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.

Shadows of Schopenhauer

Arthur_Schopenhauer_Portrait_by_Ludwig_Sigismund_Ruhl_1815

In his masterwork, The World as Will and Representation (1818), which is heavily influenced by Kant, Plato, and the Vedas, Schopenhauer begins by drawing a distinction between the world of appearances, or ‘representation’, and the world as it actually is.

The world as representation
The world of appearances is the world that we perceive through our senses, and it is governed by certain structures, notably, space, time, and causality. It is our experiencing selves that impose these structures onto the world of appearances, and it is through these structures that we apprehend the individual material things that make up the world as we know it. Thus, the world as it appears to us is a product of the kind of organism that we are. Moreover, individual material things depend on us for their order and existence; without us, they simply would not exist as such. Although our bodies are objects in the world of appearances, we ourselves are somehow outside this world and so beyond knowledge. The experiencing subject, says Schopenhauer, knows all things and yet is known by none. It is like the eye that sees everything but cannot see itself.

The world as will
Beneath or beyond the world of representation is the world as it actually is. Now here things get much more interesting. The world-in-itself is the world of will, a fundamentally blind process of striving for survival and reproduction. The whole world is a manifestation of will, including the human body: the genitals are objectified sexual impulse, the mouth and digestive tract are objectified hunger, and so on. Everything about us, including even our higher, cognitive faculties, have evolved for no other purpose than to help us meet the demands of will. Although able to perceive, judge, and reason, our intellect is not designed to pierce through the veil of mâyâ (or illusion) and apprehend the true nature of reality. Instead, it and we are driven by blind will into a life of inevitable frustration, strife, and pain.

Awakened to life out of the night of unconsciousness, the will finds itself an individual, in an endless and boundless world, among innumerable individuals, all striving, suffering, erring; and as if through a troubled dream it hurries back to its old unconsciousness. Yet till then its desires are limitless, its claims inexhaustible, and every satisfied desire gives rise to a new one. No possible satisfaction in the world could suffice to still its longings, set a goal to its infinite cravings, and fill the bottomless abyss of its heart. Then let one consider what as a rule are the satisfactions of any kind that a man obtains. For the most part nothing more than the bare maintenance of this existence itself, extorted day by day with unceasing trouble and constant care in the conflict with want, and with death in prospect…

The unconscious
Our intellect is like a lame man who can see, riding on the shoulders of a blind giant. Schopenhauer anticipates Freud by effectively equating the blind giant of will to our unconscious drives and fears, of which our conscious intellect may not be entirely or even mostly cognizant. For instance, the most powerful manifestation of will is the impulse for sex. Schopenhauer says that it is the will-to-life of the yet unconceived offspring that draws man and woman together in a delusion of lust and love. But with the task accomplished, their shared delusion fades away and they return to their ‘original narrowness and neediness’. Despite what we may tell ourselves, it is blind will that takes charge of our destiny, while our intellect remains largely ignorant of its workings, and is only employed, if at all, to help us justify and come to terms with its dictates.

We often don’t know what we desire or fear. For years we can have a desire without admitting it to ourselves or even letting it come to clear consciousness, because the intellect is not to know anything about it, since the good opinion we have of ourselves would inevitably suffer thereby. But if the wish is fulfilled, we get to know from our joy, not without a feeling of shame, that this is what we desired.

Aesthetic contemplation and genius
So long as we are enthralled to the will, we can know no peace or happiness. One way of disengaging the will is through aesthetic contemplation, when we adopt a disinterested attitude that enables us to consider things free from their or our relation to the will. Through aesthetic contemplation, we can glimpse at the timeless reality of things, not as the individual material things that they are but as the universals or essences that they represent. Genius is nothing but the ability of the perceiver to disengage from the will and, as it were, merge with what he perceives (I say ‘he’ because, according to Schopenhauer, a woman cannot be a genius). Unlike people of mere talent, the genius lives outside the strictures of time and place, and marries insight with imagination to create works of art that in some sense embody and reveal his higher knowledge. Thus, aesthetic contemplation serves both to release us from the tyranny of the will and to enable us to acquire and enjoy a higher knowledge. Schopenhauer speaks highly in particular of tragedy, which, through the enacting of suffering and resignation, brings out both the problem of life and its solution. Music, he says, is ‘a copy of the will itself’, with the progression of musical notes—especially the melody on top—mirroring the progress of our own inner strivings. Music replicates the structures of emotions without however furnishing their contents, enabling us to feel the emotions without feeling or fearing the pain that they are normally associated with.

