The Cultural History and Adaptive Function of Boredom
What Madame Bovary has to do with MRI and rock’n’roll.
By Maria Popova
Boredom has never enjoyed an admirable reputation, and in the age of the internet’s incessant on-demand stimulation, it seems at once anachronistic and antithetical — a particularly pathetic condition to profess, a personal failure of sorts. But in Boredom: A Lively History (public library), classics scholar Peter Toohey examines boredom as an adaptive mechanism.
From Madame Bovary to fMRI, he explores the roots, symptoms, and symbolism of boredom across art history, psychology, and neurochemistry to examine what it reveals about us both as individuals and as a culture.
Boredom is, in the Darwinian sense, an adaptive emotion. Its purpose, that is, may be designed to help one flourish.
Toohey argues that boredom, unlike primary emotions like happiness, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, takes a secondary role, alongside “social emotions” like sympathy, embarrassment, shame, guilt, pride, jealousy, envy, gratitude, admiration, and contempt. He delineates between two main types of boredom — simple boredom, which occurs regularly and doesn’t require that you be able to name it, and existential boredom, a grab-bag condition that is “neither an emotion, nor a mood, nor a feeling” but, rather, “an impressive intellectual formulation” that has much in common with depression and is highly self-aware, something Toohey calls the most self-reflective of conditions.
Toohey examines the relationship between boredom and disgust, the former being a mild derivation of the latter — boredom is to disgust what annoyance is to anger. Boredom is also connected to surfeit — surfeit, coupled with monotony, predictability, and confinement, produces boredom.
Boredom is an emotion usually associated with a nourished body: like satiety, it is not normally for the starving.
But our reflexive means of alleviating boredom — novelty-seeking, drugs, extreme behaviors — are, as most of us are intellectually aware but have at some point been experientially blind to, remarkably ineffective. Toohey observes:
As fast as the new is experienced… it is liable to become boring. The new becomes a variant of the infinite. It recedes infinitely.
This touches on what’s perhaps the most transfixing aspect of boredom — its relationship with time:
Infinity is of course temporal as well as spatial. Time has a very interesting relationship with boredom and its representations. We have all experienced the sluggishness of time when we have been confined in boring situations. According to one of the late Clement Freud’s famous witticisms, “if you resolve to give up smoking, drinking and loving you don’t actually live longer, it just seems longer.”
In this way, boredom appears to be the polar opposite of what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has famously termed flow — a state of intense focus you enter whilst absorbed in an enthralling task, when you lose track of time.
And yet, our tendency to seek a cure for boredom in the new and shiny appears to be a fundamental part of being human, a deep-seated cultural phenomenon:
Popular culture is littered with examples of this process of rule breaking as a way to escape the chronic boredom of modern life. The problem with this rule breaking is that it so quickly becomes predictable, prosaic and boring. Avant-garde art and rock’n’roll, to take two examples, both staged revolts against the status quo precisely by way of dazzling, intense novelty, but both quickly became as predictable as corn niblets.
Rule breaking, if it’s done regularly, quickly becomes just another element in the edifice of the middle-class boredom that it was designed to replace. Worse still, rule breaking becomes confused with fashion and being modern and that quickly becomes old-fashioned too. Remember what Oscar Wilde had to say? “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern; one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly.”
Boredom, it turns out, is adaptive as a transient state, but dangerous as a chronic condition. In 1986, psychologists designed a test, known as the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS), as a way of distinguishing between those who suffer transient boredom from those who suffer chronic boredom:
The statements to follow can be answered using a 7-point scale — from ‘1’ (highly disagree), to ‘4’ (neutral), to ‘7’ (highly agree).
- It is easy for me to concentrate on my activities.
- Frequently when I am working I find myself worrying about other things.
- Time always seems to be passing slowly.
- I often find myself at “loose ends”, not knowing what to do.
- I am often trapped in situations where I have to do meaningless things.
- Having to look at someone’s home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously.
- I have projects in mind all the time, things to do.
- I find it easy to entertain myself.
- Many things I have to do are repetitive and monotonous.
- It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
- I get a kick out of most things I do.
- I am seldom excited about my work.
- In any situation I can usually find something to do or see to keep me interested.
- Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing.
- I am good at waiting patiently.
- I often find myself with nothing to do, time on my hands.
- In situations where I have to wait, such as in line, I get very restless.
- I often wake up with a new idea.
- It would be very hard for me to find a job that is exciting enough.
- I would like more challenging things to do in life.
- I feel that I am working below my abilities most of the time.
- Many people would say that I am a creative or imaginative person.
- I have so many interests, I don’t have time to do everything.
- Among my friends, I am the one who keeps doing something the longest.
- Unless I am doing something exciting, even dangerous, I feel half-dead and dull.
- It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy.
- It seems that the same things are on television or the movies all the time; it’s getting old.
- When I was young, I was often in monotonous and tiresome situations.
To find out your own proneness to boredom, add up the total of the scores you gave each question. The average score is 99, and the average range 81-117. If you scored above 117, you become bored easily, and if you scored below 81, your boredom threshold is very high.
Researchers have found that some people have a metabolic proneness to chronic boredom, correlated with neurotransmitter imbalances and higher risks for depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, gambling, hostility, low academic performance, and more. (Though Toohey is careful to caution against assuming causality, pointing out that chronic boredom is just a symptom of these chemical imbalances, along with risk-taking and sensation-seeking, rather than a causative agent.) Meanwhile, those who suffer only transient boredom have been found to perform better in various aspects of life, including work, education, and personal autonomy.
By looking at everything from body language in classical paintings to studies from some of the world’s best neuroscience labs, Boredom: A Lively History goes on to paint a portrait of boredom that is at once a sweeping cultural observation across time and space and a deeply relatable, personal lens on this most unglamorous yet most universal aspect of what it means to be human.
Published June 18, 2012