Civitas on Air – Podcast on Boredom

The translation of the interview with Mariusz Finkielsztein – Civitas on Air (2021, June 14). Nuda w domu, nuda w pracy… Co robić? [Boredom at home, boredom at work… What to do?] [Podcast].

Mariusz Finkielsztein and Roland Zarzycki at Civitas on Air.

Roland Zarzycki: Today, together with my guest, Mariusz Finkielsztein, we will talk about why we all think we know what boredom is and why we are wrong? Why do we get bored? And maybe we can even figure out how to be bored more effectively. Well, why don’t we start with the question of how did you become bored, or more specifically, how did you start dealing with boredom?

The story begins in my MA studies at the University of Warsaw, at the Institute of Sociology (this is important information) when, as a student, I started to get bored and I started to notice it. It was connected with different issues, maybe I met some specific lecturers, but there was also a lot of repetition of the content, because I was there for my bachelor’s studies, then the content was repeated during my master’s studies – I started to get bored. So I decided that maybe it’s just my thing – only I’m bored, maybe there’s something wrong with me – those were my first thoughts, so I started thinking “and maybe other students are bored too?” I then proposed to my thesis supervisor, Prof. Izabela Wagner, such a topic that maybe I could deal with boredom. The enthusiastic reaction of my thesis supervisor confirmed my fears that this could be a good and important topic. And that’s how it turned out – the research was “self-revealing” – the students talked a lot about boredom, it was an overwhelming experience of being a student – boredom in university classes, so then I surveyed many students, using many methods…

Yeah, but when you say “boredom” you probably mean something different than we all think, so could you maybe say a few words about how boredom from the research perspective differs from the concept of boredom that we use every day?

Yes, it’s a very important topic to tell us what we are actually talking about. Recently on the Internet I saw such a discussion on Facebook in the comments, what is boredom and when are we bored? And there were two groups of answers, in fact, the first group of answers would equate boredom with idleness, and in this context they would say that this is something bad, because to waste time is probably for people with little intelligence. Here there were negative reactions to boredom – boredom is something negative; idleness, possibly related to the fact that we have no time for it. And the second group, which equated boredom basically with rest. And then there were positive reactions, ‘yes, I like being bored a lot! Last weekend I was bored a lot and it was fantastic”. And here there is a very positive reception, “oh, I would love to be bored even more”, or “I would like to have time to be bored”. And here we have these two visions, and neither of these visions is compatible with the definition of boredom in the social sciences, because, first of all, idleness is not boredom, because in the same way we would not be bored in the case at work or in any activity, and many studies have shown that it is precisely boredom at work that is a big social problem.

But we can be idle at work.

We can be idle, but we also find that it’s not just a question of idleness or not enough tasks [to do] – it’s boreout. Burnout is like too many things, boreout is like too few things we have to do. But we find that simply some of the activities we do are monotonous, routine, there is no intellectual challenge there and we start to get bored with it. It was already Kierkegard who said that boredom is not idleness, because then the opposite of boredom would be work, and that is not the case. On the other hand, as far as this rest is concerned, boredom is perceived and defined as a negative experience in principle, as an experience, perhaps, that the effects of boredom are some positive, something good can come of it, but the experience itself is negative and this will be in every definition of boredom. So it will be such a state which will not be equal to rest, nor will it be equal to meditation. Meditation is also positively valorised, we specifically want to arrive at certain positive outcomes through meditation. It is said that meditation can be boring if one is at the beginning of the path and does not yet understand what meditation is about, or if one meditates poorly.

All right, and so very practically, if we have a man who sits and does not move, how do we decide whether he is bored or whether he is resting in silence?

If he is satisfied with this state – he is resting, or taking a well-deserved rest after work, or simply saying ‘I will rest for a while’ and is satisfied with it, then it will be rest, relaxation, but if in this inactivity he is dissatisfied, he will want to change something, he will want to do something, then it may already be boredom, because in boredom there are these two elements. The first element is deactivation, i.e. we are not involved, this is the main notion here, we are not involved in a given situation which is currently happening, in which we are participating. We withdraw, so to speak, from this interaction and on the other hand we have this vision, in English we have a good word for it, restlessness, we are so stimulated to change something. They also talk about boredom, that it is such a signal for change. It doesn’t indicate what exactly that change would be, only that we certainly don’t want to do it. It is an evolutionary signal that we are wasting our energy and this energy should be used somewhere else, because here we have nothing left, no future, no challenge, nothing to expect from this situation, we have to run away. So you have to disengage from this situation, save your energy. But the thing about boredom is that we want to engage in something else. That’s why boredom is not apathy. Apathy is just zero feelings, zero emotions, and there is no way out at all.

