A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little people . . . unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature, in whom every vital impulse withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.
Half of the sins of humankind, Bertrand Russell wryly quipped, are because of our “fear of boredom.” Russell’s observation holds true: boredom avoidance is causally correlated with things like addiction, overeating, gambling, student misconduct, poor academic performance, and dropping out of school. Boredom avoidance also prompts subtler moral infractions, including half-listening—often as we check our phones—and frittering away time on trivial pursuits. We often think of morality in grand terms—sacrificing ourselves for others or standing up to a bully. Responding well or poorly to boredom, though, usually does not involve anything especially angelic or cowardly. On occasion, we hear about sensational and horrific crimes attributed to boredom, but most moral errors committed because of boredom fly under the radar. Given the low moral stakes of most things that people do when they’re bored, who are we to judge how others avoid boredom? And yet I think most of us can see in our boredom-avoidance tendencies ways of acting and spending time that fall short of what we might consider to be our better self. We might feel summoned or called to do great things but find ourselves busy avoiding boredom instead.
What Boredom Tells Us
Boredom alerts us that something is amiss, that something needs to change. But what that is can be perplexing. Initially, for instance, I found one of my college roommates, Craig, to be boring. He was kind and respectful, but dull. His incessant desire to talk about books and ideas seemed like academic posturing. Why couldn’t we just talk about “normal” college things? Consequently, I decided, he was not someone I would spend much time with beyond what would be required as roommates. Yet over time, my initial assessment proved to be flawed. Craig, I came to realize, was not only thoughtful and generous but also interesting—very interesting. His way of engaging with ideas in books, and taking books seriously, was not affected at all, but rather an earnest striving to improve himself. Not only did I come to respect Craig; he became and remains one of my closest friends.
In the case of Craig, boredom proved to be misleading. At other times, however, boredom may be telling us something that we should listen to. We often feel compelled to choose a course of study and career for, say, money and status versus actual enjoyment or a sense of calling. Yet if we pursue this path, a lifetime of boredom may lie in wait, and it typically starts already in our college years as we prepare for it. While we may go on to enjoy the benefits and status that come with a high-paying job, we find the daily work it requires to be a weary grind that is incapable of being redeemed. In this case, boredom should perhaps be listened to, as it provides data that is valuable for our well-being.
What is needed is something outside boredom—practical wisdom—to help us understand whether a boring situation should be endured or is evidence that something must change.
Boredom, it turns out, is morally fraught. Like other mood states (anger, sadness), boredom prompts a response, but what that response should be is not always clear. What is needed is something outside boredom—practical wisdom—to help us understand whether a boring situation should be endured or is evidence that something must change.
Take, for example, the dilemma faced by most students. Students overwhelmingly report being bored in school, especially in the higher grades—a massive irony given the advent of technology in schools over the past half century, all with the goal to pique, sustain, and direct student interests. Yet rather than decreasing, student boredom has held steady, if not increased, and so too have aversive boredom-avoidance tendencies. But boredom itself is seldom addressed explicitly. Instead, students (and teachers) are conditioned to do one of two things in the face of boredom: either escape boring circumstances with entertaining pedagogy (a.k.a. edutainment) or distractions, or resign themselves to boredom as an inevitable part of life, assuming that maturity requires such compliance. Both responses (avoidance and resignation) are problematic. Conditioned to avoid boredom, students miss out on activities that may provide value and meaning, and knee-jerk boredom avoidance makes them vulnerable to problematic quick fixes. Conversely, resignation to boredom, as inescapable, diminishes human agency. Rather than conceding, students should, when appropriate, learn how to challenge boring circumstances or to find meaningful possibilities within circumstances that may not be apparent at first glance. Yet before we can engage wisely with boredom, we need to better understand the phenomenon of boredom itself.
