In Frederick Barthelme’s novel Bob the Gambler, Ray and Jewel Kaiser are living the middle-class American dream. They own a dog, two Ford Explorers, and a three-bedroom house on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The problem is, they’re bored. One painfully quiet Sunday, Jewel suggests they try something new—visit Biloxi’s floating casinos. They hit the slots, and the hours fly by.
A week later, finding nothing good on television, they return to the gambling boats. Soon they’re hooked on blackjack. In a matter of months, the couple loses everything—house, cars, savings, furniture—and moves in with Ray’s elderly mother.
It’s a story as old as the Garden of Eden—a husband and wife, tired of the familiar, risk it all and are tossed out of paradise. And as a tale about the snares of boredom, it’s as fresh as the news. Workers bored with their jobs cost employers billions of dollars in lost productivity. Students bored with their classes drop out of school, or in some cases, threaten to shoot up their school. As far back as the ’70s, a Reader’s Digest article declared that “boredom has become the disease of our time.”
Experts blame boredom for almost everything: stress, depression, addiction, infidelity, obesity, overspending, car accidents, suicide. “Everything’s dull,” says Bob’s gambling wife, having bitten the apple at the aptly named Paradise casino. “Nature’s dull, Frank [the dog] is dull, daily life is dull. We’re going through the motions. The casino’s fun, but that’s it.”
In a way, it’s odd that anyone in the 21st century could be bored. We have hundreds of diversions available to us, 24 hours a day, at the press of a button or the click of a mouse. We have cable television, video games, laptops, the Internet, CDs, MP3s, and DVDs. And yet “in an age when we have more entertainment available to us than ever before, there seems to be an epidemic of boredom,” writes psychiatrist Richard Winter in Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment.
It may be an entertainment overload that’s boring us. “When stimulation comes at us from every side,” explains Winter, “we reach a point where we cannot respond with much depth to anything. Bombarded with so much that is exciting and demands our attention, we tend to become unable to discriminate and choose from among the many options. The result is that we shut down our attention to everything.”
Studies suggest that we’re in the midst of a “boredom boom,” as the Yankelovich Monitor, an annual consumer survey, concluded in 2000. The Monitor reported that 61% of 2,500 respondents craved more novelty in their lives, up from sixty-four percent in 1995. Sixty-nine percent agreed that “even though I have so much to do, I’m always looking for something new and exciting to do.” Eighty-four percent said they found television “boring,” and 88% claimed they were bored with the Internet.
“The brain is always adjusting to new stimuli,” says Augustin de la Peña, a psychophysiologist who has studied boredom for 30 years. “Once the brain has seen something new a few times,it no longer finds it interesting. The brain’s ante for stimulation is always being upped, just as a drug addict needs larger and larger doses to get high.”
As anyone with a working television set knows, reality shows become increasingly more risqué and outrageous each season in order to grab viewers’ attention. Our brains, it seems, are built to be bored. But what exactly is boredom? Is it a cause of personal anguish and so many social problems, or is it the result of another disorder? “‘Boredom’ is a fuzzy term that covers a wide variety of related psychic and spiritual states,” says Michael Raposa, a religion professor at Lehigh University and the author of Boredom and the Religious Imagination. “Some forms of boredom that we complain about aren’t serious problems, such as when we’re sitting in a dentist’s waiting room with nothing to read, or stuck in traffic with nothing to do. These low information situations don’t, or at least shouldn’t, produce anxiety.”
Why these moments do produce anxiety, however, may be directly related to our information overload. In Raposa’s view, “We live in an ADD culture, and the effects are crippling. Students today are very good at retrieving information. They can scan the Web quickly and find what they need. But to get them to read just a paragraph in a text, to really mull it over and make sense of it, is increasingly difficult. As a result, some of their cognitive skills atrophy.”
Raposa doesn’t think that boredom, in and of itself, is a bad thing. In fact, boredom, as a form of tedium, often drives creativity, inspiring artistic and scientific innovations and achievements. The issue, he says, is how we respond to boredom: “We can avoid boredom, in which case we develop habits of distraction. Or we can heed our boredom, and develop habits of attention.”
Emptiness, though, is inescapable, no matter what we do to counteract it. It is at the center of our lives. It underlies all our projects and activities. Everything that we value eventually vanishes. “If we think seriously about our lives and look back in time, we come to emptiness, the point at which we didn’t exist,” says Raposa. “And if we project forward, we confront the inevitability of death. Moments of boredom remind us of this, and it’s unpleasant. That’s why when boredom creeps up on us we tend to turn on the TV, grab something to eat, pick up the phone, or go to the mall. But we’re still bored. We carry our boredom around with us wherever we go.”
The word “boredom” didn’t enter the English language until well into the 18th century. “If people felt bored before the late18th century,” writes Patricia M. Spacks in Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, “they didn’t know it.”
