Are the times of blissful laziness or unbearable boredom coming? Boredom, work and free time

Transcription and translation of the Rozmowy Równoległe Podcast.

My guest is dr Mariusz Finkielsztein, a sociologist and ‘boredologist’ from Collegium Civitas. Let’s start our conversation with what boredom is and where it comes from? It is commonly believed that boredom occurs when we have too much free time and do not know what to do with it. Is this true?

I will say it straight away; it is not true. It is one of those colloquial myths about boredom because boredom is not idleness, and boredom is not relaxation. Recently I was following such a conversation about boredom, and there were just these two main streams of responses, one said ‘I never have time to be bored, I don’t understand people who are bored, how can you be bored’, because ‘intelligent people don’t get bored.’ Well, these people clearly thought of boredom as idleness. ‘How can you be idle; there are so many things to do; I’m constantly doing something.’ Therefore, I’m never bored; I don’t experience boredom because I’m never idle. And the second understanding, or the second type of answer, ‘oh, but I would like to be bored, I never have time for boredom, and yet boredom is so cool and creative.’ And they don’t talk about boredom either; they just speak of rest or relaxation. So, in fact, boredom is a feeling or an emotion [that] I would call it a negative emotion, it is experienced in a negative way, no one can really say, while experiencing boredom, that they are having fun, they are happy, and it is a pleasant feeling. Nor is it idleness, for the reason that we often get bored while doing various activities. For example, the frequent feeling of boredom at work, but there is also a lot of research on the subject, that we are bored at work not only when there is nothing to do at work, but when what we have to do has no value for us, we do not see the point in it, we do not use our abilities, skills, knowledge. So I would say that the essence of boredom is lack of engagement, lack of engagement connected with the judgement, even unconscious, that something does not make sense. From this point of view, we can say that boredom will be associated with, can be connected with, everything that disturbs our attention. Why do we call it boredom? This is the sociological concept that I put forward in my work, that boredom is connected precisely with the lack of involvement; of course, psychologists can say that the lack of cognitive involvement refers to some biological dependencies too, but it is the lack of involvement in the external world as well; also interactions, when the interaction becomes boring, when we stop engaging in it, or when something in our head tells us that there is no point in engaging for some reason. Because something is too easy or too difficult, if it is too difficult we often react with boredom, because we can’t engage because we got lost somewhere along the way, this is an effect known at lectures, someone heard some information, started to think about it and lost the thread of the argument, and it is often difficult to get back and then this kind of boredom appears. That’s how I would describe it here.

If boredom is not rest, do we need it at all?

Yes, I know that this is a very popular trend in the media at the moment – many journalists are dealing with it because there are some studies that tentatively, timidly, but nevertheless state that boredom is connected to creativity. Of course, when you look at these studies with a scientific eye, you can see that these foundations are still quite fragile.

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There are not many of them, and their results also show that it is not the case that we simply become creative geniuses when we are bored. For example, there was an experiment where the subjects were asked to think of as many ways as possible to use a pair of polystyrene cup like the one used for tea or coffee [Mann & Cadman, 2014]. And if they were first subjected to a task which they assessed as boring, then they came up with more ideas to use this cup, but later when the quality of these ideas was assessed, it turned out that it was quite low, so in a way, creativity can be increased thanks to boredom, but unfortunately it has its limitations. But to answer your question directly, in my opinion, the function of boredom is not creativity per se. It can be one of the results of being bored. Still, the ultimate and probably the best-documented function of boredom is the signalling function, that is, boredom is a signal that something should be changed, that the situation we are in at the moment, or in our life, because we sometimes also talk about existential boredom or chronic boredom, is a signal saying ‘you have to change something,’ ‘run away’ – in a metaphorical sense at least, “you have to change something – it’s not interesting, it’s not developing, you’re wasting your time at the moment, it’s pointless’ and boredom is this signal. Of course, for decades, boredom was the villain, but this is, unfortunately, shooting the messenger. Boredom only signals, something is wrong; you have to change something, do something. But boredom doesn’t tell us how to change it and what to change it for, we just grab the first thing that promises some kind of rescue from the situation, and we often just browse, scroll through Facebook, a little senselessly, a little without much thinking, because it’s a quick response to this signal, we need to change something, this situation is not ok for us. So we change anything, and for some time this boredom remains, maybe not cured, but just pushed aside, but this is the mechanism of this chronic boredom, that we have an accumulation of boredom (there is not even a plural for boredom in Polish). Situational boredom accumulates precisely because it is pushed somewhere into the subconscious, and that is why it is said boredom is associated, for example, with a mid-life crisis, and this would be one of the mechanisms. You say that you have already achieved something, that you are in a stable situation, but I think that it can also be the effect of this accumulated boredom of various types, which at some point comes out and suddenly someone thinks ‘no, I have to cheat on my wife.’ He probably doesn’t have such a thought directly, but he gets involved in it, often he doesn’t know why, and the mechanism behind it all is precisely this desperation connected with this chronic boredom. And we have this boredom which signals ‘change something,’ and once we have this chronic boredom, it is this boredom which tells us ‘change something radically, deeply,’ not only that you should start walking instead of sitting at work, but maybe change your job, maybe change your wife.