Two Kinds of Boredom
Our rush to solve the problem of boredom draws attention to Martin Heidegger’s important distinction between situational and existential boredom. To be situationally bored, note psychologists James Danckert and John Eastwood, is to be “painfully stuck in the here and now, bereft of any capacity for self-determination, yet driven to find something that we can engage with.” Boring situations seemingly offer little or nothing with which to engage. Heidegger shares the example of sitting at a remote train station, having to wait hours before his train departs. Stuck at the station, Heidegger literally feels the time moving slowly. His experience of the extension of time under such conditions correlates with the German word for boredom, Langeweile, which literally means “long while.” Heidegger’s assessment is not simply a cognitive inventory of limited options for mental engagement but rather a felt sense of impoverishment.
A bored person feels the barrenness of her situation. It leaves her groping for something, anything, to occupy herself with. One can imagine Heidegger considering a number of options with which to pass the time. However, the nature of situational boredom seems to be precisely that we cannot decide between these, that we are caught in a kind of akratic or weak-willed state, unable to wrest our way out of it. The familiar complaint from children, “I’m bored; there’s nothing to do,” captures this sentiment. The judgment about “nothing to do” indicates a situation that is seemingly barren of interest (an objective condition) but also reveals a diminishment of the imagination (a subjective condition). In such circumstances the bored person literally cannot see or imagine something worthwhile to do.
To complicate matters, we may have literally at our fingertips an endless array of possibilities and yet still be bored. While boredom is usually associated with a lack of stimuli, it can also be prompted by too much stimuli—what Robert Louis Stevenson describes as the “weariness of satiety.” Boredom is a tricky foe.
In the case of satiation fatigue, we are on the threshold of existential boredom—a deeper aimlessness about meaning and purpose. While situational boredom is characteristically linked to an objective condition, existential boredom is harder to diagnose. The cause is indeterminate. Heidegger describes an epiphany of his own existential boredom after attending a dinner party. He sees after the fact how boring the party was, though he did not find it so at the time. He then realizes how boredom avoidance was a pervasive force, guiding and informing his actions, and he discovers that his success at staving off situational boredom unwittingly intensified his existential boredom.
So what is the solution? Heidegger counsels letting boredom hit us full force, resisting the tendency to run from it, for often in shirking boredom we are drawn to take up inauthentic diversions. Instead, facing boredom directly, we can then see through our inauthentic proclivities and discern that culture is shot through with inauthentic ways of being. Heidegger is hopeful that once we allow ourselves to reach the nadir of boredom, a vision of possibilities for authentic existence will come into view. The way out, it turns out, is to sit with and hold fast to our boredom.
This account, on a certain level, rings true. Decisions about one’s profession or spouse ought to be informed by a discernment process that aims to be faithful to one’s authentic desires, rather than governed by social pressures. Yet prompting children to sit with their boredom sounds naive—perhaps the advice of someone who does not have much experience taking care of children. Furthermore, the ideal of authenticity has proved to be ripe for exploitation. Recognizing the existential desire for authentic self-expression, marketeers of capitalism have inundated us with seemingly indispensable means for becoming our true, authentic selves.
Instead of avoidance, resignation, or the quest for a chimerical authenticity, an optimal response to boredom may be simpler than we have become conditioned to see. The fourth-century desert father Evagrius counselled his monks to be on high alert with regard to boredom. More than a mere malaise or sense of aimlessness, he considered boredom to be an aspect of what was referred to as acedia—long considered one of the deadliest of sins. What today we often simply regard as a passing restlessness that we can abate with distraction Evagrius viewed as a state of mind, a train of thought that we should view with moral trepidation. Described as the noonday devil because it strikes at midday, when the monk’s daily prayers feel like they stretch on endlessly, it is subtler than emotions like anger or fear. For this reason acedia was regarded as far more dangerous, the breeding ground for a multitude of other sins like greed, envy, lust, and gluttony.
Evagrius’s proposed remedy, however, is simple, and perhaps off-putting to modern ears: remain steadfast and do everything with great care. To understand Evagrius’s counsel, it is helpful to consider the definition of acedia, which translates as a lack (a-) of care (kedos). To suffer from acedia is to let oneself go—to become careless. The cure, then, for acedia is caring attention. “Set for yourself a goal in every task,” Evagrius counsels, “and do not rise from it until you have finished it.” He urges monks to continue with and hold fast to their appointed tasks, especially manual labour, so that they can more fruitfully engage in the single-minded work of prayer. Though simple, this solution is more difficult to appreciate and enact in this age of endless distraction. We are continually prompted to flit from one thing to the next. What is needed is careful focus on one thing, but to ensure this we need to set up conditions that nurture strong focus.