With all due respect to Spacks, the ancients reported experiences that sure sound like boredom. Take the 4th-century Desert Fathers. These Christian monks retreated from the civilized world and all its temptations in order to devote themselves to lives of prayer and contemplation. But in the heat and silence of the desert, they were often besieged by the “demon of noontide,” a profound malaise that distracted them from their spiritual pursuits.
The Church elders called this condition acedia, and they included it among the seven deadly sins. Though acedia is often interpreted directly as “sloth,” St. Thomas Aquinas, like the Church elders, considered sloth—“laziness and idleness”— to be a byproduct of acedia, a deeper affliction caused by a lack of spiritual appetite—an indifference to God, oneself, and others.
Today, some believe spiritual crisis can be a consequence of choosing to run from boredom. “There’s something fundamentally important about us that only boredom can teach us, and yet we instinctively flee from it. We simply fill up what seems like empty psychic space, or empty spiritual space, with noise—or what Pascal called ‘diversion’—because we can’t face the emptiness of boredom,” Raposa says.
“Many of us are bored and don’t even realize it because we’ve masked it,” he adds. “There’s a lot of self-deception that goes with boredom, which may be why it’s such an underreported and widely misunderstood phenomenon.”
Academia deserves blame for this, says de la Peña. Psychology and psychiatry have considered boredom a taboo subject since the 1930s because it makes researchers uncomfortable, he believes. “We want to think that we do most things in life out of a sense of nobility, with the best of intentions,” he says. “But what I and others have found is that we do most things simply out of restlessness and boredom. It’s not a very flattering image for people to entertain about themselves.”
Consequently, “few psychologists study boredom, and those who do have trouble securing grants or getting their work published,” he explains. Modern psychology, modeled after physics, is primarily concerned with observable behavior. “You can’t measure boredom in the way that you can a chicken pecking food for rewards according to various schedules of reinforcement,” he says. If such studies are published, they’re usually ignored.
De la Peña estimates there are fewer than a dozen people, in any field, who study boredom, but he hopes to find others. He’s trying to establish a center for the study of boredom, which will serve as a nexus through which these researchers can collaborate. “Boredom has an enormous power to drive our behavior, and it shapes many of the world’s most pressing problems, including war, violence, terrorism, and the exploitation of the environment,” he says. “We can’t afford not to understand it.”
It wasn’t always that boredom was roundly ignored. Great thinkers such as Blaise Pascal, Søren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger understood boredom “and they believed that boredom matters,” says Raposa. Pascal and Kierkegaard cast boredom in religious terms; if we pay attention to boredom, we’ll realize our need for God, the ultimate source of all meaning. Heidegger expressed a similar idea, though not in religious language. “He thought boredom fosters a kind of healthy detachment,” Raposa says. “If we stick with our boredom and listen to it, we may feel empty, but it can lead to a peaceful equanimity, a freedom from the pull of particular things.”
Religious sages from Siddhartha Gautama to St. Ignatius of Loyola argue that, ironically, an attitude of detachment enables us to lead lives more fully engaged, more connected with others. More “mindful,” as Buddhists would say, and less bored. The combination of detachment and engagement that effectively combats boredom resembles the principles evoked in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
This is precisely the opposite of what our culture of entertainment encourages us to think: namely, that the answer to boredom is to drown ourselves in distraction. The English poet William Wordsworth observed that some have a “degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation.” What we really seek is joy, said theologian Paul Tillich, noting that it’s no surprise that fun “can easily be commercialized, for it is dependent on calculable reactions, without passion, without risk, without love.”
“Joy,” he wrote, “is possible only when we are driven toward things and persons because of what they are and not because of what we can get from them.” Theologians may ponder what creates boredom, but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to rid yourself of it. “Get off your duff and do something!” says Alan Caruba, founder of the Boring Institute in Maplewood, New Jersey. Caruba founded the institute 20 years ago to parody boring news stories, but it soon evolved into a clearinghouse of serious research on boredom. “Read a book, get a hobby, or join an organization of people who share your interests,” he says. “Reactive people are more bored than proactive people. You’ll never be bored when you’re doing something you love.”
In Bob the Gambler, Ray and Jewel Kaiser end up happier after their vertiginous fall than before. The world that collapsed was stale and unchallenging, a source of worry and an obligation to maintain. Starting over renews the middle-aged couple, demanding of them flexibility and resourcefulness, and invigorating them with youthful passion and wonder. At the novel’s conclusion, Ray and Jewel are holding hands like high school sweethearts, and their gloomy, withdrawn teenage daughter has started speaking to them again.
So if all else fails, take a risk. “I wondered why we always try to make things predictable,” Ray says, reflecting on their former lives, “when it’s clear that what happens will always be mysterious and peculiar.”
John D. Spalding is the editor of SoMAreview.com, and the author of A Pilgrim’s Digress: My Perilous, Fumbling Quest for the Celestial City.
This essay originally appeared in Science & Spirit magazine.
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