The Psychology & Philosophy of Boredom

bored

The modern concept of boredom goes back to the 19th century. For Erich Fromm and other thinkers, boredom is a response to industrial society, in which people are required to engage in alienated labour, and to the erosion of traditional structures of meaning.

Yet, it seems that boredom of some form is a human universal. On the walls of the ruins of Pompeii, there is Latin graffiti about boredom that dates back to the first century. And the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spoke of an affliction of monks called acedia, a state of listlessness or torpor that could have been related to melancholy. Aquinas opposed this ‘sorrow of the world’ to spiritual joy, and, revealingly, the ‘noonday demon’ came to be seen as ‘the sin that inspires all other sins’.

A definition of boredom

So what, exactly, is boredom?

Boredom is a deeply unpleasant state of ‘unmet arousal’: you are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, your arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. So whereas you want to do something stimulating, you find yourself unable to do so; and, moreover, you are frustrated by the rising awareness of your inability.

Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they get bored at all, generally have much higher thresholds for boredom. Whereas most animals dislike boredom, man, says writer Colin Wilson, is tormented by it.

In man, boredom is often brought about or aggravated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is particularly common in children and teenagers, who, in addition to being dictated to, lack the resources, experience, and discipline (the mind furnishings) to cope with boredom.

Stuck at the airport

Why is it so damned boring to be stuck in a departures lounge while your flight is increasingly delayed?

You are in a high state of arousal because you are anticipating your arrival in a novel and therefore stimulating environment.

You do have plenty of shops and newspapers, but shopping or the news is not what you are interested in at this particular time, and the shops and newspapers succeed only in dividing your attention and so promoting your boredom.

To make things worse, the situation is completely out of your control, unpredictable (the flight could be delayed further, or even cancelled), and inescapable. As you can do nothing but check and re-check the monitor, you become painfully aware of all these factors and more.

Apart from shops and newspapers, you also have alcohol, which could dull your consciousness; but at the same time you cannot afford to sleep because sleep may lead you to miss your flight. So here you are, caught between Scylla and Charybdis.

If you really need to catch the flight because your livelihood or the love of your life depends on it, you will get much less bored than if you don’t really need to go to wherever it is you are going. Thus, boredom is an inverse function of need or perceived need.

If, in addition, you don’t want to catch the flight (perhaps because you would rather be going somewhere else, or staying at home), then you will get all the more bored, and perhaps also angry.

As a result, you might develop an aversion to flying, just like the child who is bored at school might develop an aversion to learning.

Effects of boredom

So far so good. But why exactly is boredom so unpleasant?—so unpleasant that the problem is hardly ever recognized, still less addressed; so unpleasant, in fact, that I am finding it hard to write this article, over which I have procrastinated longer than usual.

For philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, boredom is evidence of the meaninglessness of life; because, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling, there could be no such thing as boredom.

So what boredom does, effectively, is to open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings.

This is the essence of the manic defence, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. (I have written on the manic defence on this blog.)

Boredom is so unpleasant that we expend considerable resources on preventing or reducing it. The value of the global entertainment industry is poised to top $2 trillion in 2016, and entertainers such as singers, actors, and football players are accorded impiously high levels of pay and social status.

The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but, paradoxically, this has only made things worse, in part, by removing us even more from reality. Instead of being satiated, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation: ever more war, ever more gore, and hardcore.

If we cannot escape boredom by engaging in intentional activity, we escape it through daydreaming or sleeping.

People who are prone to boredom are also prone to mental disorders such as depression, overeating, substance misuse and dependence, and gambling. And they often prefer pain to boredom—not only suffering pain, but inflicting it as well. For them, the choice is simply one of boredom and pain, a choice between pain and pain.

Benefits of boredom

Yet boredom can also be your way of telling yourself that you’re not spending your time as well as you could, that you should rather be doing something else, something more enjoyable or more useful, or more important and fulfilling.

And so boredom can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities. Most of our achievements, of man’s achievements, are born out of the dread of boredom.

Indeed, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who spent time in prison, intimated that prison is in fact the ideal setting for a creative person. For Russell,

A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Dealing with boredom

There are many ways of reducing the propensity to boredom.