It’s clear. And now that we have a little bit of an understanding of what boredom is, can you give us an idea of what your research is based on? For example, do you measure levels of boredom, do you measure when we’re bored?

Here it is the domain of psychologists, this kind of research. They have scales for this, they also have susceptibility to boredom, that is, they study boredom related to some personality traits and there are some differences here. Some people get bored easier, faster, some are more resistant. In sociology, this type of research is not conducted, although I know sociologists who use these scales, but the essence is rather to reproduce subjective feelings related to boredom in specific social situations and to look for social reasons for this boredom. That is, we are not looking inside the person, although sometimes there is something inside the person, but these are always interactional things, such as our expectations. One of the main categories of sociological description of boredom is failure of expectations, i.e. we have expectations, they are disappointed for some reason and then boredom appears. So this boredom is always a result of some interaction either between people or interaction with our environment more generally.

What is a bore?

There is no single answer to this, and certainly not a one-sentence definition, but it is certainly the kind of person who, in interactions, appropriates the whole space, and is not interested in receiving. It means that in that interaction there is basically no connection, no exchange.

Could we say that a bore is someone who causes us boredom?

In a way, yes. It is also a question of power often. We can also mention here a sociological topic connected with boredom that those who are on a lower level of the social structure are more often bored because sometimes it is not appropriate to, for example, interrupt our boss who bores us with various things that are important to him, or he boosts his ego because he has an audience and it is a question of power, i.e. a bored person, regardless of whether he has a higher social position than us or not, takes over the space, takes over the attention of the audience and has power. He is the one who has the power. I recently watched a series called “What we do in the shadows“, about the life of vampires. And there is a character there who is an energy vampire, it’s so funny that here the real vampires and then suddenly an energy vampire. He dominates every situation he is in. Why? Because he bores everyone, sucks the energy out of them and they become apathetic, sleepy, have no energy and his eyes light up.

So a bored person is not bored?

Mostly not. Sometimes there is a colloquial understanding that a bored person is a boring person, but they are not boring for themselves, they are boring for others because they have no interests of their own. Or on the other hand they have one interest only and he talks about it all the time. You can listen for 15 minutes about these cars’ bumpers and how it’s different between a Jaguar and a Toyota, but if every time you meet this person you get a half-hour lecture on these nuances, it’s already boring. This person is only interested in one thing. […]

Sure. All right, but back to your research, what results did you get, what could you tell us about, what can we learn from your research?

Let me put it this way. I conducted 3 studies on boredom. The first study was a survey of students. Then I decided that it would be good to compare it with the opinions of the teachers, but I didn’t finish the research in this direction, because then I would have been concentrating on teaching.

And this turned out to be boring?

No, it turned out to be one of the topics that didn’t fit into my PhD at all, because I started researching boredom at work, using academic work as an example. Well, when I started researching academic teachers from the didactic point of view, in order to confront students’ opinions about boredom with the opinions of their tutors, a new field of research suddenly opened up to me – boredom at work. This is the second study. And now I am conducting the third one, a rather theoretical reflection, i.e. I am taking various classical or non-classical sociological concepts and I am trying to interpret boredom in this context, also in the context of my research and other people’s research.

I see, so maybe going back to your research about work, because it sounds very interesting, then what can we learn about boredom at work? When do we get bored, what does it depend on? And maybe is it unique that we get bored at work, or are most people in the world bored at work? I once came across a study that concluded that only 8% of people in the world like their jobs. I don’t know, I haven’t checked the methodology of this study, so it’s hard for me to say if this is the case or not, but we can somehow relate this to our discussion. Is it just common to be bored at work or does someone have to be exceptionally unlucky to be so?

