September 14, 2022 Comments Off on Boredom
I will never forget the day that my eighth grade English teacher, Mrs. Geneva Fulgham, handed out class copies of David Copperfield, which we would be reading that semester. She was in her late 40’s, had a pageboy and 1950’s black glasses with the little points up in the corners, and she was fond of wearing close-fitting 1950’s sleeveless dresses with floral prints that stopped right above her knees.
She was sexy and beautiful and loved books and was fierce.
When we all had our books she stared down the motley assemblage of budding breasts and raging pubescent erections. “Some of you are going to read the first chapter of this and say, ‘This is boring!’ Well, I have some news for you. It’s one of the greatest books in the history of the English language. You think it’s boring? YOU’RE BORING!”
Even through the hormone soup I heard her loud and clear and made a note to myself. “Don’t ever tell her you think her breasts are boring. I mean her butt. I mean the book.”
Mrs. Fulgham introduced me to the concept that boredom was never an excuse. Rather, it was a judgment of your acuity. Didn’t like Dickens? Welcome to the Club of Young Eternal Morons.
When I was in the first throes of my separation-turned-divorce, things weren’t boring. Stressful, sad, anxiety-ridden, conflicted, guilty, desperate, clueless, angry, yes, all those things and many more. But it wasn’t boring. That came later.
After I’d put away childish things like life, love, family, duty, decency, morality, and humanity–you know, the disposables–that’s when the boredom set in. It set in kind of like Chicxulub set in, with a mile-high tsunami and a global dust cloud that exterminated several billion organisms and, in a moment, ushered in an entirely new geologic age.
One of Hudie Ledbetter’s many great songs is “Good Morning Blues,” and my favorite part is the introduction where he says “Lord I can’t eat and I can’t sleep/What’s the matter/The blues has got you and wants to talk to you/ And here’s what you got to tell ’em.” In my case you could have swapped out “the blues” for “boredom.” The boredom has got you and wants to talk to you. And what it has to say is vitally boring and tedious. And there was no Leadbelly song lyric instructing me how to answer back, so I sat and listened to the drone of boredom. Hint: It’s infinite.
Well, once you are bored and over the age of 55 you are officially retired. And it hit me hard. I didn’t used to be bored. Before, I was simply boring, and as Kierkegaard pointed out, incredibly boring people are rarely bored, and it is only when you become bored with your own existence that you can become interesting to others. That’s what he thought, anyway.
How bored had I become? Kristie would call and ask, “What are you doing?”
And I’d say, “Hubbing.”
“Staring at the hubs of my bicycle, which is leaning against the wall.”
I would do that for hours. Or I would poster, where I’d stare at a poster for most of the day. This sad state of affairs transcended my reality, which was that I lived in a beautiful place, had near-zero stress, didn’t have anyone telling me what to do or where to be, and also had the company of a cat whose worst habit was purring and liking to be scratched. There was so much to do but all of it was boring. I’d somehow fallen into the Byronic melancholy of life that Bertrand Russell held in such contempt, the tedium of Kierkegaard who claimed to be so bored that his interest couldn’t be aroused by either all the world’s pleasure or all the world’s pain. Like depression, and not wholly unrelated to it, boredom resists the power of positive thinking because it is in fact a very specific mode of thinking that rules out positivity. Boredom is ph-neutral, it is zero on the ruler of mental engagement.
Although the condition of being bored has been around since writing, a thing that arguably arose out of boredom and that has contributed endlessly to it, what boredom exactly consists of no one has been able to clearly explain. The OED says helplessly that boredom is the state of being bored, cf. tautology. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips says it’s a state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, a mood of diffuse restlessness containing the absurd and paradoxical wish to wish for a desire. Perhaps he’s paraphrasing Tolstoy, who called boredom a desire for desires. Russell does somewhat better in “The Conquest of Happiness,” saying that boredom consists in the contrast between present circumstances and some other more agreeable circumstances while one’s “faculties” must not be fully occupied. James Danckert and John Eastwood, a neuroscientist/psychologist combo, call it a sensation that something is missing, but we can’t say what. Some split boredom into categories, “simple” boredom like that experienced waiting in line at the grocery store, and “existential” boredom, more akin to ennui, melancholy, acedia, or even mild depression, a state that crosses multiple experiences, if not the totality, of daily life.
