Are You Not Entertained?
In an age of perpetual distraction have we forgotten how to be bored? Or are we, instead, more deeply and insidiously bored than ever?
We struggle to take boredom seriously: it seems like such a spoilt, adolescent complaint. We are told repeatedly as children not to admit to boredom because it means we have no inner resources. “I conclude now I have no inner resources, because I am heavy bored,” wrote John Berryman in “Dream Song 14.” (He received more hate mail for this poem than any other).
But we make a mistake in dismissing or trivialising boredom. It is a devastatingly powerful force. Marriages end from boredom; addictions take hold in boredom; violence thrives on boredom. In some respects our tireless efforts to evade boredom have shaped the modern world. What powers Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter if not the ever-replenishing fuel of our boredom? Kierkegaard called it “the root of all evil.”
None of us get through life without coming to know boredom well, though despite this familiarity it is still hard to adequately describe. A hostile emptiness? A listless restlessness? Tolstoy’s paradoxical “desire for a desire”? Or just that recurrent (and sometimes desperate) anticipatory thought: “When will this be over?”
We understand the feeling when it comes to traffic jams and long delays and tedious speeches, and even the reluctant unfolding of the workday. But we encounter it many other places beside, and sometimes especially when we’re supposed to be having fun. “If I’m in a hot tub with some other people and we’re all looking up at the stars, I’ll be the first to say, It’s so beautiful here,” a character in a Miranda July story confesses. “The sooner you say, It’s so beautiful here, the quicker you can say, Wow, I’m getting overheated.”
Last month Netflix confirmed that it’s testing a feature which will allow us to watch shows at accelerated speeds. There was immediate pushback from screenwriters and directors, and laments about artistic integrity, but they are most likely fighting a losing battle. This feature is already widespread on YouTube and podcasts, after all, and soon ordinary pacing is going to feel unbearably tedious. Just a few decades ago it would have been impossible to fathom the plethora of entertainment that we now have perpetual access to. But it seems that it can’t quite hold our attention. We scroll through countless headlines, but scarcely read a single article through. We can choose from thousands of shows and videos, but often find we have nothing to watch.
What’s the opposite of boredom? For a long time the obvious answer seemed to be: entertainment or engagement. And if that were true, then boredom would soon be vanquished. At any given moment countless multi-billion dollar industries are vying desperately for our attention; ready to gorge us on “content” like so many foie gras ducks. Nowadays we don’t know how to wait one minute, to face just an iota of emptiness, before groping around for our phones so as to stream an endless barrage of other people’s thoughts, spats and photographs into our consciousnesses.
There is a growing body of psychological literature which advocates boredom. For this pro-boredom lobby one of the biggest problems we face nowadays is that we are not bored enough. In turn, we should actively try to cultivate more boredom in our lives: to practice unrewarding nothingness. If we don’t, we’ll miss out on boredom’s secret bounty: on the shy philosophical reflections, personal insights and creative epiphanies, which only dare to venture out when they sense that the coast is clear.
Perhaps it’s true that we are gradually losing one form of boredom: the one we might have known in queues and waiting rooms and lonely evenings, if it wasn’t so easy for us to take our minds elsewhere. But if we have outmoded this form of boredom, then we have simultaneously introduced another. I tried watching Aquaman recently—a desperate (if not crazed) effort to entertain; every inch of the screen taken up by some sort of weapon and jewel-encrusted beatboxing seahorse with a broken heart and a vendetta—and yet within minutes I was heavy bored, opening a new tab and looking for something else to do.
As we are gradually coming to realise—in our era of constant over-stimulation—the antithesis between entertainment and boredom is far too shallow, if not straightforwardly false. “The deep roots of boredom are in a lack of meaning, rather than a shortage of stimuli” Dougald Hine wrote in Aeon, reflecting on the fact that all the information in the world (and all the porn, all the series, all the scandals), has not spared us from the worst aspects of boredom: from that oppressive vacantness in which we all still spend a significant portion of our lives, even if we now spend it staring at a screen instead of into the middle distance.
In a recent book, Wish I Was Here: Boredom and the Interface, the philosopher Mark Kingwell wrestles with a similar paradox. “All of us, at least in the richer parts of the planet where stimulus is rich, are aware of the problem,” he writes. “I have a Netflix show playing, which I interrupt every few minutes to check my email in response to a little tune indicating an incoming message. If it is the right time of day, there is a muted baseball game showing on the nearby TV. I have my phone on the desk, which relentlessly delivers voicemail messages about daily trivia from people I know. I answer some of them. A web browser window is open in another tab, in case I want to fact-check something without troubling my failing memory, order a book I almost forgot on Amazon, or suddenly feel like wandering down a hot-link tunnel of scant and certainly forgettable relevance to what I still call my life. I can’t settle to any one thing, let alone walk away from the light cast by the screens into a different reality.”