Taking Evagrius’s lead, St. Benedict in the sixth century included in his Rule, which would become the definitive guidebook for monastic life in the West, the requirement that all monks, regardless of their intellectual acumen, do some work in the kitchen. Evagrius and Benedict are directing us to what philosopher Albert Borgmann describes as focal practices. Situated and developed across millennia, focal practices embody simple yet compelling ways humans have discovered to contend constructively with the problem of boredom. Rather than authentic or original, such practices embody practical wisdom about how to live well. They “have the power to center [one’s] life and to arrange all other things around this center in an orderly way,” prioritizing what is important.
By focal Borgmann is referring not to optics or points of convergence in geometry but to its more ancient denotation. Deriving from the Latin, focus literally means “domestic hearth” or “fireplace.” The hearth, prior to the development of ventilation heating systems, was the figurative and literal centre of the home. Thus, for Borgmann, focal practices are unique in that they—like the hearth—structure and direct attention, engaging us with the things that constitute them. It is the quality of attention (where it is directed and how it is directed) that focal practices require that is meaningful and salutary. A focal practice trains and guides us to attend deeply, in a sustained way, to one thing, overcoming the temptation to move from one thing to the next. A focal practice “gathers the relations of its context and radiates into its surroundings and informs them.” To the extent that we give ourselves over to them, focal practices change the way we see and interpret.
When we are within a focal practice—running, say, or walking or cooking—we see and feel these things anew as if we had discovered them for the very first time.
Take cooking and walking. These are practices that engage both our bodies and minds and connect us with others. We can certainly cook or walk alone, but doing so for or with others extends the intrinsic goods of the practice. Focal opportunities surround us but only come into full view when we faithfully engage with a focal practice. The daily starting and tending of a fire, for example, can be a focal practice, and the axe, the wood, and the furnace are the focal things with which this practice is engaged. Similarly, cooking engages with focal things like a knife, a vegetable, a cut of meat, and so on. The focal practice of running or walking engages us with several focal things—the sky, the air, and perhaps a forest. A focal practice enables the seeing and appreciating of a focal thing in its uniqueness—a violin, an earthenware jug, a running trail, a tattered old book.
Borgmann’s account of these practices encourages a kind of beholding that works against the bored mind and its restless roving. Focal practices and things are so simple and seemingly banal that it is easy to overlook them, passing over them as too basic and mundane to be a cure for boredom. And yet when we are within a focal practice—running, say, or walking or cooking—we see and feel these things anew as if we had discovered them for the very first time.
Rather than specialized activities, focal practices are (or can be) part of the mundane fabric of everyday life. In these ordinary practices, there are possibilities for leisurely attentiveness that often go unnoticed and unrealized. Borgmann’s emphasis on focal things is as much about a particular way of seeing things as it is about the things themselves.
The problem, notes Borgmann, is that the contemporary world seems to be forgetful of the goods conferred by focal practices and wages war on our capacity to make such commitments. The price of technological convenience, he notes, comes at the expense of focal practices and things. Instead of cooking, we eat out or microwave prepackaged food. Instead of going for a walk, we stare at screens to unwind. Rather than seeking meaningful things to see and attend to, we are surrounded by generic, mass-produced things. Pitchers, cups, books, shoes, and homes are simply facsimiles—replications of an original. Things thus lose their singularity, and there is no reason for us to grant them our singular attention. Objects recede into the background. The tools we use (our keyboard, plastic cups, a disposable pen, a razor) are hardly noticeable, except when they malfunction, in which case they are promptly replaced. Rather than see, appreciate, and experience things, we are conditioned to use them and be done with them. What is at stake is how we are thus conditioned to see and engage with our world.