As you might expect with a condition that no one can define but everyone knows when they see it, the remedies are mostly silly, pedantic, counterproductive, or simply wishful. Russell would have us become people filled with what he calls “zest,” get a hobby like stamp collecting, and start a family. Danckert and Eastwood would have us concentrate more by having fewer distractions. Some have adopted the Charlie Brown solution of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” by arguing that boredom is an essential dead space that gives rise to creativity and allows us to cognitively work through issues that a more stimulating environment would somehow block. If this were the case, school would be awash with creative children, because studying has almost universally been shown to be the most boring activity you can engage in. David Foster Wallace, whose posthumous novel “The Pale King” about working for the IRS was a 586-page opus to boredom, taught that the best cure for tedium was to hang oneself, which he did. It’s the most practical solution of all except for the nagging probability that death is itself an infinity of boredom, probably the best example ever of the cure being worse than the disease.
Modern boredom researchers, who, one can only hope, find boredom interesting, even suggest that we are in a post-boredom age, where the effluvia of social media and the Analnet have distracted us to such a degree that there is simply no more time to be bored. Instead we are anxious, fractalized, depressed. I think this misses the point, though. The long-term boredom of sitting in a cabin in Kansas in the winter with no heat or electricity may be extinct, but we experience micro-boredom even with computers, where the end of an algorithm’s momentary dopamine buzz leads to an immediate cortisol downer of boredom. In fact, it is the space between the notes where the boredom occurs, in tiny doses, sending us on yet another vain trail of breadcrumbs laid out by the algorithm. And when added up, those micro-moments of boredom become hours, days, months, fucking years.
Boredom today also operates as a fear. Since our capacity to endure it has reduced to almost nothing (one study showed that people would prefer a painful electric shock to being alone in a room with nothing to do for fifteen minutes), the terror and discomfort of being bored drives us to yet more distraction, which completes the vicious circle.
Is boredom, then, created by modern life, as most people who study it believe? Or is it part of the human condition, an emotion that defies the CTRL+ALT+delete of any therapy, drug, or behavior mod technique with the same obstinacy you’d find if you tried to reprogram people not to ever feel fear, anxiety, or pleasure? Russell begins aligning boredom first with humans, observing that uncaged animals do not appear to get bored. Of course uncaged is a massive caveat, since caging results in loss of autonomy and mental engagement, which is exactly the effect of industrialized capitalism on everyone. But it’s a good starting point, and boredom researchers at Michigan State University, ever fascinated by tedium, tried to answer the question of whether boredom can be identified in animals as distinct from apathy and depression, two conditions similar to boredom but different. In a study called “Environmental Enrichment Reduces Signs of Boredom in Caged Mink,” the researchers showed that caged mink who had non-enriched environments responded to stimuli more than caged mink whose environments were enriched, concluding that caged mink do experience boredom.
The problems begin immediately, of course, because as the researchers admit, boredom has no operational definition even in humans. They simply call it a “negative affective state caused by understimulation or monotony.” Contrast that with the definition of Phillips/Tolstoy, that boredom is the “desire to have a desire,” or with Russell, that it is a state of time contrasts, that is, what you’re doing versus what you’d like to be doing, or with Kierkegaard, that boredom is an existential philosophy expressed in a mental state that consciously abjures pleasure or pain, and suddenly you’re dealing with some very clever, philosophical minks. Applying the cause to boredom as understimulation or monotony to animals is also problematic. What is a properly stimulated mink? How do we know that an animal is experiencing monotony?