If boredom is an awareness of unmet arousal, you can minimize boredom by avoiding situations over which you have no or little control, cutting out distractions, motivating yourself, expecting less, putting things into their proper perspective (realizing how lucky you really are), and so on.

But rather than fighting a constant battle against boredom, it is easier and much more productive to actually embrace it. If boredom is a window on the fundamental nature of reality, and, by extension, on the human condition, then fighting boredom amounts to pulling the curtains. Yes, the night outside is pitch black, but the stars shine all the more brightly for it.

For just these reasons, many Eastern traditions embrace and encourage boredom, seeing it as the pathway to a higher consciousness.

So instead of fighting boredom, go along with it, make something out of it; in short, be, yourself, less boring.

Schopenhauer said that boredom is but the reverse side of fascination, since both depend on being outside rather than inside a situation, and one leads to the other. So instead of being outside a situation, learn to get inside it, however hard this may be.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness, Thich Nhat Hanh advocates appending the word ‘meditation’ to whatever activity it is that you find boring, for example, ‘waiting in an airport—meditation’.

Developed by British psychiatrist Russell Razzaque, Mindful Moment Training is a free online resource that aims to reconnect you with the real you.

In the words of Samuel Johnson,

It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.

The Psychology of Music in Restaurants

music

In my experience, most restaurants play the wrong sort of music. While a lot of thought may have been given to the menu, the wine list, and the service, none whatsoever has been given to the music.

Are restaurateurs missing a big trick?

First, what is the function of music in a restaurant? There are several possible functions: in particular, to accompany and enhance the food; to create ambiance and atmosphere; to influence menu choices; and, by making people eat faster, to increase table turnover.

It stands to reason that different types of restaurant should play different kinds of music, or perhaps even none at all.

Finer restaurants ought to play discrete instrumental music that accompanies and enhances the food, rather than distracts from it or from the diners’ conversations. Indeed, there is mounting evidence that music strongly influences our perception of food and wine. For example, according to research from the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford, people associate higher notes, flutes, and tinkling piano with sweetness; and deeper, more resonant notes with bitterness. Still, some of the finest restaurants do not play any music at all, reasoning—in my opinion, correctly—that, when the food is truly great, any extraneous stimulus can only detract from it. The music does an injustice to the food, and the food to the music.

At the other end of the scale, a restaurant that places profit above dining experience often plays loud music with a fast tempo that subconsciously puts diners under pressure to eat more quickly, even if that means that they are less able to enjoy their meal. But caveat emptor: such music also suppresses appetite, leading to less food and, in particular, less drink being consumed. Appetite is in part a function of the parasympathetic nervous system. Loud, fast music activates the sympathetic nervous system (the ‘fight-or-flight’ response), which opposes the parasympathetic system and thereby diminishes appetite. That, in a nutshell, is why you don’t suddenly feel a tinge of hunger while being chased up a tree by a lion.

Music can detract not only from the food and wine, but also from conversations, mood, thoughts, and emotions. This is what most often ruins the dining experience for me. I usually go out as much for the food and wine as for the conversation, and often enjoy lengthy, involved, and intimate conversations. Any music that is so loud as to oblige me to strain my voice discourages such conversations. Moreover, music with lyrics attached imposes the singer’s thoughts and emotions upon me. These thoughts and emotions are often banal or incongruous, and prevent me from feeling or evolving my own. Why on earth should I care about the love life of some forlorn stranger? It is very telling, I think, that, in general, we do not play music when eating at home.

On the other hand, there are some people who have nothing or little to say to each other. For such people, the music can, at least to some extent, carpet over the silence and relieve the pressure of having to make conversation. (There are also people with so little between their ears that you really do need something with which to fill up the space.) Ideally, a restaurant with any sort of culinary pretensions ought to have a silent area or room, and, whenever possible, give diners the choice between silence and discrete instrumental music.

Lastly, restaurateurs need to be aware that the perceived volume of the music varies according to the number of people and amount of background noise in the restaurant, and that both can change significantly in the course of an evening. With only few diners to absorb and drown it, the music comes across as louder, and so the volume needs to be turned down.