A capacity for boredom, or something like it, is presumably innate to human beings (the historian Peter Toohey points to graffiti about boredom on the walls of Pompeii). But boredom has taken on different forms in different societies, and in turn the quality of our boredom amounts to a sort of social commentary. Agrarian boredom surely differed from the boredom of the factory line, which differed in turn from the boredom of the cubicle worker. And they all differ from the high-strung, overstimulated boredom we are so familiar with now.
It’s often suggested that boredom attained a new quality and prevalence in the 18th century, as industrialization made us ever more pointless and purposeless (indeed it was during this era that the term “boredom” was coined). And if that is so: poor us. For the pointlessness and purposelessness of the Industrial Revolution is nothing compared to what we’re facing now: increasingly outmoded and outsourced, and valued only for what we happen to be clicking on. The greatest existential commentary many of us will allow ourselves is the occasional admission of boredom. But what else does this admission reveal? What might we be trying to convey—in this seemingly trivial complaint—about those dismal spaces we each so often occupy, and about the conditions that form and exacerbate them?
Advocates of boredom point to how motivating it is: it encourages us to seek out, and therefore to find, meaning and value in our lives. We withdraw from what bores us, and in turn we gradually discover what inspires and fascinates us (in the many different forms such inspiration and fascination take). But the particularly insidious thing about our contemporary boredom is precisely that it isn’t motivating in this way. We don’t seem to flee from it, so much as we flee further into it. We try to escape the emptiness of our own thoughts, and instead we get trapped in the far greater emptiness of everyone else’s thoughts. We keep going around and around, almost compulsively, in the same unrewarding loops, being unrewarded. We know on some level that the only thing that will help is to step away and do something else—anything else—and yet we stay where we are. What presents itself as a cure for boredom, is in fact only boredom reiterated: the desire for a desire a hundred times over within an hour. What more literal form does this paradoxical desire take than the empty tab you’ve opened, not quite knowing what you’ve opened it for? And among the infinite possibilities that tab represents, what are we looking for? Is it something beautiful, sustaining and true?
I wish I could say it was, but I am forced to confess otherwise. If what bores me is one cause for concern, then the far greater concern is what does hold my attention. Three hours dedicated to the Bishops Scandal extra-curricular reading (now the Spencers are tangentially involved!); how does this happen? Is this what I was looking for, not knowing what I was looking for? And if it is: how can I have so little in common with myself? How can I have such different interests from my interests? Such separate values from my values? How could I have lost an hour to reading the vitriolic comments beneath a scathing review of a steak restaurant on the other side of the world that I’ve never been to and will never go to? How can hate-checking a distant acquaintance’s tone-deaf social media page constitute an engaging pursuit, and not just once or twice, but every day for years? These are just some of the mysteries we must now inhabit.
When we take a cold hard look at what actually engages us, we can start to see how little our attention actually means. That we’re drawn in by something is no indication that it’s of any enduring or sustaining value to us; often quite the contrary. And once this is acknowledged, any system of evaluation that is based on the thoughtless roaming of our attention spans seems hopelessly misguided. We seem to think things shouldn’t be boring, or that finding them boring is some sort of ultimate indictment. But maybe that’s where we’re wrong; maybe we’ve been thinking of boredom far too superficially. Many supposedly entertaining things quickly become deeply boring. Not necessarily in the sense that you struggle to engage with them, but they are boring in that soul-sucking way: where instead of filling you in, they hollow you out; where looking up (however many hours later) you feel sadder and more anxious and indefinitely stupider. On the other hand, many deeply fascinating things are also (how can it be?) superficially boring. Some of the most extraordinary knowledge we possess can initially be very boring to encounter, even if it will ultimately make a lasting contribution to our understanding of the world, and to ourselves within it.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the great pessimist philosopher, wrote that our life “swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom.” What we lack pains us, and what we have bores us, and if we encounter the occasional moment of contentment or happiness in between, they will be the exception rather than the rule. Schopenhauer insisted that this remains true no matter how much we are granted, and the resilience of our boredom (despite such extraordinary odds) seems rather to have proven his point.
It’s a depressing vision, but as with all pessimist philosophy it’s also relieving in its way, and it contains within it some advice on how to live. We can try our best to outrun pain, but there’s no getting away from boredom. Still: there are many ways to be bored, and some of them are more generative than others. Something might superficially engage you, but also quietly deplete and enervate you; just as something might superficially bore you, but also quietly restore and sustain you. And if we recognise that we are often deeply bored even by what is supposedly holding our attention, then perhaps we might occasionally give up our attempts to evade boredom, and try to pursue something more attainable instead.
A version of this essay was first published in December 2019 in The Business Day.