Boredom and Disgust: Oversatiation, Ennui and Disgust for Life

Based on: Finkielsztein, M. (2016). Nuda a wstręt. Przesyt, ennui i wstręt do życia [Boredom and Disgust: Oversatiation, Ennui and Disgust for Life]. Stan Rzeczy, 11(2), 61-73.

Boredom and disgust are closely related emotions. This thesis, at first glance, may seem rather bold, but there are many convincing arguments for its validity. These can be found in the psychology of emotions, language, fiction and philosophy. This topic is addressed in a very laconic way in his Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey (2011). This article aims to develop his reflections by systematising and collecting arguments in favour of the relations between of boredom and disgust and clarifying the nature of this link.


Disgust is most often understood as a physiological reaction to things considered repulsive, most often in the physical sense, which may constitute a threat to us (spoiled things – e.g. food, or things that are waste – e.g. faeces). It is also pointed out, however, that repulsion concerns not only what disgusts us physically, but also what disgusts us psychologically (Strongman, 2003, p. 138). Silvan Tomkins argues that disgust serves to defend the individual against “psychic incorporation or any increase in proximity to a repulsive object” (Tomkins, 1963, p. 2331). Disgust, therefore, like most negative emotions (e.g. anger, fear), is designed to defend individuals. The defence against anything that could potentially pose a threat to the life of the individual, both in terms of physical survival and health, as well as in the sense of a threat to the individual’s values and way of life (e.g. moral disgust). Boredom, on the other hand, can be defined as an emotion which signals and protects us from situations that are not satisfying for us (cognitively, emotionally, etc.). It is associated with monotony, repetitiveness, lack of challenge, but also with  lack of sense of meaning, which results in lack of involvement, alienation, switching off. Both emotions are therefore associated with a withdrawal response.

Both can also be viewed from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. In this paradigm, emotions are categorised “as our link with the evolutionary past” (Oatley & Jenkins, 2003, p. 10). Paul Rozin, Jonathan Haidt and Clark McCauley (1993, p. 645) point out that in the process of evolution, disgust was initially associated with a simple reaction of distaste to protect our evolutionary ancestors from being poisoned. Subsequently, disgust was to protect not only the body, but also the soul, it was to protect from everything that reminded man of being an animal. In this sense, the objects of repulsion became sex, death, injury and lack of hygiene. In the last phase, disgust was associated with moral offence and was supposed to protect the social order against people who did things that were a potential threat to the social order (e.g. adultery).

William Miller in his Anatomy of disgust, followed by Toohey (2011), state that boredom is a weaker form of disgust (Miller, 1997, p. 30). Robert Plutchik points out that boredom is a derivative or adaptive form of the primary emotion, which is disgust. According to him, if disgust is felt organically, then boredom would be its milder, more internalised, cultural counterpart. Both emotions have the same adaptive functions, i.e. they are supposed to protect the organism from factors that might threaten it. As Toohey (2011) writes, “If disgust protects humans from infection, boredom may protect them from ‘infectious’ social situations: those that are confined, predictable, too samey for one’s sanity” (p. 17). Both therefore warn against approaching or engaging in situations dangerous for physical health (disgust) or mental health (boredom). From an evolutionary point of view, boredom would therefore be a kind of mechanism aiming at optimisation of energy use, a signal to search for better allocation of energy, while in the social dimension – a signal which speaks of the need for change.


The link between disgust and boredom is well illustrated by the Polish word ‘nudności.’ This is because its subject contains the word boredom (Polish nuda), while the meaning refers to a physiological reaction to something that arouses feelings of disgust (nausea, queasiness). Of course, disgust is not nausea. Not every disgust causes symptoms of nausea, nor does nausea always indicate the presence of disgust (see Miller, 1997, p. 2). This certainly does not exhaust the possible semantic implications of this word, however, one can see in it a clear reference to the so-called boredom of overstimulation. It is caused by predictable and repetitive situations, when the individual is bored with something because of an excess of it. Boredom of excess is often associated with vomiting and is analogous to the experience of overeating  (cf. Latin fastidium). Not without reason one can “throw up something” when one has had enough of something. In English, on the other hand, one can find the expression ‘to be sick with ennui, which builds an analogy between boredom and vomiting reactions, because the verb be sick means, among others, ‘to vomit.’ Already in Słownik polszczyzny XVI wieku we can find under the term boredom the explanation that it is: “nausea, bad feeling” (Bak, 1981, p. 563). Thus we can see a very clear link between boredom and the physiological reaction, which can also occur in the case of feeling disgust.

Similar connections can also be found in Latin. A good example is the word nausea (a variant of nausia), which means sea-sickness, nausea and vomiting, but also, as Marian Plezia (1969) reports in his dictionary, figuratively speaking boredom and dullness. The word is known primarily from the expression otio nausia, derived from the Roman philosopher and rhetor Seneca the Younger, which is translated as “languid idleness” and through this expression is indirectly linked with boredom.