The Psychology of Language

obama

Rhetoric may seem abstract and old-fashioned until you realize that all your favorite rhymes and tunes and lines depend on it.

Have you ever asked yourself why Obama is so rousing at a rally? It’s because he’s mugged up on his rhetoric, that’s why—especially on epistrophe, which is the basis of his ‘Yes we can’ shtick.

A few years back, I wrote a long and rather disorganized Glossary of Rhetorical Devices. Today I wanted to rationalize that list, first, to give me a better understanding of the psychology of language, and, second, so that I might have all the power of language at my fingertips—which, looking at where it got Obama, is quite a lot of power.

And so I managed to classify what I consider (and what others consider) to be the most effective rhetorical devices into just eight groups: sound repetition, word repetition, idea or structure repetition, unusual structure, language games, opposition and contradiction, circumlocution, and imagery.

I’m going to take you through these eight groups and explain how each one works.

1. Sound repetition

The repetition of a sound or sounds can produce a pleasing sense of harmony. It can also subtly link or emphasize important words or ideas. There are two major forms of sound repetition: consonance and alliteration.

Consonance is the repetition of the same consonant sound, as in, for example,

Rap rejects my tape deck, ejects projectile/ Whether Jew or gentile I rank top percentile (Fugees)

Alliteration is a type of consonance involving the same consonant sound at the beginning of each word or stressed syllable. Sibilance is a form of consonance involving the repetition of sibilant sounds such as /s/ and /sh/. Sibilance is calming and sensual, whereas alliteration on a hard sound produces an entirely different effect.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain… (Edgar Allen Poe)

Resonance, in contrast, refers to richness or variety of sounds in a line or passage.

Created half to rise, and half to fall; Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all; Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: The glory, jest, and riddle of the world! (Alexander Pope)

2. Word repetition

Word repetition can create alliteration, rhythm or continuity, emphasis, connection, progression, and circularity.

Words can be repeated in several ways.

Most obviously, a word can be repeated in immediate succession (epizeuxis), as in, for example,

O dark, dark, dark, amid the blaze of noon…

Or it can be repeated after one or two intervening words (diacope) or at the beginning and end of a clause or line (epanalepsis).

Bond, James Bond.

The king is dead, long live the king!

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou my Romeo?

Or it can be carried across from one clause or line to the next, with the word that ends one clause or line beginning the next (anadiplosis). This brings out key ideas and their connection, lending the proposition something like the strength and inevitability of hard logic.

We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us. (Romans 5:3)

A word can also be repeated, but with a change of meaning, either a subtle, ambiguous change (ploce) or a more obvious grammatical change (polyptoton). Ploce emphasizes a contrast by playing on ambiguity, while polyptoton suggests both a connection and a difference. In the following sentence, ‘Love is not love’ is an example of ploce, while ‘alter’ and ‘alteration’ and ‘remover’ and ‘remove’ are examples of polyptoton.

Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds, Or bends with the remover to remove. (Shakespeare)

As well as single words, groups of words can be repeated, either at the beginning of successive clauses or lines (anaphora), or at the end of successive clauses or lines (epiphora).

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways Of my own mind… (Francis Thompson)

There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is no Northern problem. There is only an American problem. (Lyndon B. Johnson)

If you really want to be flare, you can combine anaphora and epiphora (symploce).

When there is talk of hatred, let us stand up and talk against it. When there is talk of violence, let us stand up and talk against it. (Bill Clinton)

In this particular example, the repetition conveys determination, resolve, and togetherness.

3. Idea or structure repetition

The repetition of an idea or structure can, if used correctly, add richness and resonance to expression. It can also add emphasis; create order, rhythm, and progression; and conjure up a total concept.

Let’s start with tautology, which is the repetition of the same idea in a line.

With malice toward none, with charity for all.

Pleonasm is a type of tautology involving the use of more words than is necessary for clear expression.

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.

The latter example is a combination of pleonasm and parallelism. Parallelism involves using a similar syntactical structure in a pair or series of related words, clauses, or lines. Three parallel words, clauses, or lines is a tricolon, which is a particularly effective type of isocolon.

Blood, sweat, and tears.

Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

An effective method of emphasizing structural parallels is through a structural reversal (chiasmus).

