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Boredom Isn't Boring

Updated on December 2, 2013

We all know these situations in our everyday lives when we are left with nothing in particular to do, maybe waiting for an event or anything else to arouse the interest in our surrounding. This emotional state is commonly referred to as boredom, the “state of being weary and restless through lack of interest” (Merriam-Webster). This expression which was first used in 1778 of the thing that causes ennui or annoyance derives from the Old English “borian” meaning to bore through or to perforate. Things that are slow and repetitive and don’t appear to be going anywhere, just like boring a hole, came to be described as “boring”.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, drawing by Peter Paul Rubens
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, drawing by Peter Paul Rubens | Source
Acedia
Acedia | Source

Origins

Although “boredom” didn’t become an official word until 1852 it is by no means a recent invention.

  • Seneca (ca 4 BC – AD 65), the roman philosopher, talks about it as a kind of nausea: "How long will things be the same? Surely I will be awake, I will sleep, I will be hungry, I will be cold, I will be hot. Is there no end? Sometimes, this makes me nauseous".
  • Even a wall of the Basilica in Pompeii, the ancient Roman town-city which was mostly destroyed after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD bears the following graffiti: "Wall! I wonder that you haven't fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers." The original Latin word here is taedia, meaning weariness or boredom.
  • The early Christian Evagrius of Pontus (345-399 AD) refers to the state of boredom as the “Noonday Demon”: "It attacks a hermit at about the fourth hour and besieges his soul until the eighth hour. . . It causes the hermit to look continually at the windows and forces him to step out of his cell and to gaze at the sun. This is to see how far it still is from the ninth hour. And it forces him to look around, here and there, to see whether any of his brethren are near." During that time boredom was called acedia (negligence), most likely a precursor to sloth, one of the seven deadly sins.

By the Renaissance, this “demon-induced sin” became melancholia and later the French ennui.

Typical bored look by a souvenir seller in Moscow
Typical bored look by a souvenir seller in Moscow | Source

For Further Reading

Boredom: A Lively History
Boredom: A Lively History

A great book that covers everything relating boredom: Its ancient history, modern issues and boredom as one of our most common and constructive emotions. It is for anyone "interested in what goes on when supposedly nothing happens".

 

Why do we get bored?

German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) once said:

For if life [...] possessed in itself a positive value and real content, then would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfill and satisfy us.

But apparently this is not the case. Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), an Italian philosopher and poet explained the existence of boredom and the reason why we get bored as following:

"Boredom is the most sublime of all human emotions because it expresses the fact that the human spirit, in a certain sense, is greater than the entire universe. Boredom is an expression of a profound despair at not finding anything that can satisfy the soul's boundless needs."

Researchers found that brain activity only drops by 5% when people are consciously doing nothing. This could explain why time seems to pass more slowly when we are bored. But they also found the brain to be much more active in regions responsible for recalling autobiographical memories, imagining thoughts and feelings of others and conjuring hypothetical events. In her essay “Our Boredom, Ourselves” Jeniffer Schuessler refers to these regions as the literary areas of the brain.

3 Different Kinds of Boredom

situation boredom
existential boredom
chronic boredom
being trapped in a tedious situation
has fascinated great philosophers and writers
no product of the environment
childish form of weakness or lack of attention
emptiness of meaning, alienation and isolation
lack of dopamine receptors in the brain
"normal" kind of boredom
closely related to depression
most dangerous form

Why is boredom good for us?

Boredom can be a very productive emotion. People who are bored tend to think about themselves, notice things they may have overlooked and are more likely to do productive tasks like cleaning or writing. According to Schuessler, it is “an important source of creativity, well-being and our very sense of self”.

Boredom leads always to some form of change, positive or negative. The outcome of the change is defined by the situation and state of mind the bored person finds themselves in. Many inventions, ideas or concepts were born this way: J K Rowling came up with the main idea of “Harry Potter” while she was just quietly thinking, sitting on a train from Manchester to London. According to Peter Toohey, author of “Boredom: A Lively History”, "Boredom is an evolutionary mechanism which tells us we need to bring about a change to survive".

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Boredom can also be bad

Of course, you don't have to worry if you get bored from time to time, because, as this Hub implies, that's totally natural and even good for you, your health and humanity.

However, boredom can have negative effects on your lifespan if it is experienced as a "bored to death"-feeling, a kind of never ending ennui. Researchers found out, that people who reported to be bored all the time (the study was started in 1985) were 2.5 times more likely to die of cardiovascular diseases than those who were just bored from time to time. People who are nothing but bored are also at higher risk for factors such as "excessive drinking, smoking, taking drugs and low psychological profiles," as another study found out. Those extreme cases where boredom can lead into depression are not very common, but they do exist.

Another interesting thought is the possible impact that boredom could have on a manned mission to Mars. Being caught in a tiny spaceship for eight months in order to land on a planet that is mostly empty can more than likely cause boredom, no matter how exciting the exploration of this new world will be. "If your brain does not receive sufficient stimulus, it might find something else to do — it daydreams, it wanders, it thinks about itself," writes Maggie Koerth-Baker at The New York Times. "Chronic boredom correlates with depression and attention deficits." Astronauts could make simple mistakes if they're not fully focused and they will subconsciously take more risks.

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      Natasha Peters 3 years ago

      Interesting hub! I agree; boredom can be a good indicator for some to begin a new activity, to realise a change in career is needed, etc. And as you said, in this way, it can be good for us.

      But I would also argue that it is very bad for us, especially those with tendencies for depression. Boredom coupled with apathy and little motivation to do anything is a very dangerous cycle that many struggle to break free of. Trouble coping with boredom might be an early warning sign for a dip in mood!

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      Janik D 3 years ago from Dresden, Germany

      Thank you very much for your comment and pointing out the fact that boredom indeed can be bad for us. I just added a new paragraph about the possible threats of it.

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