The connection between the two emotions can also be seen in the Latin taedium, meaning repulsion, disgust, aversion. The relationship between this word and boredom In her Polish-Latin dictionary, Lidia Winniczuk (1997) points to the connection between this word and boredom, where the word taedium appears under the entry ‘boredom.’ This association apparently is also present in modern Romance languages. In Spanish the word tedio is rendered as disgust and boredom, similarly the Portuguese tédio, the Catalan tedi and the Italian tedio. The word tedium also occurs in English, where it has a meaning similar to the expression taedium vitae, which first appeared in the Roman writer Aulus Gellius in his Attic Nights (2nd century AD, Noctae Atticae, 6,18,11), and found expression a century earlier in the writings of Seneca the Younger, in particular in his Moral Letters to Lucilius. The concept of taedium vitae, originating from this Stoic philosopher, meant tiredness, boredom or disgust with life. Such an attitude, according to Seneca, could be caused by the aforementioned “slothful inactivity” (otio nausia) or by being fed up with the repetitiveness of things and the predictability of life (III 24,24-26). Life is a constant repetition of the same thing, tomorrow will be the same as today and yesterday. Clearly visible here is the boredom of excess, weariness of the predictability of life, to the point that it itself seems worthless or even “unnecessary”. Seneca sees the remedy for taedium vitae in the practice of philosophy. He asserts, that through the pursuit of cognition, man is able to appreciate the world around him, he becomes resistant to excess because he wants to “penetrate the essence of all things”, constantly sees new problems to solve and phenomena to explore. The individual striving for the truth must not feel disgust towards his own life or towards the world around him. Disgust may appear, however, when instead of philosophy one devotes oneself to idle activity.


Boredom and disgust were also linked in the Christian concept of acedia, which on the one hand showed strong links with taedium vitae, on the other hand, despite many differences, it could seem to be a predecessor of modern melancholy, ennui or existential boredom. Acedia (gr. ἀκηδία – literally: lack of care) is most often defined as a type of spiritual crisis. This phenomenon has been described mainly in relation to hermitic life (later monastic life as well) and finally it found its way under the form of sadness, and then of sloth to the list of principal sins. Monks, who were described as the most frequent “victims” of the demon of acedia, “were overtaken by a spiritual indifference or disgust, by a boredom with their way of life so profound as to nauseate them” (Healy, 1984, p. 17). Those infected with acedia felt disgust for their chosen way of life in general and, most importantly, for all spiritual matters. In later centuries successive varieties of “illness of the soul” (Renaissance melancholia, Baroque spleen) generally did not contain direct references to disgust. They also differed from boredom in fundamental ways, for example through strong references to the feeling of sadness.


The history of boredom as a philosophical concept and as a literary phenomenon begins with the entry ‘ennui’ published in the Great French Encyclopaedia, in which boredom was defined as “a kind of annoyance […] which […] causes discomfort or disgust ” (Jaucourt, 1751, p. 693). The author of the entry, Louis de Jaucourt, did not specify precisely what kind of disgust he had in mind. Perhaps this is one of the characteristic features of ennui, boredom tinged with melancholy – an undefined, generalised sense of disgust. Based on source material from the long nineteenth century (1789-1914) two main types of disgust associated with ennui can be distinguished: disgust to the world in general and self-loathing – both closely related.

In the nineteenth century, ennui, considered the “evil of the century” (mal du siècle), was commonly associated with repulsion towards life. This is clearly visible in the fiction of the period from its very beginning. René, the title character of Chateaubriand’s novel, which is considered a formative work of Romanticism, repeatedly complains about his disgust with society and the world. However, when he escapes into solitude, he is seized by a burning feeling of self-loathing (see Kuhn, 1976, p. 204). René is widely regarded as one of the first victims of 19th century ennui, a variant of which is known today under the term ‘existential boredom’ (Doehlemann, 1991). The close connection between disgust for life and boredom is clearly visible, although not always explicitly stated, in the literature of the the nineteenth century (see Kuhn, 1976, pp. 167-278). The characters of Goethe, Byron, Musset, Constant, and in the second half of the century Wilde or Flaubert feel both boredom and disgust with extraordinary intensity. It is difficult on the basis of this literature to say unequivocally whether it is boredom that provokes disgust or disgust causes boredom – probably the two states merge into one, deepening the complexity of ennui itself.


Modern boredom is described as a reaction to social and cultural changes, which were the aftermath of the Enlightenment. The progressing rationalisation and desacralisation of life, or as Elizabeth Goodstein (2005) puts it, the “democratisation of scepticism”, resulting from the triumph of science and its achievements, combined with the gradual atomisation of society and individualisation, resulted in the spread of attitudes averse to the new order. The first half of the 19th century is dominated by boredom resulting from rebellion against the existing reality, which on the one hand arouses needs and aspirations (e.g. for freedom), and on the other, effectively prevents their realisation (see Steiner, 1993).

