Boredom Is a Necessary Part of Life
Boredom opens space for productivity and creativity.
Posted April 20, 2020 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma
A friend asked how my work was going with the switch to online teaching. I replied that my days are like typing on an old-fashioned manual typewriter. I do the same activities every day. I prepare for class, evaluate students’ work, read and write about philosophy, walk my dog, and check on family and friends. I hit the carriage return at the end of a day so I am ready for the next. Each of these activities can be interesting and rewarding. Doing them every day flattens into a monotony across days and weeks. I’ve become unable to tell one day or one week from another.
I know that I am not alone in this. In many ways, I am fortunate to be able to function productively during this time. Years of teaching have enabled me to function on auto-pilot. Some skills have become second nature. I also think having been a high-functioning alcoholic now in long term recovery helps me to continue to be able to perform under far less than ideal conditions. Running on auto-pilot or having second nature skills kick into gear has important roles in our lives but it is not without risk. Running on auto-pilot can dull a person in important ways. Or put differently, the effects of running on autopilot in one area of life begin to seep into other areas. Where one should experience interest and engagement, one experiences dullness or boredom. This can be very harmful.
In contemporary United States culture, boredom is highly undesirable. It seems a state to be avoided at all costs. If we are not experiencing pleasure or excitement, we do not know what to do with ourselves. It is part human nature and part socialization causing people to flee boredom. Philosopher Bertrand Russell in The Conquest of Happiness (1930) observed, “We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.” Excitement is the opposite of boredom. Excitement can be highly pleasurable or utterly frightening. Running away from enemies trying to harm you is unpleasant but certainly not boring, as Russell notes.
We have more distractions and sources of stimulation than ever before. We literally and metaphorically travel the world. We can consume other cultures and have more “extreme” experiences. We can get lost for hours on the internet, television, and video games. We continue to seek more intense pleasures because we become dull to them; we have to keep upping the pleasure and intensity of experiences to reach a threshold of excitement. This sounds familiar to anyone who has struggled with alcohol, other drugs and addictive behaviors but it equally related to other forms of consumption. This flight from boredom by any means necessary may be the hallmark of our time.
The paradox is the constant seeking of intensity and excitement will lead to more boredom. The person who is dissatisfied in their pursuit of intense experiences suffers what Russell identifies as stultifying boredom, which is unproductive and unfruitful. Stultifying boredom dulls even more, making a person less capable of acting effectively. This type of boredom saps willingness to do other things, even or especially things people may wish to do. A marathon of scrolling through Facebook, binge watching series they don’t even like, playing video games that annoy often leave people feeling exhausted and hollowed out. These activities leave little to no space for the pursuit of “vital activities” that connect us to other people and the natural and social worlds in which we live.
Russell recognizes, however, there is a form of boredom that lends itself to productivity and creativity. Russell calls this type “fructifying boredom.” Fructifying boredom is possible in the absence of the nearly exclusive pursuits of pleasures and excitements. Russell notes that much of our daily life is full of mundane tasks and regular activities. We need not only to do these well but to learn to accept them as necessary parts of life. Doing them well without a great expenditure of energy frees the space for productivity and creativity. This is where auto-pilot is useful; some things need to get done so that we are able to do other things we want to do. Routines help us to engage in those “vital activities” that ground and connect us to others. Routines may also bring pleasure and comfort especially in tumultuous times. Repetition and routine need not dull but may sharpen and enable people to do different and better things.
A certain degree of monotony is what enables people to do great things. Even those who seem to have the greatest experiences or the highest level of achievements have deep currents of routine and monotony running through their lives. This is the piece of achievement or greatness often overlooked. Regardless of the arena—concert hall, laboratory, athletic field, school, your home—routine and monotony are the common denominator. The philosopher Montaigne (1533-1592) says our “great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” This is the result of fructifying boredom.
A great concern is that we in at least the industrialized western world of capitalism do not know how to strike that balance between routines/sameness and novelty/excitement. Quite simply, the number and intensity of distractions, novelties, and excitements keep increasing. The implications for humanity are great. Russell notes, “A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.” I will take living as a manual typewriter over living as a cut flower any day.
Russell, Bertrand. The Conquest of Happiness. 1930/2103. New York: Liveright.