“Bored, I’m so bored,” Billie Eilish sings. “I’m so bored, so bored.”
Were he alive, Bertrand Russell would jump to his feet to applaud her.
“Boredom as a factor in human behavior has received, in my opinion, far less attention than it deserves,” he wrote in The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1970. He died the same year, though presumably not of boredom. Philosophers are likelier to be boring than to be bored, because they always have a “why” to fall back on. And artists use boredom to make their next leap. Wordsworth declared traditional poetry boring and in its stead wrote clean, lyrical ballads that the next generation would declare boring.
The rest of us, though, are so terrified of being bored that we bring it on ourselves.
“Boredom has become the disease of our time,” that great barometer known as the Reader’s Digest announced in 1976. In Boredom, Patricia Meyer Spacks describes the “twentieth century dread of the colorless, the abruptly meaningless.” In Boredom, Self, and Culture, Seán Desmond Healy tracked a steady increase through the twentieth century and called it “a growing metaphysical void at the center of Western civilization.”
We think our world-weariness modern, but it started back in the eighteenth century—when we decided we had a right to the pursuit of happiness. If you are entitled to chase something, then it must be possible to catch it. Until you do, you will be, by definition, unhappy, and you will languish, discontent with your lot.
Our ancestors would have rolled their eyes at such self-indulgence.
Indeed, it did grow stale quickly. “Always self is a tiresome subject,” apologized eighteenth-century diarist Betsy Sheridan in a letter, never dreaming what energy would be wasted on selfies and descriptions of one’s meals two centuries hence.
Surely we are not bored now, though? With democracy falling apart and natural disasters outpacing Godzilla and mass shootings at least once a month? We are. Boredom is complicated. It “reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power,” Spacks notes. Helpless in the face of all this terrible excitement, we slide into depression, pull back from a world we cannot fix, pace restlessly while we wait for whatever we are waiting for.
Boredom presents “two impossible options,” Adam Phillips observes. “There is something I desire, and there is nothing I desire.” Trained to want, we are comfortable wanting. It is almost a relief to come up with the next thing we must search for on Amazon; we are back in the swim, consuming again. Then the brown box lands on the doorstep, the tape is ripped off eagerly, and the contents, after a brief, satisfied inspection, join all the other boring stuff in the house. Thrill over.
Could it be time to reckon with Hannah Arendt’s observation that “the universal demand for happiness and the widespread unhappiness in our society…are but two sides of the same coin”?
Some see boredom in a nobler light, as frustrated creativity. The poet Richard Wilbur defines the mood as “…a dull/impatience or a fierce velleity,/A champing wish, stalled with our lassitude,/To make or do.” Philosopher William Barrett maintains that “we want to be left something to do, something to create…. In the end, it is our own creativity that we want to be reassured about.”
I am not convinced. If we were creative enough to long for something to create, we would be creative enough to part boredom’s gray curtains. The boredom we whine about now is more passive and more frightened. Like spoiled children on a rainy day, we demand to be distracted from our ennui. And the succession of distractions leaves us more bored than ever. Silence must be filled, the empty mind busied.
I am guiltier of this than anyone; I cannot stand to be bored, and as a result, I seldom leave myself enough room to dawdle, muse, or be surprised. Scanning and skimming, I find little that feels fresh. As a result, I do not fully engage, not even with my own carefully chosen amusements. If a book does not grab me immediately, I mutter, “Life’s too short,” and toss it aside. At a lull, a battle scene, a boring bit of exposition, or a commercial, I reach for my phone. The minute a question occurs to me, I google in an almost nervous haste, because I can find the answer. Would it be better, sometimes, to puzzle it out on my own? So often the canned response of the internet is advice so pedestrian I could have predicted it, and is therefore a bit…boring. But with all this access to data, I have stopped trusting myself and commissioned a glassy oblong to reassure me.
The best definition I find in my google forages? “Boredom is the failure to find meaning.”
When medieval monks felt bored (which was not yet a concept), they called it a sin: acedia. A spiritual deadness. There was no one to blame but themselves (or Satan), so they confessed and prayed back their liveliness. We, on the other hand, are connoisseurs, curators of happiness rather than holiness. We point our finger at the friend who drones on, the unoriginal Netflix series, the trite novel, the timid couture, the repetitive political rhetoric. We point anywhere but at ourselves.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.