These last two points are important because when I was going through my boredom phase I would sit around all day staring at the wall, pretty much the same behavior as my cat. He alternated between sleep and waking, as did I. He was mostly prone, as was I. He periodically engaged in activity, as did I. He never skipped a meal, nor did I. Yet he never seemed understimulated. In fact, he seemed completely fucking happy. My cat’s level of stimulation involved gazing out the window at birds he’ll never catch, walking out on the porch and sniffing the air, getting scratched, shitting, and sharpening his claws on the carpet. Limited behavior that seems monotonous in the extreme had no effect on my cat’s “negative affective state.” Given these difficulties, the researchers were left with a single behavior to quantify boredom in minks, which they called the motivation to obtain novel stimulation. In other words, the more you seek such stimulation, the more evidence that you’re bored.
This is circular reasoning, of course. Do you seek novel stimulation because you’re bored, or are you bored because you’re habituated to novel stimulation, and when the stimulation wears off you need another hit? Facebook et al. presume the latter, and they use important psychological markers such as the red notifications icon to stimulate you to click for more stimulation. Regardless, we can’t resolve the issue of whether animals are bored with a definition that chases its own tail.
The big problem with using interest in stimuli as a test for boredom is that mink, like people or my cat, differ individually. One behavior correlated negatively with interest in stimuli was lying down awake. Yet my cat lies down awake all the time, gazing intently at the birds. He is alert, aware, and appears to be completely focused on them in a manner wholly inconsistent with boredom. Who’s to say that the mink don’t also have individual responses to the same stimuli, with one mink running around and the other slyly watching to see what happens? Is he bored or is he a voyeur? Who gets to view the inner life of the mink?
A metastudy on boredom in mice and rodents, similar to that by the MSU researchers, concluded that caged animals experience boredom and that enriched cage environments can provide the stimulation required for healthier, presumably happier lives as helpless creatures await horrific pain, torture, live experimentation, and death. Like the MSU study, “Bored at Home: A systematic review on the effect of environmental enrichment on the welfare of laboratory rats and mice” makes no progress in actually defining boredom, which they simply call “an emotional state that usually relates to individuals having nothing to do, are not interested in their surroundings, and feel that life is dull and tedious.” I think it’s a pretty high bar to try and tease out the emotional state of mice and rats, and impossible to understand how a mouse feels about life. Suffice it to say, the researchers concluded that more comfortable and stimulating cages result in healthier lab animals. Shocking. Mice perspectives on their lives were less forthcoming.
Maybe we’re better off understanding boredom in animals without the peer-reviewed mumbo-jumbo. Maybe Russell said it best with a brief observation and then dismissal of animal boredom: Put them in cages and they appear listless, but otherwise boredom as Byronic melancholy does not appear common, if ever, in animals. Reading Byron to a mouse or mink might change that, of course.
Since riders on the boredom circuit seem convinced that boredom is a modern affect, rather than rodents and mink perhaps we should look at people, and yep, boredom researchers have done that, too. But before delving into boredom as experienced on Native American reservations in the U.S., or aboriginal settlements in Australia, it’s profitable to look at the work of a guy who wasn’t interested in boredom at all, T.R. Fehrenbach and his history “Comanches: The Destruction of a People.”
Fehrenbach’s premise is simple. An unhorsed, Stone Age group of Amerindians numbering only a few thousand acquired equines and put up the fiercest, deadliest, and most effective opposition to Western expansion in history. With the horse, these formerly subsistence hunter-gatherers blocked the French, defeated the Spanish, limited the Mexican expansion to Santa Fe, and blocked the entirety of the U.S. army from conquering the western states until the late 1860’s in a running battle that lasted over 200 years. What Moctezuma’s millions couldn’t do against a small band of Spanish conquistadors, the Comanches did with a few thousand horses, bows and arrows against the entire might of a modern industrialized state.
In setting up this premise, however, Fehrenbach gives a rich and detailed picture of the pre-horse Comanche. They were among the poorest of the Western Indians, had the worst lands, the worst hunting grounds, were small in number, afflicted by terrible health, experienced extreme infant mortality, starvation in winter, and were continually predated by more powerful tribes. Their existence was truly brutish and short. Whether it was nasty or not, Fehrenbach declines to comment.
