I’m bored, there­fore i am

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer Luke Ryan •

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.

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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.”

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