Compassion
While we have the freedom to do what we will, we do not have the freedom to will what we will, and so, in effect, our actions are determined. Yet we somehow feel responsible for our actions, indicating that there is an aspect of us that lies beyond the world as representation and that escapes deterministic causal necessity. Our character is inborn and constant, and manifested through our actions over time. Three fundamental forces drive our actions: compassion, malice, and egoism, with egoism most commonly in the driving seat. Yet, some people are brimming with compassion, the existence of which, Schopenhauer tells us, is ‘a mystery’. Compassionate people not only make the world more bearable for others, but also exist in a higher plane. This is because they tend to see other people less as other objects in the world and more as other selves, and so are closer to apprehending the unity and indivisibility of reality—piercing through the veil of mâyâ to the Vedantic principle that tat tvam asi (‘that art thou’).

Pessimism and renunciation
The will is the cause of constant suffering, creating deficiencies for us to satisfy. On this account, satisfaction or happiness is not a positive state but merely the removal of striving and suffering. Once a deficiency is satisfied, another inevitably arises, and, with it, more striving and suffering; even if satisfaction can be sustained for a short while, this only leads to boredom. All considered, says Schopenhauer, it would have been better for us and the world never to have existed. The only way out of this predicament is to reach the realization that our individuality and the world of appearances are illusions, renounce those illusions, and welcome the eventual release of death—which, since reality is outside of time, is itself an illusion. A man who has found this nirvana (‘blown out’, as in a candle) is either a saint or has suffered so intensely or for so long that his will has been broken. Freed from willing, he is left as a pure knowing being, ‘the undimmed mirror of the world’, and marked out from other men by his calm confidence, his insight, and his compassion. And this, for Schopenhauer, is as good as it’s ever going to get.

How Can We Tell When We Are Deceiving Ourselves?

masks

Last week, I received a question from one of my readers.

“Just a quick question: I’ve gotten a bit confused about your posts considering self-deception. Are ordinary things like seeing the bright side of bad things, a silver lining or an opportunity in misfortune just feeble rationalizations in order for us to live in a comfy illusion?

Your example about ‘sweet lemons’, a rejected love interest explained away as a blessing in disguise doesn’t feel to me as an illusory or self-deceptive belief. If a cancer patient is glad that they can respect life more fully after getting sick, surely they’re not just dwelling in self-deception and rationalizing away things, clinging in some mistaken belief.

Could you clear things up a little about the murky world of self-deception, for example, what is considered as a deception? It’s true that someone might for example, say that they got connected better, they’re keeping doors open, that at least they got experience and that it’s all part of life when their job interview got rejected, and this would allow them to feel better, but I’ve never considered that this would be some sort of self-deception, that they’re “wrong” in some respect.

Thanks in advance for your answer.”

My reply:

“Dear X,

That’s a very good question. How do we know when we are deceiving ourselves, rather than learning or growing from our experiences? It is in the nature of self-deception that it is very hard to distinguish from the truth—whether the internal (emotional) truth or the external truth. To a large extent, one has to develop and trust one’s instinct: what does it feel like to react in the way that I am reacting? Does it feel calm, considered, nuanced, and mature, or does it rather feel like a shallow, knee-jerk reaction? Does it take the welfare of others into account, or is it just all about me? Am I satisfied with, even proud of, my self-conquering effort, or do I instead feel angry or anxious or gratuitously and inappropriately elated?

Second, self-deception does not ‘add up’ in the grand scheme of things, and can easily be brought down by even superficial questioning. As with a jigsaw, try and look at the bigger picture and see how the thought or reaction fits in. Did I react from a position of vulnerability or a position of strength? Am I being fair (or just) to myself and others? What would the person I respect the most think? Talk to other people and garner their opinions. If they disagree with you, does that make you feel angry or upset i.e. even more defensive? The degree of coherence, or lack thereof, of a reaction can in itself give us a clue as to its real nature.

Third, truth is adaptive whereas lies are destructive. So how useful is my thought or reaction going to be? Is it just covering up an irrational fear that I have always been unable to face, or is it a solid foundation upon which to build a secure and reliable future? Is it going to help me fulfill my highest potential as a human being, or is it depriving me of opportunities for growth and going to cause me even more problems down the line? Is the cycle going to repeat itself, or will I, so to speak, escape the circle of eternal rebirth?

I hope this goes some way to answering your question.

With best wishes,

Neel”

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