This relates to boredom because nowhere in this history of the downtrodden Comanche before he got the horse is it even vaguely implied that the Comanches themselves found their lives boring or that they ever experienced boredom. In fact, they could not have. Each day was filled with some measure of arduous physical exertion. Each person moved, exercised, and lived fully exposed to the elements every day. The moment a Comanche’s eyes dimmed or muscles failed, they were on the shortcut to death by suicide or euthanasia. There was no room for anyone who couldn’t provide. Old age, often beginning around age thirty, heralded approaching death. Wives were often immolated with their dead husbands. But bored? Apparently not.
More than anything I’ve read, this account of the early Comanches hints at what boredom is and at its root causes. Unlike Kierkegaard, who thought that boredom was the original sin, boredom cannot exist with the natural state of human life, which is subsistence gathering and hunting. When each day is filled with labor and mental engagement related to survival, there’s no window of opportunity to be bored. Of course situational boredom, where notching an arrow for the five hundredth time or flaking a point for the five thousandth might not have been fascinating and might even have been monotonous. But conflating situational boredom with existential boredom is a mistake because situational boredom changes the moment the situation changes, and for hunter-gatherers, things changed quickly and often.
That’s bad news if you’re serving life in prison in solitary, but most of us aren’t. The situational boredom of standing in a long grocery line eventually ends when you get checked out, find out your card is declined, and leave in a huff. Existential boredom, the desire for a desire, simply could not have existed among subsistence level hunter-gatherers. Survival pushes all such contemplations out of mind. Just try starting a fire in a cold rain at night when you’re hungry and see how much boredom you encounter. Or go on a 150-mile bike ride with nothing but water and come home with the task of making a complicated stew recipe from scratch. Your hunger will make boredom impossible, no matter how much you hate cooking, or even if you’ve never made a stew before.
This brings into play Russell’s observation, that for boredom to occur you must use less than your full faculties. But what faculties? The faculty for play? For dance? For jest? For mathematical reasoning? For metaphysical thought? Doubtful.
The five types of mental faculty that are always in play when you are surviving are those portions of reason devoted to 1) How do I do —–? 2) What is —–? 3) Where is ——? 4) When will —–? and 5) Why did —–? The rest of your mental faculties become subsidiary, and in the case of people who are truly hovering between life and death, they may never come into play at all. Modern research on extant hunter-gatherers confirms, however, that every member of such a group has extraordinary intelligence, far beyond what you would ever expect to find in a similarly-sized group of, say, Ivy League college students.
By intelligence I mean the cognitive ability to perform incredibly complex and precise tasks and to solve extremely difficult problems quickly and efficiently. Any pre-horse Comanche could hunt everything from bison to deer to rodents to fish, and could extract nutrients from a biome containing hundreds if not thousands of plants. That extraction involved a knowledge of plants, their preparation, their seasons, and their locations. And of course hunting larger mammals required precise knowledge of how to prepare the skins, sinews, horns, and hooves, and how to eat the internal organs, since the Comanches derived much of their vegetable nutrients as partially digested grasses and seeds found in the stomachs of bison, deer, and bear. Each Comanche male had an encyclopedic knowledge of flint knapping and the construction of weapons. Each female knew how to prepare skins, turn them into clothing, how to prepare and find food, and how to raise children in one of the harshest environments imaginable.
Relevant to today’s modern moron, who can’t find the store without Google maps, any Comanche knew every bit of topography for hundreds of miles by memory. Streams, trees, rivers, bluffs, deserts, grasslands, hillocks, peaks, cliffs, lakes, seasonal playas, and countless other features were memorized as completely and surely as any satellite. No Comanche was ever lost, and when they acquired the horse, their geographical memory reached thousands of miles; raiding parties traveled from the High Plains as far south as Guatemala to plunder with nary a compass and with virtually all travel done by night.
