The modern concept of boredom goes back to the 19th century. For Erich Fromm and other thinkers, boredom was a response to industrial society in which people are required to engage in alienated labour, and to the erosion of traditional structures of meaning. Yet, it seems that boredom of some form is a human universal. On the walls of the ruins of Pompeii, there is Latin graffiti about boredom that dates back to the first century.
Boredom can be defined as a profoundly unpleasant state of unmet arousal: you are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, your arousal cannot be met or directed. These reasons can be internal—often a lack of imagination, motivation, or concentration—or external, such as an absence of environmental stimuli or opportunities. So while we want to do something more stimulating, we find ourselves unable to do so; moreover, we are frustrated by the rising awareness of this inability. Awareness, or consciousness, is key, and may explain why animals, if they get bored at all, generally have much higher thresholds for boredom.
Boredom is often brought about or aggravated by a lack of control or freedom, which is why it is particularly common in children and teenagers, who, in addition to being shepherded, lack the resources to escape from boredom.
For the gloomy philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, boredom is evidence of the meaninglessness of life; because, if life were intrinsically meaningful or fulfilling there could be no such thing as boredom. Boredom opens the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out by keeping busy. This is the essence of the manic defence, which consists in preventing feelings of helplessness and despair from entering our conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control—we are, in the words of Virginia Woolf, ‘always giving parties to cover the silence’.
Boredom is so unpleasant that we expend considerable energy and resources on preventing or reducing it. The value of the global entertainment industry topped $2 trillion in 2016, and entertainers and athletes are accorded extravagantly high levels of pay and social status. The technological advances of recent years have put an eternity of entertainment at our fingertips, but, paradoxically, this has only made things worse, in part, by removing us even further from reality. Instead of being satiated, we are desensitized and in need of ever more stimulation, ever more war, gore, and hardcore.
I knew a man who had given twenty years of his life to an airhead, who had sacrificed everything to her, his friendships, his work, the very decency of his life, and who admitted one evening that he had never loved her. He was bored, that was all, bored, like most people. So he contrived a life of problems and complications. Something has to happen, that’s what underlies most human commitments. Something has to happen, even loveless bondage, even war, even death… —Albert Camus, The Fall