By: Maria Popova
“The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes.”
Boredom has a long cultural history and an adaptive function in human life — it serves a vital creative purpose and protects us by helping us tolerate open-endedness; in childhood, it becomes the wellspring of imaginative play. And yet we live in a culture that seems obsessed with eradicating boredom, as if it were Ebola or global poverty, and replacing it with a peculiar modern form of active idleness oozing from our glowing screens.
No thinker in the history of humanity has done more to shed light on both the problem of boredom and its existential solution than Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard — a man of such timeless insight into the fundamental desiderata of the human soul that he was able to explain, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the psychology of online trolling and bullying, the reason for the eternal tension between the majority and the minority, and why anxiety fuels creativity rather than stifling it.
In a section of his 1843 masterwork Either/Or: A Fragment of Life (public library), which also gave us Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness, the Danish philosopher defines boredom as a sense of emptiness and examines it not as an absence of stimulation but as an absence of meaning — an idea that also explains why it’s possible, today more than ever, to be overstimulated but existentially bored.
Bemoaning how “utterly meaningless” his life has become, 30-year-old Kierkegaard writes:
How dreadful boredom is — how dreadfully boring; I know no stronger expression, no truer one, for like is recognized only by like… I lie prostrate, inert; the only thing I see is emptiness, the only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness. I do not even suffer pain… Pain itself has lost its refreshment for me. If I were offered all the glories of the world or all the torments of the world, one would move me no more than the other; I would not turn over to the other side either to attain or to avoid. I am dying death. And what could divert me? Well, if I managed to see a faithfulness that withstood every ordeal, an enthusiasm that endured everything, a faith that moved mountains; if I were to become aware of an idea that joined the finite and the infinite.
In this conception, boredom becomes indeed an emptiness of meaning rather than a lack of diversion. In fact, Kierkegaard likely influenced Tolstoy when the beloved Russian author, in his own existential quest for meaning, asserted that “for man to be able to live he must either not see the infinite, or have such an explanation of the meaning of life as will connect the finite with the infinite.”
Kierkegaard also illuminates our modern cult of productivity and our compulsive busyness as a hedge against that dreaded boredom:
Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.
Such a conception explains, for instance, why all the cute-cat listicles spewed by the BuzzWorthy establishment of commodified distraction are hapless in assuaging the soul’s cry — which is, after all, the task of philosophy — in the face of such terrifying boredom springing from a lack of meaning. Alan Watts, another prescient sage of the ages, termed such futile strategies of diversion “orgasm without release.” Noting that such “misguided diversion” is itself the source of existential boredom — which is “partly an acquired immediacy” — Kierkegaard adds:
It seems doubtful that a remedy against boredom can give rise to boredom, but it can give rise to boredom only insofar as it is used incorrectly. A mistaken, generally eccentric diversion has boredom within itself, and thus it works its way up and manifests itself as immediacy.
Illustration by Edward Gorey from 'The Shrinking of Treehorn' by Florence Parry Heide. Click image for more.
Kierkegaard laments that “habit and boredom have gained the upper hand to such a degree” in society and argues that this stems from how deeply boredom is woven into the fabric of our cultural mythology:
Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored together; then Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse.
In a remark at once amusing and disquieting in the context of modern childhood — recently, while playing with my four-year-old niece, she pressed her thumb into the circle portion of my arm tattoo as one would press a device button, expecting it to perform some entertaining animation and being visibly disappointed when it didn’t — Kierkegaard offers an illustrative example of this mythology’s aftermath:
How corrupting boredom is, everyone recognizes also with regard to children. As long as children are having a good time, they are always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on, but in a different way. Therefore, when selecting a nursemaid, one always considers essentially not only that she is sober, trustworthy, and good-natured but also takes into esthetic consideration whether she knows how to entertain children. Even if she had all the other excellent virtues, one would not hesitate to give her the sack if she lacked this qualification.
It would be quite impossible to prevail if one wanted to demand a divorce because one’s wife is boring, or demand that a king be dethroned because he is boring to behold, or that a clergyman be exiled because he is boring to listen to, or that a cabinet minister be dismissed or a journalist be executed because he is frightfully boring.
And yet boredom, he argues, is our basic constitution:
All human beings, then, are boring. The very word indicates the possibility of a classification. The word “boring” can designate just as well a person who bores others as someone who bores himself. Those who bore others are the plebeians, the crowd, the endless train of humanity in general; those who bore themselves are the chosen ones, the nobility. How remarkable it is that those who do not bore themselves generally bore others; those, however, who bore themselves entertain others.