So boredom can change a single person, but what if entire social groups are bored, can boredom change society?

A German researcher, Wolf Lepenies, spoke about this very issue, which you mentioned, that boredom often affects entire social groups. He also spoke a little in this context about melancholy, as if he associated melancholy with just such a kind of profound boredom related to structural conditions that, for example, someone is deprived of access to power, so they have no sense of agency. Lepenies talked about the French aristocracy and later on about the German bourgeoisie, but what these cases have in common is that theoretically, they had a high social position. Still, they had no power, no influence on government, because the aristocracy was removed from power by Louis XIV. The bourgeoisie was also pushed aside as this decision-making force. So yes, whole groups, I leave out that entire groups can be bored precisely because at the moment, for example, in consumerism, they are excluded from it. There’s some very good research on the homeless. This was a study by an American researcher, Bruce O’Neill [2017], who studied the homeless in Bucharest, Romania. Still, I think the case is universal. They have also been pushed out of the system. We now have a culture of consumerism, that a person’s value depends on how much they consume, and that their identity is also very strongly mediated by their consumer activities. Now we have groups of people who are excluded from this system. This is also an excellent colonial example, i.e. there are also a number of studies that say that boredom is one of the things that the white man has spread around the world, together with consumerism, together with capitalism, together with diseases, he has also brought boredom, which the indigenous people were supposed not to feel. They certainly didn’t have terms for boredom, we are sure, whether they didn’t feel it – is hard to say, it depends on how we understand this boredom. In any case, they were immediately a marginalised population. They had no rights, most often, they were part of the underclass, but on the other hand, they had certain aspirations. So these aspirations appeared until they were confronted with a different way of life and with all the material goods that the white man brought with him; they also did not feel this boredom associated with these unfulfilled expectations.

The question immediately arises whether the pandemic boredom has changed us in any way?

There is no research on this subject, I don’t conduct such research myself, so it’s difficult for me to answer this question directly. You can see on the Internet that for sure people were bored; on the one hand, there was the lockdown, so total confinement, so some social isolation, and here we have research that correlates social isolation, lack of social contact and interaction with boredom. This may not be a direct cause of boredom, but social contact is often a remedy for boredom, leaving aside situations where it is sometimes the cause of boredom when someone is boring us. In the context of the pandemic, it is not so much boredom that is being talked about as anxiety, that we are closed, that we have certain limitations, so I would rather say that here the [pandemic] boredom would not be caused by the fact that we are somehow more bored, but by the fact that we have been deprived of a certain group of remedies for boredom. Because we can’t go to the cinema, we can’t go to the theatre, we can’t go into consumerism, so to speak, physical consumerism, people are certainly “venturing out” on the Internet, so I expect that there is a boom in online shopping. Besides, shopaholism itself is often a derivative of boredom. Zygmunt Bauman [2007] said about the culture of consumerism and the whole system in general that it is based on the fact that it puts pleasure and the satisfaction of our desires on a pedestal. Schopenhauer also said that the transition from a wish to fulfilment is now very fast, but so what if a new desire follows each fulfilment. Therefore, the mechanism of current capitalism is precisely that we are in a sense unsatisfied, that is unhappy, so that our desires are realised very efficiently, but they are constantly devalued. Here, too, is this mechanism of boredom, that we are socialised into getting bored of things quickly.

