Boredom, like poverty, will always be with us and always has.
The English word “boredom” was first published by Charles Dickens in the pages of Bleak House in 1852, when he adopted the term “to be a bore” which had been around since 1768, stretching out this personal tedious flaw till it covered a universal state of dull discontent.
While the Victorians invented much, they did not introduce boredom to the modern world, as this restless, discontented state of being had already been examined by the Greek philosophers and was even chiseled into an ancient Roman grave stone.
In Boredom: A Lively History, the author Peter Toohey reveals that in 1859, seven years after Dickens, the Latin equivalent was uncovered in Rome: “For Tanonius Marcellinus… because he rescued the population from endless boredom.” Sadly we know nothing more of Marcellinus other than this public service.
Over the centuries authors and philosophers have tried to pin boredom down like a dull, colourless butterfly. In early Christianity, monks who became bored with their ascetic lives were viewed as “despairing at the beneficence of God” when they were in fact weary of sitting in dank, cold caves. In Britain during the Renaissance, it was known as “melancholia” and became wrapped up with depression. Tolstoy described it beautifully as “the desire of desires” while in the early 20th century the philosopher Martin Heidegger dedicated 100 pages of What is metaphysics? to this human ailment, writing: “Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and one self along with it, into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals being as a whole.”
Yet it is only in the last few decades that scientists have untangled both the dangers and benefits of boredom. Modern brain scans have led scientists to believe that it may be the frontal cortex that controls boredom as if this becomes damaged patients are more susceptible to boredom and frequently exhibit risk taking to sweep it away. The frontal cortex is also linked to our measurement of time, which frequently drags if we are bored. Research has also revealed that people who are prone to boredom may have naturally lower levels of dopamine, which requires them to take more risks in order to stimulate their brains.
Anna Gosline, an American academic, argued in a paper, published in Scientific America, that a person could actually be bored to death as certain people who are chronically bored embark on reckless behaviour that can escalate with fatal consequences.
It seems we will do anything to avoid being bored. The second we board a train we whip out our iPads and phones, at home the TV accompanies many a families’ meal, while drama box sets kill those languid hours before bed. For the more cultured, they find their panacea in books and classical music.
As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, author of The Distraction Addiction, said recently: “being over-scheduled and over worked is the new status symbol”. I couldn’t agree more. Yet there is a growing belief that, by filling our lives with constant distractions, we are missing out on a range of creative and psychological benefits that come with boredom.
Artists and novelists have long believed that their best ideas or works can spring from boredom’s still, static pond. Brain scans again reveal that, even “at rest”, the brain remains incredibly active and that people will frequently unknot problems, either consciously or unconsciously, when given a period of unoccupied free time.
One of the most eloquent writers on boredom was David Foster Wallace, the late American author whose posthumous novel, The Pale King, was about boredom in a Midwestern IRS office. He wrote: “The underlying bureaucratic key is the ability to deal with boredom.
“To function effectively in an environment that precludes everything vital and human. To breathe, so to speak, without air. The key is the ability, whether innate or conditioned, to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
We shouldn’t run from boredom as if it is a tedious friend but sit down and listen to it. We might just learn something.