Unfortunately, all research indicates that most people are bored, just to a greater or lesser extent. There are various studies, and sometimes it is difficult to believe them, because they are based on large samples and these are statistical studies, so it is difficult to estimate it for Poland, for example, because there are no such studies in Poland, but in Great Britain and USA, about 20% of people always say that they are often bored. And in general, about 80% say that they are bored, which indicates that boredom at work is not a foreign concept to them. So in general, it should be said that boredom at work is common, and the lack of boredom, flow, as a kind of negation of boredom, or total engagement in what we do, would be a rarity, a privilege to have such a job. Often these are better paid jobs. Here we also have this class issue with boredom, that however most jobs assume some level of boredom.

That’s what I would like to ask about – classism, but before I do that, I wonder what it is like for Poles, because if you look at the statistics, you see that we work long hours in Poland and it would seem that the more work we do, the longer it lasts, the greater the exposure to boredom. Is it really the case that Poland, the Poles, are the most bored nation in the world or not?

We are certainly not exceptional, I don’t believe that. There is a general tendency to intensify work, but in this intensification we must understand that it is a certain ideology as well. Management tries to intensify, but boredom is also a strategy of resistance. I.e. that we specifically try to slow down, procrastinate, not to overtire, even during these longer working hours, in order to somehow express our resistance. Especially since often these jobs we have – we are employed below our qualifications. This is certainly common because we have a very high enrolment ratio but we don’t have a labour market that is different from other countries. We don’t suddenly have a much higher demand for people with higher education.

Yes. I can share such a personal story. A friend of mine from university with a degree in mathematics once told me when he worked in a bank that it took him about half an hour a day to work because he wrote himself algorithms that work for him. So for 7 and a half hours of time at work there is nothing to do. But now the question is whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, or whether this boredom is not tiring and does it not take away from our job satisfaction?

Of course, all studies indicate that boredom is even more tiring than certain types of activity, and it is also dangerous because it leads to a certain mental lazying. There was the book by two Swiss managers about boreout (Philippe Rothlin and Peter Werder – Boreout! Overcoming workplace demotivation). We also have burnout when we have too many things to do, too much stress, deadlines for yesterday, and we burn ourselves out. But we also have boreout when we don’t have enough work and we come up with strategies to pretend that we have a lot of work and then we can get into such a vicious circle that we have nothing to do all the time. Why? Because we don’t report it, because we pretend we’re working and so we waste even more time, because we could focus on things outside of work, for example, but a large part of that working time we have to pretend to work.

Well, yes, it is occupying. And what is the most such natural reaction to boredom? Like how a person copes with this boredom, which you observe in your research. I can also share with you my reading experience that I once read a book about the exploratory behaviour of animals and this exploratory behaviour, in a way, from the point of view of what you are saying, could be presented as the opposite of boredom, i.e. a rat which is satisfied on various physiological levels has a lot of free time, because this concept of free time is also interesting, maybe not in the rat world but in the human world, but coming back to this rat – the rat starts to show exploratory behaviour, which scientists measure by the number of stops it makes. These stops consist of standing on its hind legs and sniffing around, looking around, listening, and there is clearly an indicator that the better it is, the more often it explores. How is it with people?

We too have the same biological baggage as the rest of mammals, and perhaps even most animals. We have a pull to explore. Today we are attracted to novelty, but this is already intertwined with capitalism and its logic, but in general, the capitalism and this whole system exploits our natural mechanism of exploration. And in this context, boredom is also the opposite of exploration, because sometimes there is nothing to explore, sometimes we already know what is there and now we have to save energy, because why explore the same thing a second time? And here we have the answer. This monotony etc., we avoid repeating things more than once because from the point of view of our survival we don’t get new information, we don’t get new things with which we can increase our evolutionary chances.

Okay, now that the terms class and capitalism have been mentioned, let’s move on to, from my perspective, one of the most interesting questions, how does capitalism create patterns of boredom, does it co-create them, does it influence them, and where is this classism in our exposure to boredom?

