The pandemic has powerfully revealed something that has generally remained hidden – boredom lurking in every corner (of our homes). But do we really know what it actually is?
Following various discussions about boredom on the Internet or among friends as a boredom researcher, I notice that people often misunderstand this phenomenon and divide themselves into those who identify boredom with idleness and those for whom it is synonymous with rest and relaxation. The first group when asked about boredom responds: “I am never bored. I do not know what it is like to be bored. I don’t understand people who are bored”, because, as we know, “an intelligent person is never bored”. A negative attitude towards boredom and a sense of superiority are clearly visible in these statements – how can you waste your time on boredom-idleness!? Representatives of the second group speak about boredom in a nostalgic-dreamlike tone, generally in the context that they have no time for boredom. Such people generally “dream about boredom”, others “shamelessly” declare: “I was wonderfully bored a good chunk of last weekend and it was wonderful”. Here, boredom is equated with relaxation and evaluated positively. Such people often are eager advocates of the recently fashionable slogan that “boredom is creative”. In this sense, boredom has also become a part of the campaign for slow life – “slow down, make time for boredom”.
However, boredom is not synonymous with either rest or idleness. Boredom is a negative emotion. Its possible effects may be positive (creativity) or negative (aggression), but as an affective experience, boredom is unpleasant and should be so, because it is a significant signal that something should be changed, that the situation we find ourselves in is uninteresting, unstimulating or meaningless. Boredom is therefore not the same as relaxation, the essence of which is that it is judged to be something desirable. As for idleness, on the other hand, early psychological theories admittedly associated boredom with a lack of stimulation, i.e. also a lack of activity (or even sensory deprivation), but boredom is not idleness, because then its opposite, and also its remedy, would be work, and as many people can probably attest – not to mention a number of studies – boredom at work is widespread. Idleness, therefore, would be just one possible cause of boredom or the circumstances surrounding its experience.
There are probably no two boredom researchers who would agree on its final definition – all versions considered, however, would be unlikely to mention idleness and rest, to which the emotion is ultimately reduced in almost every colloquial conversation about it. Rather, a lack of a sense of meaning, a lack of engagement, inability to focus attention or the perception of time as flowing extremely slowly are indicated as relevant for this emotion.
So, before the next time we condemn someone for supposedly experiencing boredom by demonstrating our superiority in this area, or enthusiastically praise boredom as a well-deserved relaxation that fosters greater creativity, let’s ask what do we mean by boredom? Admittedly, the effect may be similar to that of the “provocation” of ethnomethodologists, who answered the question “how are you?” with a series of questions about the meaning of the question for the questioner. After all, every violation of the “obvious” arouses consternation, sometimes aggression, and certainly causes mental disorder. This disorder is called reflection.
* The text published 19 March 2021 in Polska. Times (translated from Polish by the Author).