By the day the frolic, and the dance by night.

But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first.

Do not give what is holy unto dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they (the pigs) trample them under their feet, and (the dogs) turn and tear you to pieces.

4. Unusual structure

An unusual structure draws attention and can also create a shift in emphasis.

Hyperbaton is the alteration of the normal order of the words in a sentence, or the separation of words that normally go together. There are several types. Anastrophe involves inversion of ordinary word order. Hypallage involves transference of attributes from their proper subjects to others. Hysteron proteron involves inversion of natural chronology.

Above the seas to stand… (anastrophe)

Angry crowns of kings… (hypallage)

Let us die, and charge into the thick of the fight. (hysteron proteron)

Zeugma is the joining of two or more parts of a sentence with a single verb (or sometimes a noun). Depending upon the position of the verb (at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end), a zeugma is either a prozeugma, mesozeugma, or hypozeugma. Here is an example of a mesozeugma.

What a shame is this, that neither hope of reward, nor feare of reproach could any thing move him, neither the persuasion of his friends, nor the love of his country. (Henry Peacham)

Syllepsis is a type of zeugma in which a single word agrees grammatically with two or more other words, but semantically with only one.

She lowered her standards by raising her glass, her courage, her eyes, and his hopes. (Flanders and Swann)

A hypozeuxis is the reverse of a zeugma, in which each subject is attached to its own verb. The following is also an example of anaphora (see above).

We shall fight on the beaches. We shall fight on the landing grounds. We shall fight in the fields, and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender! (Sir Winston Churchill)

A periodic sentence is one that is not grammatically or semantically complete before the final clause or phrase.

Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.

5. Language games

Language games such as puns and deliberate mistakes can draw attention to a phrase or idea, or simply raise a smile, by creating new and often ridiculous images and associations. They can also give rise to a vivid image, create ambiguity, and suggest sincerity and even passion.

A pun (or paronomasia) is the use of words with similar sounds, or the use of a word with different senses.

Do hotel managers get board with their jobs?

A dog gave birth to puppies near the road and was cited for littering.

She is nice from far, but far from nice.

Catachresis is the intentional misuse of a term, applying it to a thing that it does not usually denote. Similarly, synaesthesia is the attribution to a thing of a sensory quality in a modality that is not proper to it.

To take arms against a sea of troubles…

‘Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon’s purse

She smelled the way the Taj Mahal smells by moonlight.

Antitimeria is the intentional misuse of a word as if it were a member of a different word class, typically a noun for a verb.

I’ll unhair thy head.

Enallage is the intentional and effective use of incorrect grammar.

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for thy love is better than wine.

Love me tender, love me true.

6. Opposition and contradiction

Opposition and contradiction draws attention to itself, forces thought, can be humorous, and can suggest progression and completion.

An oxymoron is a juxtaposition of words which at first sight seem to be contradictory or incongruous. A paradox is similar to an oxymoron, but less compact.

Make haste slowly.

What a pity that youth must be wasted on the young.

Antiphrasis is the use of a word in a context where it means its opposite.

A giant of five foot three inches.

Antithesis is the use of a pair of opposites for contrasting effect. A series of antitheses is called a progression.

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal…

7. Periphrasis or circumlocution

Circumlocution essentially works by painting a picture, or conjuring up a complex idea, with just a few well-chosen words.

Hendiadys is the combination of two words, and hendiatris of three.

Dieu et mon droit

Sound and fury

Sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll

Lock, stock, and barrel

The latter example is also a merism, which is enumerating the parts to signify the whole. Here’s another example.

For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health.

8. Imagery

Obviously, imagery works by conjuring up a particular image.

Metonymy is the naming of a thing or concept by a thing that is closely associated with it.

Downing Street

Westminster

The White House

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Antonomasia, a type of metonymy, is the use of a word or phrase or epithet in place of a proper name.

The Divine Teacher (Plato)

The Master of Those Who Know (Aristotle)

Synedoche, which is similar to metonymy, is the naming of a thing or concept by one of its parts.

A pair of hands

Longshanks

And so that’s it: the principal elements of rhetoric arranged in just eight groups. Easy to learn, easy to understand, easy to remember, and easy to teach.

Happy writing!

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