Well here there are many threads. Well the first, the industrial revolution changed the form of work in general. You can see it well in Weber’s work, before industrial era people didn’t have this idea of working more, more, and more to earn more. They rather had a mechanism, like other mammals, not to work hard. To work as much as necessary, as much as we are used to, not more. Capitalism introduced something completely different and thus introduced boring work. Well, because work in a factory was devoid of any sense, which were constructed in groups in work, for example, on a farm. Farm work, yes, was also hard, but there was a certain cycle of that farm work, it was a group experience. And here we are dealing with the alienation of work in the Marxist sense on all four levels. So without other workers, we often work alone at the conveyor belt and from our human nature, we are like a machine or a draft animal. Here, too, alienation occurs at all levels and this has also changed under capitalism. Also, if I were to, obviously you didn’t ask this, but if I were to say what is the only effective remedy for boredom – not to have expectations, to have no aspirations. And capitalism introduces the concept of expectations and aspirations as one of the main drivers of development. Because we constantly need to develop. Therefore, on an individual level, we have to make everyone believe that they have to develop too, they have to keep doing something. If you’ve finished one course, maybe take another. Change jobs, work more, earn more, love more, change partners, do something all the time. […] in this sense capitalism introduces the notion of aspirations and expectations, but only to disappoint them. Here Bauman writes well about this in his book Consuming Life. Capitalism is not there to provide you with happiness – that is the goal ideologically, supposedly but ultimately the point of this system is to make people unhappy. Happy people don’t consume more, they don’t buy more, because they are already happy.

Satisfaction would mean the end of production, yes.

People are supposed to be happy for a short while, and then we have to buy another thing we don’t need. Bauman says it well and I would add that the mechanism of consumerism and contemporary capitalism is boredom. On the one hand, we have to disgust everything that is old, because we put everything that is new on a pedestal, and in this way we also shorten the life span of objects. That is, they are new for a very short time, but they also have to be replaced quickly.

Because they have become boring.

Yes, because they are supposed to be boring already. Why? Because, above all, there is already something new.

Of course. But it could be said in this context, in turn, that the rich are greater victims of boredom than poorer people, isn’t it?

That’s the general belief and there’s a trend of research, but a bit older, that just rather defines boredom in the context of the upper classes. That they had time and money to be bored. That boredom, so in Veblenian terms, we can say that as there was conspicuous idleness, so we can say about conspicuous boredom (see Tochilnikova, 2020). I mean, I am bored because I have time. Nonchalance in this, but rather most studies at the moment point to the other side of the social hierarchy, that paradoxically the biggest victims of boredom are not the rich, but precisely the poor. Why? Because in today’s capitalism, the rich have more opportunities to keep their boredom at ball. Because all this entertainment and consumption does not cure us of boredom, but just temporarily keep it at bay.

Yes, but on the other hand, it seems from what you’re saying that achieving more goals pushes us deeper and deeper into the embrace of boredom, so actually both the path of the poorer ones and the path of the rich ones pushes us towards boredom. So basically the issue is a foregone conclusion.

Yes, it has been claimed the democratisation of boredom in modernity. And that’s what traditional thinking is. And the rich used to get bored in monasteries there, maybe some kings used to get bored, like there was this scene in Pascal’s Thoughts. But now research has started to focus on the fact that the biggest victims of boredom are usually the poor: the unemployed, refugees, the homeless. For example, there is a very good study about the homeless in Bucharest [O’Neill, 2017]. Of course, this is just an example, but the mechanism there is that they are excluded from consumption, from capitalism, they are excluded both on the spatial level and on the social and cultural level, because they also have no access…

But aren’t they then more honest and thanks to that they defend themselves from boredom? And don’t they fool themselves that they are not bored?

That’s the problem, that boredom, the basic mechanism of boredom causing boredom is having aspirations. If we are poor and satisfied, we basically don’t need anything, because generally we have been socialised in such a way that we don’t need many things to be relatively satisfied with our lives, but contemporary capitalism leaves its mark even on those who are somehow on the fringes of capitalism, or are completely excluded, i.e. they are excluded, they can’t consume, they also don’t have the mechanisms to cope with boredom, but they want to belong to the system. So they are somehow excluded, they are automatically people who are deeply bored on a very often existential level.

Well exactly, and boredom from the perspective of age structure, because you studied students, you looked at young people. You could say that capitalism all these consumption mechanisms are increasingly, increasingly affecting young people. All these processes are intensifying, young people have problems with attentiveness, every now and then they are busy with some technological gadgets, they are scrolling down the screens of their smartphones in order not to be bored, one could add, although I don’t know if you would agree. And now the question is to what extent this boredom, or this exposure to boredom, or perhaps the experience of this boredom is inherent in the spirit of our times and there will be more and more of it.

