Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Running From Boredom

Few things are worse than to be labeled boring. Better to be dishonest and interesting, inept but funny, than honest, competent and boring. Bores automatically lose the opportunity to be sexy, which puts them fairly low on the evolutionary scale. 

None of us wants to be considered the source of boredom. Boredom is the sickness of the age, from which we all continue to flee, like our ancestors fleeing the plague. The internet is filled with bloggers who scream I AM NOT BORING and readers who demand SAVE ME FROM BOREDOM. After all, why are you reading this, except that you are seeking distraction from the inevitable, always looming boredom?

It wasn’t always so. In the past people were usually far too busy making ends meet than to have the luxury of being bored. The first use of the term “bored” in English literature appeared in a work from the Earl of Carlisle in 1768: “I pity my Newmarket friends, who are to be bored by these Frenchmen”. Ah those Frenchmen, boring even then (according to Englishmen, but not, apparently, according to Englishmen's wives). It was Byron who first used the word as a noun in 1823, inventing that label that we now all shun:

“Society is now one polished horde,
Formed of two mighty tribes,
the Bores and the Bored”

Some decades later a reference to our contemporary ailment, boredom, first appeared in published writing, in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, from 1852: “His chronic malady of boredom”. Today boredom lurks everywhere, and it’s a killer. Math is boring; Switzerland is boring; Desperate Housewives is boring; the iPad is boring. Face to face conversation risks being confronted by a bore, and that is by definition boring. But luckily you have an electronic anti-boredom device of some sort close at hand. With the touch of a remote control, or the click of a mouse, we can flee from boredom and find something to entertain us.

Alas, the spell that instant entertainment casts grows increasingly fleeting. We live in an entertainment saturated culture, yet we all seem to be so bored. We seldom reread novels (do we still read novels?), especially not old ones (i.e. boring ones). And even if we are forced to do something that is boring, like homework, at least we can break it into doable chunks, by interspersing it with checking email, chatting on Facebook, clicking on a YouTube link that someone has sent us. That keeps the boredom briefly at bay.

But as Jonathan Franzen put it in an article in The New Yorker last month: “The more you pursue distractions, the less effective any particular distraction is”. He also said that no great novel will be written in a house that has a broadband connection – maybe that’s why it took him nearly ten years to write his most recent one – Freedom. The science writer James Gleick described our predicament in Faster: The Acceleration of Just about Everything: “You are bored doing nothing, so you go for a drive. You are bored just driving, so you turn on the radio. You are bored just driving and listening to the radio, so you make a call on the cellular phone. You realize that you are now driving, listening to the radio, and talking on the phone, but you are still bored. Then you reflect that it would be nice if you had time, occasionally, just to do nothing”.

Technology was supposed to save us time. We now know that’s a myth. We get in the elevator and search quickly for the Door Close button, because we’ve got no time to waste. We enter a fast food outlet, and look for the express lane, because we’ve got no time to waste. We send a text message, and grumble when we haven’t received a reply within minutes. We never turn off our computers ‘cause we need to stay connected. In a word, we’re manic. James Gleick again: “Maybe boredom is a backwash within another mental state, the one called manic – defined by psychologists as an abnormal state of excitement, encompassing exhilaration, elation, euphoria, a sense of the mind racing. Maybe our hurry sickness is a simple as that.” ‘Hurry sickness’: I like that. What did the song say? ‘Slow down, you move to fast’. Fat chance.

Article first published as Running from Boredom on Technorati.


  1. It is natural to run away from boredom and its initial signs when we perceive of it. Photography or other hobbies that we find relaxing and stimulating will help alleviate boredom.

    1. Thanks for your comment Laura.

    2. Totally agree. It's all about our reaction to events, based on feelings, mood and past experiences.