According to the great proto-existentialist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, the life of a human or other beast “swings like a pendulum back and forth between pain and boredom”. Indeed, pain (or want) and boredom are the two main constituents of existence, and not only during the lockdown phase of a pandemic – a thought that might (or might not) afford some gloomy relief to many right now.
Schopenhauer was arguably the first western philosopher to take boredom seriously as one of the primary miseries of humankind, defining it lucidly as “a tame longing without any particular object”. Boredom was, moreover, more likely to afflict the more intelligent person, unfortunately for geniuses such as himself.
His successor Friedrich Nietzsche agreed, adding that boredom was the fundamental reason for a host of regrettable phenomena, including the self-denying practices of holy ascetics (who chose the refusal of pleasure as “their chief tool in the fight with their enduring pain and boredom”), and even the creation of humans by God, who needed something to distract himself from his divine, cosmic ennui.
On the other hand, Nietzsche pointed out that boredom is not all bad. “He who fortifies himself completely against boredom fortifies himself against himself too,” he wrote. “He will never drink the most powerful elixir from his own innermost spring.” Indeed, boredom could be a spur to creativity: “For the thinker and for all inventive spirits boredom is the unpleasant calm of the soul which precedes the happy voyage and the dancing breezes.” If one were never bored, perhaps, one would never bother to write such brilliant books.
This is one of those occasions, not so rare as generally imagined, when the philosophers did, after all, get it right the first time, before the scientists came along to see what was what. That conclusion is richly endorsed by this highly interesting and suggestive book on the analysis of boredom from a strictly psychological perspective.
One experiment found that captive mink in unexciting environments get bored (as distinct from depressed or apathetic). Another found that people would give themselves painful electric shocks to avoid boredom. Boredom in humans can be induced either by too little information or by too much (as in a baffling high-level lecture on a subject one knows nothing about). Those with a weaker faculty of attention, too, get bored more easily, as do those who are more sensation-seeking. People in middle age are less likely to be bored than teenagers and older people. It is even suggested that men are more boredom-prone than women, though not considered here is the possibility that women just don’t have as much time to get bored in.
Our guides’ careful analysis leads to a detailed conception of boredom as a combination of being mentally unengaged, and wanting to engage with something, yet being unable to – what they call “a failure to launch”. It seems that some people experience this more often than others: those blessed with a strong sense of “intrinsic motivation”, who pursue projects for their own sake – whether it be extreme rock-climbing or learning a musical instrument – might be less prone to boredom, or might just be better at learning from its early signals. But others will experience boredom more often if they generally lack a feeling of agency and satisfaction in their lives: such factors can’t be remedied by simply telling them that only boring people get bored.
But despite the rhetoric of peril – many factors are described as causing a person to be “at risk of boredom”, and higher levels of boredom have been associated with poor impulse control and addiction – the authors also argue, following Nietzsche, that “it is actually beneficial to have the capacity to be bored”. Boredom might, after all, be a “spur to creativity”, they say, citing a story about one of Jimi Hendrix’s first solo appearances. An audience member asked where he had been hiding this volcanic musical style, and Hendrix responded that he’d been touring as a sideman with other bands and “I got bored shitless. I didn’t hear any guitar players doing anything new and I was bored out of my mind.”
This is a cool story, but it’s arguable whether what Hendrix was experiencing as a session player was really “boredom” as the present book defines it, or simply a mixture of dissatisfaction and creative ambition. Because true boredom, our authors argue, is precisely the state in which you want to do something interesting (such as play some amazing guitar licks), but somehow you just can’t.
Even so, the authors argue that boredom must be useful somehow, working from an implicit evolutionary-psychology assumption that any part of our psychological make-up must have somehow helped our ancestors survive and have more children in the deep past. So evolution, they suppose, must have built into us a desire to use our cognitive capacities well, and boredom is the adaptive signal that we aren’t doing so. They also tell one of those evo-psych just-so stories: imagine if our ancestors had never been bored while sitting around the campfire munching on buffalo meat! They would never have striven to create civilisation!
There is no doubt some kernel of truth in this, though it doesn’t help us modern humans, who are more perverse than captive mink and probably than early homo sapiens, and so can be bored even while facing a huge menu of possible stimulation, as we all know from those times spent scrolling through Netflix without being able to decide to watch anything in particular. And in fact the most intriguing, and gently polemical, strand of this book is the suggestion that, perhaps, boredom is a larger and far more serious problem in modern society than we think.
The writers identify boredom as a driving force behind tribalism and xenophobia. Did boredom, after all, lead to Brexit?
It might have, for example, profound political implications. People who are more prone to boredom, the authors report, are more likely to be narcissistic or hostile, and “some forms of aggression could be viewed as attempts to redress the lack of meaning that is associated with boredom”. So they identify boredom – in its existential mode as a sense of the meaninglessness of life – as one possible driving force behind tribalism and xenophobia. Did boredom, after all, lead to Brexit? Certainly one plausible hypothesis for why so many people voted for Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, I’d suggest, is that voters were profoundly bored with a world in which nothing very important ever seemed to happen, so why not vote for a leader who would at least be entertaining? The events of this year, of course, illustrate at least one problem with that reasoning.
It’s easy to think of smartphones and social media, meanwhile, as handy alleviators of boredom, but the truth might be more disturbing. The authors of this book argue persuasively that consumption of social media is a maladaptive response to boredom, as indeed Schopenhauer himself would have recognised. “This is the true source of boredom – a continual panting after excitement, in order to have a pretext for giving the mind and spirits something to occupy them,” he wrote. “The kind of things people choose for this purpose shows that they are not very particular, as witness the miserable pastimes they have recourse to, and their ideas of social pleasure and conversation.” It is not difficult to imagine what Schopenhauer might have made of Twitter.
It is possible, however, to make a much stronger argument. We know that social media has been deliberately engineered to be addictive, its infinite distractions packaged in the psychological model of “intermittent reward”: sometimes you get new stuff or likes, sometimes not. It’s also obvious that postmodern consumerism carpet-bombs us with too many meaningless alternatives, leading to the well-known phenomenon of choice paralysis: according to one celebrated study, the more varieties of jam there are to choose from, the less likely it is that you will actually buy any jam.
Given these facts, it is all too plausible that, via such mechanisms, the modern world deliberately manufactures mass boredom in order to profit from it. What if our psychologist authors’ idea of a healthy response to boredom – to find something that satisfyingly engages our curiosity and our capacities – is the worst nightmare of digital marketers and, if broadly adopted, would drive down “productivity”, considered in a strictly economic sense, even further? It’s interesting to think that we might be about to find out.
• Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom is published by Harvard (RRP £22.95). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.