You probably haven’t thought much about boredom. That is no surprise because of all the activity and distractions that consume most of our lives. Whenever there’s even a minute to spare we quickly fill up it with something we think will be productive, or we do something mind-numbing like watching TV or scrolling through social media. But boredom is the most powerful human emotion to learn about. In fact, many philosophers throughout history have written about boredom. Here we’ll look at two of the more recent ones.
Soren Kierkegaard, a 19th Century Danish philosopher, thought a lot about boredom. You’ll see that in the passage below he views it as largely negative:
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 (Either/Or, p. 51).
While he views it as negative, he makes a couple of interesting points. First, it has the “capacity to initiate motion”. Boredom seems to be a biologically programed kick in the butt that keeps us in perpetual motion. This is a survival instinct designed to keep us alive in the past but today this impulse for perpetual motion is becoming counterproductive and leads to anxiety and many other problems.
He also says that it is “calm and sedate.” This is because boredom slows down time to the rhythm of nature. Most of the time we are super busy and we don’t even notice what time it is, but as soon as we are bored we notice every tick of the clock. In this way, we become fully aware of time and its slow passage. It funny that we all claim that we don’t have that much time, but when we are bored we seem to have too much of it.
Finally, Kierkegaard says that boredom is “absolutely magical.” This I totally agree with. In fact, boredom is a form of alchemy. It is a magical space of life transformation if we learn how to harness its power.
Bertrand Russell, the 20th century Briton, is one of the only ones who have not seen it as a wholly negative emotion. He begins his chapter Boredom and Excitement from his book The Conquest of Happiness by saying,
Boredom as a factor in human behaviour has received, in my opinion, far less attention than it deserves. It has been, I believe, one of the greatest motive powers throughout the historical epoch, and is so at the present day more than ever (p. 48).
Why is it that we have ignored boredom? It is because most of us view it as something negative and we avoid it like the plague. Russell is emphasizing that boredom is not something negative, but simply a very powerful human motivator for all types of behaviours. The reason why it has been viewed negatively for so long is that we are not aware of our reactions to it. In fact, Russell continues that in medieval times,
It must have been boredom as much as anything else that led to the practice of witch hunts as the sole sport by which winter evening could be enlivened (p. 50).
Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbours have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half of the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it (p. 51).
What seems clear from both Kierkegaard and Russell is not that boredom is in itself an evil emotion like many of us have be conditioned to think, but that it is a powerful human emotion that drives our behaviours. If we want to learn more about ourselves, our motives, and our behaviours, we need to pay attention and learn about boredom.
Here’s what I get from these two philosophers. First, boredom is a powerful human emotion ….if we can become aware of how we react to boredom