In a way it is, although there is no good research on it. There is one methodological problem with such research, we are never sure if a given experience of boredom is not related to the fact that someone is simply young and it is related to age and then we would have to do long-term research and study someone at the age of 15, 25, 35, 45, etc. and then we would see during their life how it changes, and so we cannot exclude that it also changes because of generational reasons, so what you were talking about, that maybe older generations are bored, let’s assume, it’s a hypothesis, less because they are from this generation, but maybe they are bored less because they are simply older. And when they were young they were bored at the same level, maybe a bit differently, well, because the world was a bit different, but at the same level as today’s young people. We simply don’t know. But of course the attention span is shorter, then theoretically we get bored more easily, that is the level from which our susceptibility to boredom is higher. And this comes out in the research, but we don’t know if it is because they are young or if it is just related to this generation.

Well, as we are slowly approaching the end, I would like to ask you about the more practical translation of your research, or your findings, your conclusions, and from the perspective of our listener, well, what can I do to be less bored?

Yeah, that’s a basic question and I don’t have any basic answers to that. I mean in practice so much depends on the particular situation. Because if we were to think about it sociologically, there would be issues of socialisation, what kind of mindset someone has, to put it after Bourdieu, what kind of habitus someone has.

But this is already a foregone conclusion, in the 21st century we all have such a strongly capitalist mindset.

Yes, and this is a certain trap of this boredom. And now we’re being told that if we take this smartphone, boredom will suddenly disappear, but it’s not true, and research also shows that this is not the cure for boredom. In fact, it’s not a solution to the problem of boredom, it’s an accumulation of boredom, and as a result, it often turns out later that we’re no longer able to engage in anything seriously, because we’re used to very short engagements.

Well that’s what we’re observing in children now, but I’m trying to look for clues in what you said earlier. I mean, you talked about not having expectations.

This is the only effective way, only it is difficult.

This is an attitude invented 2,500 years ago by Epicurus.

Well, yes, later the Stoics also went in this direction.

And now the question is, what can we do not to have these expectations of activity that push us into the arms of boredom? Can research say anything about this?

In my opinion, no. I mean, research talks more about coping strategies, but they are just a way to cope with boredom, but this does not cure the problem, so to speak, but only treats it superficially. That is, how to try to combat that boredom in the moment.

So how do you cope?

The best thing is, firstly, to have no aspirations, that’s one idea. Secondly, find something to specialise in, get into it, and ideally it should be something manual. Research shows that physical activity is the least boring of most activities [Chin et al., 2017]. It can be a sport, it can be a hobby that involves you bodily, we can do something with our hands. There was research by the American social psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi who just described flow theory – flow would be the ultimate remedy for boredom and the ultimate, in my opinion, opposite of boredom, which is total engagement in something. So we would actually have to, I think, cut ourselves off from smartphones altogether, cut ourselves off from social media in that way, and reprogram our brains for longer periods of focused attention. And then practice in that direction to experience that flow. Personally, I was a ballroom dancer for many years, and I must say that for many years I was never bored. I only started to get bored when I started teaching others. It was boring then, but if I danced by myself I was never bored. Although it was often very repetitive.

The question is whether it was boring for them, for your students?

I don’t think so, in the same way that I don’t find it boring to dance by myself.

So in this boredom you can either be a giver, that is someone who takes away someone else’s boredom, who takes it upon himself, like you, for example, were a teacher, so you reduced the boredom of your students at the expense of yourself, because you were bored. Or you can be that boring person we talked about at the beginning and then in turn these interlocutors of ours are bored at our expense, because we are having fun. Is that how you could put it?

It is difficult for me to say. As I said, there is no research on this subject, but there is research on flow, and I think that this is the path we should take, which is completely opposite to the direction that contemporary capitalism and contemporary consumerism are pushing us in. That is, rather in the direction of activity. There is also discourse on sport, that more and more of us are passively consuming sport instead actively doing it. It should be the other way round and then this boredom would probably be more combated.

Sure. I hope our listeners don’t find us boring and that this conversation was interesting. For me it certainly was, I learned a lot.

If this podcast will be listened to on a bike, during some physical activity, why not.

So we should have said it at the very beginning: take something in your hands to occupy them and then you will listen better.

Yeah, running for example is very boring, but when you have something on your headphones, you get your brain stimulated and it’s optimum.

Sure. Thank you very much.

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