire to escape it. Different tactics arise in different circumstances. “Cuba does a lot of tobacco rolling, and it’s really tedious but delicate work,” Mann says. “You have to remain focused. So, the unions mandated that during shifts there needed to be someone there to read books to the tobacco rollers. I love that stuff.”
Serious interest in boredom is a relatively recent phenomenon. “In English, the word ‘bored’ didn’t even exist until right around the time of the Industrial Revolution,” Mann says. “That’s when you had a large group of people who weren’t able to make choices suddenly making choices.” Before then, if you were born a potato farmer, you’d probably remain a potato farmer, on the same piece of potato-growing land, for your entire life. Boredom, when it was considered, was inextricably tied up with questions of sloth and sinfulness. “Some of the earliest writing we have about boredom before it was called boredom was from monks who were seeking transcendence in isolation. To them, boredom was acedia, a demon that sought to pull them from their heavenly devotions. In earlier versions of the Bible, acedia is in there alongside sloth, as one of humanity’s primary sins.”
TO EARLY MONKS, BOREDOM WAS A DEMON PULLING THEM FROM THEIR HEAVENLY DEVOTIONS. THESE DAYS OUR UNDERSTANDING IS A LITTLE MORE NUANCED.
These days our understanding of the phenomenon is a little more nuanced. Researchers in Germany have identified five different types of boredom, ranging from most to least tolerable: indifferent, calibrating, searching, apathetic and reactant. When you are indifferently bored, you’re almost pleasantly understimulated; when you’re reactively bored, you’re so stupefied by your situation that you’ll do something – anything – to make it more exciting. Mann cites the work of Wijnand van Tilburg, a social psychologist at King’s College London, who argues that boredom is a signal that makes you aware you’re feeling a lack of purpose in your current situation. “Boredom is a little push to make you do something else, because it is uncomfortable.”
Part of what makes boredom so interesting is that it produces such a broad range of responses in the people experiencing it. The link between boredom and creativity in particular is well understood, both anecdotally and experientially. In one 2014 study, people who took time away from a creative task to engage in a menial activity returned with a far higher creative drive. “Some people find it very useful to be bored,” Mann says. “An actress I spoke with told me she does her best work when she’s done 40 takes of the same scene, and she’s just so desperate for something different that she gets out of her own way.”
Thankfully, boredom’s connection to our sense of purpose means that we often respond to it in positive ways. Research conducted by van Tilburg showed that rather than simply prodding us to hedonic extremes – violence, thrill seeking, intoxication – boredom was equally likely to produce “prosocial” responses, such as giving blood or reaching out to old friends and family. “Boredom makes people long for different and purposeful activities, and as a result they turn towards what they perceive to be really meaningful in life,” he concluded.
Yet by the same token, boredom can be one of our greatest psychological scourges, a feeling so unpleasant that in one study 67 per cent of the men involved preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. (Interestingly, the rate for women was just 25 per cent). It should perhaps be no surprise that our responses to boredom would be so masculinised. History is nothing if not replete with stories of disaffected young men ruining themselves and others in their pursuit of pleasure and novelty. Violence and revolution go hand in hand with underemployment and stagnation.
To Mann, this is a phenomenon that’s only going to become worse as technology breaks down the last remaining barriers between the world’s rich and poor. She mentions Martin Frederiksen, an ethnographer who spent years studying the lives of unemployed young men in the Republic of Georgia. “These guys were always talking to him in comparative terms: ‘ They’re doing this over there, why can’t we do that here?’ I think that’s why there’s a connection between boredom and violence. It’s this frustration of knowing there are interesting things out there, but none of them are available to you.”
Of course, overstimulation can produce its own listlessness, one that manifests in epidemic rates of anxiety and depression. “Boredom is a challenge,” Mann says, and being challenged is often good for us. “But we’re in a transition now. Watch people commuting and you’ll see the focus they direct to their phones, or the instant, almost violent frustration when their Wi-Fi isn’t working. We have so much anxiety when stimulation is lost for even a second. It’s scary.”
It’s humbling to think of how unrecognisable the world of today must be to the one that Christopher Knight departed three decades ago. It’s a world that has indulged and exaggerated all those aspects of society he once fled: the press of humanity, the ever-accelerating need to stimulate and to share our drive for novelty with others. “There isn’t nearly enough nothing in the world anymore,” he told Finkel. “What I miss most is somewhere between quiet and solitude. What I miss most is stillness.”
Living in the wilderness and stealing food to survive is one way to find a little stillness. But going full-Robinson Crusoe isn’t the only solution. Perhaps we need only ask ourselves what we have lost in our haste to drive boredom from our lives, and what we might gain by inviting just a bit of it back in. To turn again to Bertrand Russell: “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”