Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Bored to Death?

Don’t ask me why, but Canadian psychologists are leading the charge in the new field of boredom studies. 

They are not alone, however, in having noted that boredom is bad for your health, that it can make you sick and that it can even kill you. Perhaps that is why people who work longer seem to live longer than people who retire sooner.

For one thing, boredom has serious consequences for health and productivity, they say, linked to depression, overeating, substance abuse, gambling and even mortality—people may, indirectly, be "bored to death." One 2010 study found that the boredom-prone are more than twice as likely to die of heart disease than their more-engaged brethren.

Psychologists have had trouble defining boredom. Clearly, someone who is actively engaged in a task, whether it is work or a hobby, is less bored than someone who is detached and disconnected from the world of work.

And yet, repetitive tasks that seem to be meaningless can produce boredom. Drudgery is boring.

Psychologists have suggested that meaning is the cure for drudgery. By that I assume they mean: if you understand how your routine task contributes to a higher good, it will become less boring.

Philosophers define boredom was what happens when we have nothing to do. Some suggest that boredom forces us to confront the meaningless of our existence.

Of course, the philosophical view is only a partial truth. When we engage in activities that feel meaningless, we are not confronting the emptiness of our existence. We are feeling socially disconnected.

When we have something to do we are fulfilling a role, following the rules, and feeling engaged with others.

If boredom feels like disconnection, then it must belong in the same class as feelings of abandonment, rejection and anomie. It derives from not being part of a group, a condition that is not enviable.

Of course, psychologists who have been telling people to explore their feelings seem to have missed the point. Our wellbeing involves being engaged in a purposeful activity, not on our being engaged with our mental processes or our emotional states.

Of course, some people try to overcome boredom without engaging in purposeful activity. They do it by consuming large amounts of entertainment.

Perhaps it’s a way to self-medicate boredom. People play video games, pore over internet porn, work on Facebook or watch television because these activities provide stimuli that counteract the effects of boredom.

People who consume entertainment material are, in a limited sense participating in the economy. They are not producing anything, but they are consuming.

The same applies to certain kinds of leisure. Playing golf is far less likely to be boring than is lying around a swimming pool.

It’s better to produce than to consume, but consuming is better than nothing. It does serve to obscure the fact that you are disconnected from others. If boredom threatens your well being you will not be very discriminating in how you forestall it. Any activity that eats time and keeps you involved counts as medication against boredom.

When you consume entertainment you are engaged with a world.  It might not be a real world, but it is still a world.

Scientists have discovered that when people are bored they tend to shift the blame away from themselves. The Journal reports:

Bored people typically blame their environment, not themselves, for the state, thinking "this task is boring" or "there is nothing to do," the paper found.

Being bored feels like being rejected by other people. After all, we say that other people are boring, but we never say that we are being bored by ourselves.

Entertainment, whether self-imposed or supplied by others does not cure boredom. It numbs the pain.

The cure for boredom is purposeful activity, especially activity that makes you a direct participant in the life of a group.


Sam L. said...

Well, Canada is boring. Except for some of the scenery and the megafauna ursus and ungulates. And the wolves.

As the Canadian Jews say: Voy, eh?

David Foster said...

We should clarify that boredom and meaninglessness aren't necessarily the same. I'm reminded of something St-Exupery wrote. Here, in Flight to Arras, he is comparing his tasks in piloting a reconnaissance plane (during the campaign of 1940) with a sexton lighting candles in a church:

"I am working at my trade, when it comes down to it. What I am experiencing is no more than the physical pleasure of acts that are nourished with meaning and sufficient unto themselves. I feel neither a sense of great danger (my anxiety was very different when I was dressing), nor any sense of a grand duty. The conflict between the West and Nazism is compressed here into the scale of my actions, my actions on handles and levers and valves. That is how it should be, just as the sexton's love for God becomes the love of lighting candles. The sexton walks with a steady step through a church that he scarcely sees, and is content as he sees the candlesticks blossoming one by one. When they are all light, he rubs his hands together. He is proud of himself."

Bobbye said...

I have never been bored in my life, ever! I have been mentally and physically beaten up, employed and unemployed; had jobs I loved and ones I hated; have had money and been broke; but I have never been bored. When children (my children, grandchildren, or any child) tells me " I'm bored" I answer " I can find you something to do". Even a five year old understands. Boredom is an attitude, a bad attitude. It is dis-content, ungratfulness. Can you imagine a person from 200 years age sitting in front of a TV and saying "Oh my god, I am so bored". We live in a world (self-created) of ungrateful people. I for one will not let them go unchallenged.

Susan said...

I recently saw a French film directed by (and starring) Agnes Jaoui called "du vent dans mes mollets" (translated as "dandelions.") During a scene between elderly mother and her 40's something daughter (played by Jaoui), the latter laments her youth, characterized,she says, by "boredom." The mother sternly retorts, "boredom is a great luxury." Chapeau!
A very good film, by the way.

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