What Does Boredom Do to Us—and for Us?
Why Boredom Is Anything but Boring
From what I hear, you’re all pandemically bored, right? I have no suggestions of what to do about that but Google uncovers 7,860,000 answers. My thoughts about boredom may or may not make you feel better. After all, it’s our common fate. We’re all in this together, as the Democrats continue to remind us.
Isolation makes some people angry. Some take up knitting or art. Some are just bored to tears. I have experienced plenty of boredom in my life, starting with early formal dinners with my parents. Most classes in high school produced long stretches of stifling tedium. In graduate school my friends and I used to entertain each other by getting drunk and reading aloud from the Oxford English Dictionary. Kids today resort to their phones during lectures.
With the pandemic I find myself sleeping a lot more. I often avoid getting up in the morning, lying in bed and letting the mind wander into frivolous paths. Avoidance of boredom often produces more boredom: watching baseball on TV, trying to get into a boring book, avoiding the exercise machine.
It’s hard to agree on what constitutes boredom. Is the capitalist system at fault? Is boredom a social construct? A built-in human response? Margaret Talbot recently wrote a wonderful anatomy of boredom, which you ought to read. She touches on the many definitions and descriptions of the complaint. Here’s one I like: “a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.”
Some think it’s inherent in the human condition. Others, like Margaret, see it as a function of how we work and live, part of the capitalist nightmare:
David Graeber, in his influential “bullshit jobs” thesis, argues that the vast expansion of administrative jobs—he cites, for example, “whole new industries,” such as financial services and telemarketing—means that “huge swathes of people, in Europe and North America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.” The result can be soul-choking misery.
The French call boredom ennui, which adds the suggestion of lassitude or languor. Baudelaire’s great poem “Au Lecteur” (To My Reader) identifies it with decadence and death, calling all of us brothers, tainted with the apathy of evil. The best book I ever read on boredom is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
There’s an old saying that most people couldn’t stand to sit alone in a room for fifteen minutes.
A while back some researchers put together what’s been called the most boring video ever.
“Other researchers have had study participants watch an instructional film about fish-farm management or copy down citations from a reference article about concrete.” Thanks, I’ll go on hanging up my laundry.
2 Replies to “Boredom, Tedium and Ennui”
I think living alone promotes boredom. If you live with others, one can always start a real or imagined disagreement. For example. “You know the USA is so screwed up right now, I think I’ll vote for Trump. After 4 more years of him it will be much easier to start from scratch to build the society we want.”
You ought to try this one out on your better half–but I bet you won’t.