Remedies for the Bored Self
The bored self struggles with finding something worthwhile to attend to. Focal practices address this angst. Yet to the bored self, such practices appear too mundane and too drab to be a cure; instead, the bored self is conditioned to respond to the brightest, loudest, and most shocking volley for its attention. Yet to sustain this constant stimulation, each arresting moment needs to be surpassed by yet another and another. Paradoxically, we become bored by this very stimulation. What promises to be yet another exciting, stimulating distraction turns out to be simply more of the same. The challenge, thus, is not necessarily to seek out “special” forms of activity that promise to redeem us from our boredom once and for all. In our pursuit of such engagements, we might be acting on the same stimulation-hungry mindset that is the very source of our problems. Instead, the problem before us is, at once, more demanding and more simple. Our task is to find out how to see the possibilities latent within everyday focal practices and enact them in an especially attentive and reflective way.
The bored self is conditioned to respond to the brightest, loudest, and most shocking volley for its attention. Yet to sustain this constant stimulation, each arresting moment needs to be surpassed by yet another and another.
While often within reach, then, focal practices, as possible embodiments of leisure, require vision and communal accountability to see beyond what might appear dull, ordinary, and difficult. To the bored self, such practices indeed appear bland. Borgmann elaborates:
Labor is exhausting, especially when it is divided. When we come home, we often feel drained and crippled. Diversion and pleasurable consumption appear to be consonant with this sort of disability. They promise to untie the knots and to soothe the aches. And so they do at a shallow level of our existence. At any rate, the call for exertion and engagement seems like a cruel and unjust demand. We have sat in the easy chair, beer at hand and television before us; when we felt stirrings of ambition, we found it easy to ignore our superego.
Instead of this fixed ritual for attending to the weary self at the end of the day, Borgmann invites us to imagine another option—going for a walk outside on a cold day. For this to happen, we probably need someone to hold us accountable—someone who will not take no for an answer. Assuming our partner successfully prevails on us to move in this direction, we might find ourselves annoyed, as we face the cold air. Borgmann elaborates again: “The discomfort was worse than we had thought. But gradually a transformation set in. Our gait became steady, our blood began to flow vigorously and wash away our tension, we smelled the rain, began thoughtfully to speak with our companion, and finally returned home settled, alert, and with a fatigue that was capable of restful sleep.”
Focal practices are often within reach, but there is a high threshold to overcome. This is especially pertinent to the bored self, who is unable to see the possibilities latent within a focal practice. “The burdensome part of these activities,” Borgmann notes, “is actually just the task of getting across a threshold of effort. As soon as you have crossed the threshold, the burden disappears.” The bored self is weighted down by necessity and is therefore without possibility. Simple tasks like walking, washing the dishes, or writing a letter appear dull and seem to offer little if anything to alleviate boredom, and yet once we begin to undertake them and settle in, renewing possibilities come into view. Borgmann further explains that “the threshold is high morally not materially. It’s not as if people have to exert themselves strenuously or face some danger before they can sit down at the table. It’s right there, within reach. But there is a moral threshold. It’s a bother, it’s a pain. There is a high threshold, and so it’s difficult to get across it. But once you’re across it the reward is high as well.”
With amusement culture, by contrast, the thresholds (by design) are minimal, if there at all. I can easily and instantaneously enjoy the pleasure of watching a show or surfing the internet. The bored self is restless, prone to what the Buddhist tradition describes as “monkey mind”—a tendency, both within and without, to flit from one thing to the next. Given this tendency, we are more curious than studious, easily drawn in by gossip and spectacle and all manner of trivial concerns. Rather than one focus of attention, the bored self is captivated by a multitude of interests. While this is not a new condition, the internet has amplified and exacerbated this tendency. The monkey mind within is now greeted by the monkey mind without. Yet the rewards are far less than those that come with a focal practice. Borgmann has identified a key directive for the meaningful pursuit of focal practices: low threshold equals low reward; high threshold equals high reward. Given this, we need accountability—a friend, a partner, a teacher, a community—to develop the necessary practice and discipline that leisure requires.