Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life — it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens.
The above quote by Maria Popova comes from a post she wrote about Kierkegaard’s writings on boredom, and gets at the crux of the matter for what seems to be one ailment of the modern condition of western civilization.
She coins a term called “active idleness” that is quite fitting to the situation. We are more disconnected from nature than ever before, and ironically, more disconnected from ourselves and one another. We stare at screens all day with the hope of connecting. Meanwhile, there are those all around us, in the flesh, that we choose not to connect with given the opportunity.
We are disconnected from ourselves and our own minds. We don’t sit and think for the fear that it will be boring, and that we will miss something “important” going on the world (via our screens.). As such, we look for constant activity as a means of “entertainment”, but underlying this desire to be entertained is really a fear of being bored and alone with our thoughts. Easier to check out mentally and play Candy Crush while waiting at the doctor’s office than it is to sit and think about…anything at all.
Why is idleness important for the mind? Moments of idleness, time that used to be for thinking and contemplation, are now moments filled with screen time. These moments, which used to give our minds the exercise of making new connections and ideas, are now monopolized by pixels and electronic sound.
In examining Kierkegaard’s notion of boredom being not so much a lack of stimulation as a lack of meaning, Popova suggests this could have something to do with why in today’s culture, so many of us are “…overstimulated, but existentially bored.” So many of us are living consumerist lives which are continuously fueled and replenished by the hedonic treadmill, and part of the reason why we are in a perpetual state of mindlessness. We have so much to do, and so many things to occupy our time, but so very little meaning to any of it.
The cycle seems to play out as follows: We begin to experience the twangs of boredom and restlessness, and as a means of alleviating this feeling, we buy a new wardrobe, upgrade our cell phone, or buy a car. Depending on the size of the consumption, we are momentarily relieved of this boredom, and yet, it returns. The consuming never gets to the heart of the matter: we are existentially bored, and lacking true meaning and understanding of ourselves and our lives. The consumption is merely a false panacea that replays over and over again, until we are in mountains of debt, and ultimately, still bored.
In another post, Popova explores this further from the perspective of Bertrand Russell, who said of the subject:
A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
According to Russell, there are two types of boredom:
Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.
In other words, there is the boredom of under-stimulation (absence of drugs), and the boredom of finding no meaning in one’s activities (absence of vital activities).
We are then at once attracted to the exciting things that quell the boredom, while also being desensitized to them. Bertrand writes:
What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of excitement. A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure…There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.
In other words, the things and activities we turn to when attempting to rid boredom from our minds, ultimately lose their novelty and the very qualities which caused us to seek them out as a remedy in the first place. They become yet another meaningless activity which bores us further, causing us to then seek something else to cure us of this new boredom. And thus, the cycle continues.