You have already talked a little about boredom at work, and I would like to expand on this topic. Researchers describe the phenomenon of “bullshit jobs,” i.e. jobs where the work is entirely socially irrelevant, which also does not bring any satisfaction to the employee. According to some studies, there are as many as 40% of such employees. Does this mean that some people will be bored all day both at work and at home?

The assumption is that as long as they earn money, they will not be bored at home, but of course, this is also a bit utopian. Well, this is obviously a problem, this boredom at work also appeared with the industrial revolution in a mass sense, but it was different, but was it really? It’s also a matter of whether the work we do has a general social purpose, as you said, whether our work somehow helps to build a better tomorrow, an efficient society, etc., and the second thing is the nature of the tasks we do. And here there is also the problem that we are better and better educated as a society. I would even say that some people are over-educated, in a sense, bearing in mind the work they are later used for. Well, we all know that some job descriptions are very “romantic”: ‘creativity,’ ‘a teamwork,’ everything will be great and creative work [will be done] every day. And then, the reality is that yes, sometimes there are some brainstorms, sometimes something else will be done, but every day, unfortunately, [consists of] pasting cells from one table to another, pasting from one Word file to another, some editing stuff. But this is also a result of the fact that our production capacity is already so high that the majority of society doesn’t have to work in factories anymore, but on the other hand it has to work somewhere. This is the logic of this system. Of course, it might even be a good thing, because otherwise we’d simply be bored without work. Well, how can you imagine not working at all, what would you do? Of course, my first thoughts would be to read books, watch Netflix, relax, go for a walk in the forest. But it takes a month, and then you think, well, you have to do something with your life, have some ambitions, long-term plans, a reason to get up at 8 in the morning and not at 11. And this is where the stairs start. Boredom is chasing us.

Or perhaps one can get used to boredom?

Perhaps, just like you get used to a splinter under your fingernail, you can, but what for? On the other hand, sometimes the problem is the opposite, that people are so afraid to get used to boredom that they nervously try to find some remedy for it, they try to fight it, but then they fight it with consumption, Facebook scrolling, some very, in fact, meaningless activities that do not cure boredom but only push it away a little. As Josif Brodsky said, one should, in fact, simply come to terms with the fact that boredom is a part of our life as such, in the same way, that the fact that we are going to die is a part of it, in the same way, that we have to reckon with the fact that we have to sleep. In the same way, perhaps, we just have to accept boredom as an integral part of our life. Simply treat it as a valuable signal that maybe something needs to be done, but not react to it nervously. Well, we can also talk here about Martin Heidegger, the German existential philosopher, who just said that there are three kinds of boredom, but the most important is profound boredom when we are not absorbed by anything inside or outside ourselves, and therefore we can finally get in touch with our being as such and realise our place in the universe, our meaning in the world and our life in general, that is, finally, start to observe being as such. Here, boredom is not something we are supposed to fight, but just such a mood through which we should perhaps sometimes look at some things – including ourselves.

Maybe we should take a moment to look at this profound boredom that makes us realise who we are. Where does this boredom come from? How do we move from the boredom that makes us reach for the phone and scroll Facebook to the boredom that makes me realise how I live?

You probably have to be a bit of a philosopher. Philosophy, in general, was born out of boredom. People got bored and started wondering what the world was made of and how it all worked, so to get through at all into that state of boredom, you probably just have to probably cut yourself off from stimuli. I don’t know if it’s Thoreau’s case, as in Walden to go into the woods and grow your own garden for two years and live away from people, but in a sense, such “de-stimulation,” that is depriving yourself of stimuli is probably the only way to have any meaningful reflection on any subject, including yourself, life, the social system etc., so that’s the only such idea I would have, how to possibly induce this mood of profound boredom in yourself.

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