In Praise of Boredom

The windless claim of the dream bird of experience

28 JANUARY 2017,
Joseph Ducreux’s, 1783 - Self-Portrait, Yawning (detail)
Joseph Ducreux’s, 1783 - Self-Portrait, Yawning (detail)

If you are similar to me, you might be starting this article with a feeling of optimism that defies countless experiences. After your curiosity was sparked by the image of the French painter Joseph Ducreux’s 1783 Self-Portrait, Yawning or the peculiar title, you clicked on this piece hoping it would pass a few empty moments on the train or waiting for a bus or before you have begun more important tasks. By about half way through this paragraph, however, a subtle sensation of weariness might be intruding. ‘I really must get back to those work emails’ you start thinking. You briefly wonder what your friends have posted on social media. And that other article on Tibetan weaving or trail-biking in the Andes is beginning to look more appealing. By now, you might be have gone. Or, if you are persisting you might be battling a mounting sense of ennui or irritation, half-reading the article and half-thinking about something else. This piece has succeeded in boring you already. While boredom is not exclusive to the twenty-first century, the increased claims now being made on our attention may be impairing our ability to pursue meaningful goals.

In many ways, boredom is a byproduct of modern capitalism. The first usage of the word ‘bore’ in English was in 1763—in the early days of the Industrial Revolution. Increased comfort, the emergence of luxury items and leisure pursuits, alongside the greater diversity of people might meet in growing cities, created the unprecedented and perhaps self-defeating expectation that life should be amusing. Industrialization also meant that work became more strenuous and repetitive, creating a greater contrast between moments of excitement and long periods of arduous tedium. In earlier times, it is probable that people felt less bored partly because routine tasks were more interesting and partly people were so seldom entertained. The first mention of ‘boredom’ itself comes in 1852, with the serial publication of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-3). In this novel, Dickens slyly satirizes boredom as a self-created illness—a ‘chronic malady’. Dickens describes the minor character Volumnia as ‘one of those sprightly girls who cannot long continue silent without imminent peril of seizure by the dragon Boredom, soon indicates the approach of that monster with a series of undisguisable yawns’. By caricaturing this minor ailment as both perilous disease and baneful behemoth, Dickens mocks boredom as a sign of immaturity.

Perhaps surprisingly, and in contract with Dickens’ mocking treatment, the topic of boredom has captivated many modern intellectuals. The twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger dedicated over one hundred pages of What is Metaphysics? (1953) to boredom. In his view, the boredom we feel when we wait for a train stems ultimately from a bigger fear that life might be meaningless. The twentieth-century Romanian essayist Emil M. Cioran suggested that boredom could be the crucial motivator of social and political development, asking ‘Isn’t history ultimately the result of our fear of boredom?’. We might ponder how many wars might have been avoided had human beings been better able to endure ennui. And the contemporary British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has argued that we should accept boredom as an essential element of childhood, asserting that ‘It is one of the most oppressive demands of adults that the child should be interested, rather than take time to find what interests him. Boredom is integral to the process of taking one’s time’. For each of these figures, boredom has an intrinsic value: as a means of revelation; a catalyst for change; and a liberating reminder of the value of taking your time.

Indeed, the subject of boredom occupies a central place in the thought of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. While many people might pride themselves that they are ‘never bored’ because they find their life extremely stimulating, Kierkegaard instead makes the essentially accurate observation that ‘those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves generally entertain others’. A person with an air of dissatisfaction about the stultifying drabness of the everyday tends to be more compelling company than someone who refuses to recognize the essential banality of existence.

However, Kierkegaard remained critical of people who tried to evade boredom. For him. boredom was a necessary result of the existential despair created by our desperate search for enjoyment. While any activity—from blowing bubbles to attending a baseball game; riding a roller-coaster to reading a trashy novel—might be exciting at first, the more we repeat it the less interesting it becomes. A single bungee-jump might be fun, yet imagine if your job was to bungee-jump in the same location again and again eight hours a day five days a week. How long do you think it would take before you became sick of it? If we seek a different activity to relieve our boredom, we may be enthralled again for a short while, but we will ultimately become bored again, as this activity likewise becomes redundant through repetition. Kierkegaard argued that the only way to escape this trap was to make a commitment to a particular way of life—to decide become a veterinarian or opt to train for a marathon or start to live as a hermit. Such commitments involve a large degree of boredom—since we will inevitably have to do something again and again—but such boredom will be easier to tolerate because our activity has a clear purpose. As a result of these commitments, we may even become more boring people but ultimately we will be more satisfied because our lives will have greater depth. According to Kierkegaard, our desire to avoid boredom is a sign that we are not living life in a sufficiently meaningful fashion.

Other thinkers have gone further and argued that boredom is a state of mind to be embraced. The nineteenth-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche claimed that valuing and enduring boredom is a sign of a special sensibility:

For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable ‘windless claim’ for the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its effects on them. Precisely this is what lesser natures cannot achieve by any means.

Nietzsche asserted that boredom has a special value because it provokes us to engage in creative thinking and prompts new projects. In a similar manner, the German theorist Walter Benjamin opined that ‘Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience’. In his view, boredom is beneficial because it gives us space for mental relaxation, thereby enabling us to develop more fully our ideas and experiences.

To my mind, such writers’ celebration of boredom underscores our increasing lack of resistance to tedium in the contemporary age. Boredom stimulates us to make meaningful changes to our lives. Boredom forces us to find creative solutions to its alleviation. And boredom slows us down, enabling us to bring long-term projects to fruition. Great thinkers show us that, rather than pursue the next thrill via the click of the mouse or smartphone-swipe, the new person or experience, we should view boredom as a spur to personal development.