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People go crazy because they’re bored. Workers hate their jobs because they are bored. Partners cheat on their spouses because they are bored. The leading reason why addicts tell me they relapse is they are bored. Also, writers write, painters paint, players play, and inventors invent because, if they did not, they would be bored. Boredom can lead to everything from wasted, whiney days to searing insights and helpful inventions, from depression to mania, from a dull, laggard apathy to a determination to escape.
Boredom is such a powerful and common emotion, you would think we would understand it better, but it’s hard to study emotions, or any subjective state. Patricia Meyer Spacks came up with her own way of looking into what boredom is, what it means, and what it does. Since she’s an English professor, she looked at how the word boredom is used in literature and language.
It’s not often you see a shrink turn to a literary critic for insight into human behavior, but maybe, we should. After all, we can understand ourselves by how we use words.
In her book, Boredom: A Literary History of a State of Mind, Spacks looks into the history of the word boredom. Surprisingly, she tells us the word boredom did not exist before the nineteenth century. Its root, the verb form, to bore, dates only to the mid-eighteenth century, originally, and still, describing the persistent action of a drill on the object it is drilling. A very vivid metaphor for what it’s like to be bored.
This little known fact brings up the question, were people bored before they had the word and, presumably, the concept of boredom? What conditions had to be met before the notion could be constructed?
In the hypothetical world that lacks a concept of boredom, people would tend to accept their condition in life as given…. The world without defined boredom would not appear from the point of view of a twentieth-century observer less boring than our own…. But the hypothetical inhabitants of a world without the notion of boredom…invoke categories other than those of feeling to assess their experience. Perhaps they judge what happens around them in terms of meaning: meaning in relation to a theological order of things or to a system of family and local responsibilities. Or do they not judge at all, only take their lives for granted…. If life was never boring in premodern times, neither was it interesting, thrilling, or exciting the modern sense of these words. And one has to assume that people without such terminology didn’t need it – not necessarily because they weren’t by our standards bored, but because other categories of interpretation satisfied their understanding of their own situations. (Pg 9-10)
Whenever I’ve encountered a client who complains they’re bored, I ask them to unpack the word. Pretend the word does not exist and try to describe what’s going on. They inevitably come up with an assortment of other words for emotions: anger, frustration, sadness, etc. Or they describe a situation in which they feel powerless. A lot is jammed into the concept of boredom, so much so, that the ingredients are forgotten; much like the way you might forget you’re eating chocolate, a chewy nugget filling, and a hundred chemicals when you consume a Mars Bar. In fact the combination of those ingredients seems to result in a brand new thing. Thus boredom is more than the sum of its parts, and the word expresses a state that is more than the words, anger, sadness, frustration, and powerlessness can ever do alone.
Spacks says the concept of boredom came at a perfect time in history, at the advent of the industrial revolution. Millions were freed from the drudgery of farms to work in the drudgery of factories. It gave the people a word to describe their day. The classes of people who were at liberty to create and consume literature: wealthy gentlemen, idle ladies, and children spared from working in coal mines, discovered boredom. They didn’t have anything else to do. The word took off, much like internet neologisms do today. Suddenly, everyone was bored.
Boredom continues today, despite spastic work weeks and the profusion of entertainment options. Boredom today seldom describe a paucity of choices, rather a dry loss of spirit. It refers to a disenchantment with the world. The concept of boredom is packed with unsettling contradictions and paradoxes. Boredom enables you to simultaneously say there is something you desire, while there is nothing you desire. You desire to desire. It implies a sense of victimization and yet, at the same time, it obscures the machinery of oppression.
Boredom presents itself as a trivial emotion that can trivialize the world… it implies an embracing sense of irritation and unease. It reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power. (Pg 13)
This brings us to the second insight I found in Spacks’ book. The emergence of the concept of boredom coincided with the development of the literary novel. It’s odd that, with so many novels being published, nothing seemed novel anymore, but writing novels and reading them results in an introspective turn of mind.
Today we associate psychological introspection with freedom. Only the completely examined life is worth living. If we’re out of touch with our feelings, we say we are out of touch with ourselves. When you find yourself unhappy or in trouble, you go to a shrink who delves deep and pulls out what she finds within. Then you are cured from what ails you.
In pre-boredom, pre-novel-writing-and-novel-reading times, the opposite was the case. The people then saw feelings as things that enslaved you; tyrannical masters that destroyed everything held dear. Feelings had to be resisted at all cost. They couldn’t be trusted, and so, wouldn’t be consulted. When you identify your feelings, you forget everyone else, they said. When you give your feelings power, you make your moral self powerless. You can’t think down thoughts, said Samuel Johnson, Spacks’ representative of the old guard. Trying to do so, locks you into your own mind at the very moment when the mind most needs to fly away from itself.
When people learned to be introspective, they learned to be bored. Boredom was what they found when they looked inside. When they fought off the demands of the outside world, tamed the wilderness, explored far lands, cured diseases, solved the riddles of nature, banished superstition, and made the world safe for democracy, they had nothing left to do but contemplate their navels, and they were bored.
Where, then, does this leave us modern heirs of the invention of boredom? If you are still reading this article and have not moved on in the boundless cornucopia of the internet, then I assume you are not yet bored. I may have helped to spare you from the jaws of boredom for a little while, but you are nearing the end and boredom is again nipping at your heels. The fear of boredom will keep you going, relentlessly searching for either the next cool thing or spur you to greater insights and accomplishments. Gazelles learned to run so fast because there were lions. We have no more lions chasing us through the Serengeti, inducing us to run faster than we thought we could, but we have boredom. We can thank boredom for making us better.