Illustration by Maira Kalman from 'Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag,' a most unusual alphabet book. Click image for more.
Echoing his own admonition against our busyness as a distraction from living, he adds:
Generally, those who do not bore themselves are busy in the world in one way or another, but for that very reason they are, of all people, the most boring of all, the most unbearable… The other class of human beings, the superior ones, are those who bore themselves… They generally amuse others — at times in a certain external way the masses, in a deeper sense their co-initiates. The more thoroughly they bore themselves, the more potent the medium of diversion they offer others, also when the boredom reaches its maximum, since they either die of boredom (the passive category) or shoot themselves out of curiosity (the active category).
So what, then, are we to do to protect ourselves against the great evil of boredom? As its counterpoint, Kierkegaard offers the virtue of “idleness” — a concept he uses much like we use the notion of stillness today, a quality of being necessary for mindful presence with our own lives. Kierkegaard writes:
Idleness as such is by no means a root of evil; on the contrary, it is a truly divine life, if one is not bored… Idleness, then, is so far from being the root of evil that it is rather the true good. Boredom is the root of evil; it is that which must be held off. Idleness is not the evil; indeed, it may be said that everyone who lacks a sense for it thereby shows that he has not raised himself to the human level.
Much of this, of course, is semantic play, further complicated by the messiness of translation. But Kierkegaard’s distinction between boredom and idleness seems rather similar to Van Gogh’s distinction between the two types of idlers. Implicit to the positive counterpoint of the perilous kind is the “fertile solitude” necessary for a full life.
Echoing Seneca’s timeless admonition against compulsive busyness, he admonishes against our tendency to conceive of life as a series of tasks to be accomplished rather than moments to be filled with living:
There is an indefatigable activity that shuts a person out of the world of spirit and places him in a class with the animals, which instinctively must always be in motion. There are people who have an extraordinary talent for transforming everything into a business operation, whose whole life is a business operation, who fall in love and are married, hear a joke, and admire a work of art with the same businesslike zeal with which they work at the office. The Latin proverb otium est pulvinar diaboli [idleness is the devil’s pillow] is quite correct, but the devil does not find time to lay his head on this pillow if one is not bored. But since people believe that it is man’s destiny to work, the antithesis idleness/work is correct. I assume that it is man’s destiny to amuse himself, and therefore my antithesis is no less correct.
Illustration for 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lisbeth Zwerger. Click image for more.
Our compulsive busyness also manifests itself in how we attempt to relieve ourselves of boredom — a strategy he explains through the agricultural metaphor of crop rotation done badly, which “consists in continually changing the soil,” a sort of grasping after “the boundless infinity of change.” Kierkegaard explains the failure of this boredom-alleviation method, which twentieth-century psychologists would come to term “the hedonic treadmill” of consumerism:
This rotation of crops is the vulgar, inartistic rotation and is based on an illusion. One is weary of living in the country and moves to the city; one is weary of one’s native land and goes abroad; one is [weary of Europe] and goes to America etc.; one indulges in the fanatical hope of an endless journey from star to star. Or there is another direction, but still extensive. One is weary of eating on porcelain and eats on silver; wearying of that, one eats on gold; one burns down half of Rome in order to visualize the Trojan conflagration. This method cancels itself and is the spurious infinity.
This he counters with the correct strategy — a method akin to mindfulness training, which emerges again and again, across every major spiritual tradition and secular school of thought, as our most promising gateway to happiness. Kierkegaard writes:
The method I propose does not consist in changing the soil but, like proper crop rotation, consists in changing the method of cultivation and the kinds of crops. Here at once is the principle of limitation, the sole saving principle in the world. The more a person limits himself, the more resourceful he becomes. A solitary prisoner for life is extremely resourceful; to him a spider can be a source of great amusement… What a meticulous observer one becomes, detecting every little sound or movement. Here is the extreme boundary of that principle that seeks relief not through extensity but through intensity.
Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'Open House for Butterflies' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.
A masterwork of timeless insight, Either/Or is infinitely rewarding in its totality. Complement it with legendary psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why the capacity for boredom is essential for a full life and How to Do Nothing with Nobody All Alone by Yourself, a wonderful vintage field guide to joyful solitude, then revisit Kierkegaard on why haters hate.
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