In the second half of the century, on the other hand, boredom becomes an expression of nostalgia for the pre-enlightenment past and resignation from attempts to reverse the course of history. In both cases, disgust towards society is a form of radical disagreement with the existing social order and its norms, which suppress originality, make people a cog in the social factory and do not provide a reliable source of the meaning of life. The artificiality and theatricality of social relations causes not only dislike for them, but ultimately results in boredom, a sense of the unbearability of life, and self-loathing. As Miller (1997) writes, “depression, despair, and boredom in the large sense of ennui share then a common ground with disgust, especially self-disgust or self-loathing” (p. 30). This loathing stems from the realization that the individual is unable to make sense of himself or herself, and that being stuck longer with oneself inevitably leads to weariness. In the end, self-loathing is compounded by the awareness that the individual is irreversibly part of a society whose norms he does not accept, whose norms limit him or make their lives hard and unhappy (e.g. factory workers in the 19th century). Disgust towards the world is transformed into self-loathing and, similarly boredom with the world transforms into boredom with oneself. The individual is not able to make sense of his existence, he does not strive for anything, his life has no deeper meaning for them. There is no order, no worldview that can answer all questions. Man has been banished from the paradise of ignorance, he has gained awareness of his position, possibilities have opened up before him, most of which he is not able to realize. As Saul Bellow’s protagonist of the Humboldt’s Gift, Charlie Citrine puts it, “boredom is a kind of pain caused by unused forces, a pain of wasted possibilities or talents”. Self-loathing would be caused by the knowledge that in many cases we are responsible for this condition is our own responsibility.


Both emotions discussed here were also linked by Stanisław Witkiewicz, who associated boredom not only with disgust towards his own particular existence, but also to existence as such. According to Magdalena Bizior-Dombrowska (2010), he believed that:

the experience of boredom contains […] a disgust to life resulting from insatiability, from a desperate awareness of the finiteness and limitedness of man in the face of the Mystery of Existence. In boredom reveals the truth about the insurmountable loneliness of Individual Existence, about existence marked by lack, about being condemned to being in a world in which man, rejecting the realisation of life goals and feeling metaphysical anxiety, does not find value (p. 83).

In his views on boredom and disgust, Witkiewicz is close to existentialism, particularly in version of Jean-Paul Sartre, who uses the term nausea (nausée). As Sartre (2007) points out in his work on Charles Baudelaire, there is a close connection between existential nausée and romantic ennui. This is also evident in his Nausea (2005), in which the two terms are used almost interchangeably, as adequately describing the experience of the absurdity of existence (see Menninghaus, 2009, p. 439).

In Nausea, Sartre (2005) speaks of the ‘groundlessness of existence’ or even the ‘distaste of existence’. As the main character of the novel, Roquentin, expresses himself: ‘I no longer have any reasons for living, all those I have tried have failed and I can no longer imagine any others’ (Sartre, 2005, p. 179). Boredom becomes ‘the very centre of existence’, the ‘material’ of which the protagonist is built (Sartre, 2005, p. 180), and existence itself seems redundant and absurd, i.e. irrational and incomprehensible. According to Sartre, ‘the very nature of existence as such fills us with revulsion’ (Warnock, 2005, p. 129). Roquentin, the protagonist of Nausea, felt disgust ‘at the thought of the terrifyingly monstrous and resisting mass from which the world is formed’ (Warnock, 2005, p. 129). The nausea may temporarily pass, when engaged in activities or other feelings, but they will return soon after they have ended. They are therefore inscribed in the consistency of being. In turn, the nausea described is only one of many prefigurations of the existential variety of boredom.


Despite the many links between the two emotions discussed in the article, they seem to open up different, although not always completely different, lines of thought. Hence the common impression that they are completely unrelated feelings. However, this is not the case, as the material I have collected indicates. Disgust and boredom are closely related. The nature of this connection is not always tangible or possible to define precisely, but it is undeniable. Certainly, many more linguistic, literary or philosophical examples could be given, but I am convinced that the material presented has clearly shown the relationship between the two emotions. Boredom is seen as the cultural equivalent of disgust, the final stage in the evolution of this emotion. It can also be a catalyst for the feeling of disgust, making us sick of something to the extent that we react by feeling disgusted – although in a psychological rather than a physical sense. Boredom and disgust would therefore be linked by the notion of excess or surfeit. In the 19th century, indefinite, generalised disgust became an integral part of the concept of ennui, boredom tinged with melancholy, which, as I have indicated, can be combined with the contemporary notion of existential boredom. Moreover, disgust, like boredom, can be divided into situational and existential (per analogiam to situational and existential boredom, see Toohey 2011). The former would be related to a specific situation, task, object, would have a short-term character. The second one would be related to a deeper feeling of disgust with the world, oneself or existence as such. In the former case, boredom would rather be a kind of cultural variant of disgust, in the second case, disgust would be an inalienable element of the so-called existential boredom, a reaction to the feeling of absurdity and pointlessness of human life.


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