Are You Bored Enough?

A happy new year, yeah, um, happy? From what I’ve been told, we’re unsubscribing from Jan’20, so, I hope for a good, uneven eleven-month’d year ahead. There has been a huge lapse on my end: I’ve been unable to pen down anything for the longest time. Not because I’m lacking the resources, definitely not the time―what it is, may only be described as dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction in everything that, I, as an individual of a certain age- living in the country that I live in, belonging to the state I belong to, have had to see. The ghastly past few days and the subsequent coming days, all of it seems too much to bear and I’ve decided I am not to write on it. The awareness that this entire fascist regime (or, situation) in India deserves is beyond anything I can measure, and I can’t remotely do it justice, in no specific way. My bias holds too high and is nowhere near close to being over, not anytime soon. Hence, I’ll use this as a ‘breath of fresh air,’ with how polluted the air I breathe is. In more ways than one.

While I type this, I’ve Billie crooning in my ears about how she’s so bored, and well, let’s run with it, shall we? Billie deserves her answers.

Bored? Boredom? Equivalent to disinterest? Or, is it a conditioned, negative feeling that shrouds us upon being unproductive? I’ve often felt awful after a day spent watching Netflix. But does that mean I was bored? I wouldn’t say so. But has the binge been productive? I wouldn’t say that, either. So, I go surfing, web surfing and find out what this damned concept entails.

Several authors from Pascal to Schopenhauer, from Kierkegaard to our very favourite Nietzsche, and Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky―everyone seems to have dropped a cent on this everyday phenomenon. Well, is it an everyday phenomenon all? It almost seems like the closer we get to the present day, the more destructive boredom becomes, compelling creative types—from writers and artists to rock musicians (Slash!!)—to reflect on this theme. Nevertheless, it remains a difficult psychological state to define, more so today, than ever. Kierkegaard equates boredom with the devil and defines it thus: “The demonic is that which is without content, boring.” According to Dostoevsky, boredom is “a bestial and indefinable affliction.” One of the present-day researchers, Elizabeth Goodstein, labels it “experience without qualities.”

I’m not sure I agree. I mean, she’s clearly influenced by Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. The book is simply a diagnosis of everyday life and thrives on the concept of boredom. If one were to read Lars Svendsen’s (pretty much the father of boredom, and one who serves quite a heavy read) A Philosophy of Boredom, one’ll find out that boredom is a social construction of the era that began in the middle of the 18th century. ‘Interesting’ as a concept came to light simultaneously with that of boredom. It was not up to then accepted practice to classify things as being either “boring” or “interesting.” Understandably, such a classification contrasted ‘boring’ with ‘interesting’. That which was interesting was attractive. To be interesting meant not being boring (I’d suggest you read that over a couple of times, I definitely did.).

One can definitely claim that boredom is a state of discomfort. The most common terms I can substitute it with may be uninteresting, a growth flowered by disinterest and detachment. It is often understood as a catch-all term. It may be understood in its simplicity, termed ‘simple boredom’, a product of temporarily unavoidable and predictable circumstances (being stuck in a bad date? A sad lecture? An awful movie?) as well as ‘existential boredom’ wherein underlies an unrelieved sense of isolation, emptiness, alienation and even helplessness. The main relationship between these two conditions is probably the loose use of the term ‘boredom’. Another close related concept, ‘chronic boredom’, is, one could guess, more like simple boredom, albeit not temporary. If simple boredom is the result of the circumstances we find ourselves in, chronic boredom is a symptom of a lower than normal level in the system of the neurotransmitter dopamine. The notion of chronic boredom is something that is especially the preserve of psychologists. It is measured in a famous test called the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS) that was devised in 1986 by the now-retired psychologist Norman D Sundberg. Now that you know types of boredom and how fellow psychology enthusiasts are measuring the same, do you still have an unclear picture? Because I sure do.

What of a nuanced concept such as this is so difficult to understand? In his book The Will to Meaning, Viktor Frankl recorded that contemporary man suffered from a deep sense of loss of meaning; a state that he diagnosed as “existential vacuum.” This sense of loss of meaning characterises post-traditional man who cannot make up his mind as to what he wants and what he must do, since tradition no longer dictates what is necessary. If this way is the right way, boredom appears to be the polar opposite of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously termed flow—a state of intense focus one enters whilst absorbed in an enthralling task, when one loses track of time.

Listen, if someone were to ask me to spend any more than 10 minutes by myself, with nothing else to think of, I’d go insane, and that brings me to the question: are we as a generation more or less bored than the ones who came before us? Now, every day brings a new article about how to stop the demon of lassitude, or a new invention designed to keep us from ever being at loose ends again. Come to think of it, phones got smart, and so did we, with easy access to more information and entertainment than ever before. Now, every moment one spends being bored—while riding an elevator, or waiting at the doctor’s office, or biding time until your date returns from the restroom—is a moment one doesn’t spend reading a book, skimming the news, or catching up on social media. What I may be suggesting is that, being bored in 2020, might just be a slap in the face of technology. Never again will we have nothing to do. This should be a good thing… Right?

What in the world goes on in our brains when we get bored? Not just physically, but psychologically? And pray tell, what would go on in our brains if we were to never get bored?

Researchers such as Mashuq Ally have led to a whirlwind romance between authors and the idea of boredom. It has been suggested that something super repetitive that doesn’t need one’s brain to be engaged, that’s when one ignites a network in their brain, one called the ‘default mode’. Neuroscientists have claimed that the default mode is when one does their most original thinking: problem-solving, imagination, empathy, all reside in the house of original thinking. The mind is told to be working as somewhat of a time traveling machine. One goes back and thinks of things that have already conspired and makes sense of them and then extracts lessons from them. They call it autobiographical planning. The unthinking mind-wandering that happens when one is bored takes all the information that has ever entered the brain and makes use of it in innovative ways. In other words: being bored is the difference between being good at Jeopardy! and being someone who actually uses the knowledge that one has learned to come up with solutions to fix problems (both of the personal and societal kind).

So, boredom is good!? However, boredom too, like other fruits of modernity, has its geography. Despite the fact that no one is safe against boredom, the luxury of being bored is not equally accessible to all societies and strata. And that’s just that. The amount of information we feed ourselves, in this tech driven world, is absurd. No number of hard drives could ever retain all the information I gather from Instagram, or heck, a Buzzfeed video binge. So, why wouldn’t the idea of feeding ourselves more and more information and then never actually doing anything with it seem just perfect? Isn’t that what we’ve been taught ever since we were a kid? I have an art degree and I only have my mum’s concern towards my boredom to thank for it. I mean, I could leave social media, give away my joys in boredom, all so I could self-regulate my thoughts, use the knowledge I’ve previously gained and make the most of it, but wouldn’t that make me Joe from You and I don’t reckon he was liked by many. Sketchy Joe is no good, friends.

In a culture obsessed with productivity, boredom seems like a sin, not to mention impossible when so much of the everyday stimuli we take for granted—email, ads, Instagram, Netflix, YouTube (God, I can go on, and on and on)―is bent on robbing us of our attention. But sitting back and doing nothing is, ironically, exactly what you need to do in order to get more done. We were so scared of being bored at all that we failed to appreciate the frightening repercussions of not being bored enough. And I only have Billie to thank for this insight. So, next up (on my playlist and search engine): Where do we go when we fall asleep?


Harshita Jain

Second year Psychology student from Delhi University, with a keen interest in reading anything from Archer to Rumi. Speaks in analogies, more often than not. Writes poetry and paints, when not testing people's attributes. Believes in Occam's Razor.

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