If none of this counts as intelligence in your mind, consider also this: The pre-horse Comanches, as an inferior and poor tribe, were constantly hunted and preyed upon by more powerful neighbors. Warfare, usually defensive but occasionally offensive, was constant. Every Comanche needed the intellect, skill, cunning, tracking, awareness, artifice, and strategems of hunting equally skilled, better armed, more numerous people and of killing them when attacked. Still doubt the intelligence of these hunter-gatherers who didn’t even have the wheel? Consider that they stopped the world’s most modern army in its tracks and blocked westward expansion for more than two hundred years with nothing but horses, arrows, hardiness, and cunning.
If that doesn’t convince you, nothing will.
The point is that life for such people was not and could not be boring. Anthropologists now understand why. Such people’s lives involve extremely varied tasks requiring extraordinary skill, knowledge, memory, and intelligence. And despite the brutal conditions, the actual labor they expended was far less than any first-year lawyer. Modern anthropologists estimate that hunter-gatherers put no more than 20 hours a week of hard work into their lives. Additionally, virtually all such work activities were cooperative and social, bringing a level of complexity and interest into everything. Autonomy, and each individual’s choice of when or what to do, also provided an antidote to boredom. In short, survival, an intense and deep social life, the continuity of war, short life spans, and an absence of what we think of as leisure time meant that by the time the average hunter-gatherer got bored, he’d already been dead for ten years.
The advent of boredom was not therefore with the industrial revolution, but with agriculture, which created something that the world had never seen before: an excess of people. In the Comanche band, each person was essential. Child mortality was extremely high before the horse, and female fertility plummeted after it because the Comanche lived on horseback, which had dire implications for pregnancy. The Comanches were famous for adopting the children of their victims and the story of Cynthia Ann Parker is one of the most famous in their history: Kidnapped as a child she was raised Comanche, and when forcibly returned to white life at age 33 she hated it, never reintegrated, tried to escape, and eventually killed herself. But before agriculture, all hunter-gatherers lived on a demographic knife’s edge. Each person was vital and there were no resources for the old and infirm. Because each person had to be able to do everything, and life was hard, existential boredom could not exist.
Agriculture created the first slave societies, and with slavery came leisure for the elites. For the first time in history, agriculture began a trend that has continued to this day, the trend of a few people owning the labor of everyone else. Although the agricultural revolution is associated with progress and civilization because it created leisure time, the reality is that it created multiple slave classes whose labor created leisure and wealth for the elites. Slaves were called farmers, artisans, artists, engineers, philosophers, soldiers, workers, or employees, but all shared the common function of having their labor and therefore their time and mental output owned by a king/chief/cleric/emperor/CEO and his vassals. With leisure time came science, sport, novelty seeking, organized religion, writing and developed art, things that were incompatible with the brutal daily existence and early death of a tribe like the pre-horse Comanche.
In other words, far from being the original sin, boredom could only arise when life got easier, and in the entire history of humanity no force multiplier for ease will ever equal the discovery of agriculture. Far from being an affect of the industrial revolution, boredom sprang into existence the moment that people learned to plant and to harvest and to store. The creation of leisure time, practically overnight, invented its concomitant nemesis, boredom. And even though the price of agriculture for most was slavery, it was joyously accepted as a release from the brutal life of the hunter-gatherer. No people, having become agricultural slaves, have ever reverted to hunter-gatherer nomadism.
And because slavery meant specialization, that is slaves to till the earth, build edifices, make clothes, art, and music, the generalist intelligence of the hunter-gatherer disappeared and Russell’s condition of boredom, that you must not make full use of your faculties, kicked in. Whether king or farmer, planter or black slave, agriculture created a buffer between the environment and the human that allowed him to forgo the full use of his faculties.
How do I get food? How do I make clothing? Where will I find shelter? What kind of plant is that? When is it going to rain? How do I get from here to there? How do I kill my enemy and avoid being killed? These and a hundred other rational functions of the hunter-gatherer gradually split up and were divested into separate classes of people, who, like ants, perform such specialized functions that nowadays anything outside their role leaves them helpless. And the non-use of these native human faculties results in existential boredom. No matter how interesting your job, unless you also have a very generalized set of interests that engage fundamental problem-solving neural apparatuses, you are at high risk of existential boredom.
Need proof? Look at what happens when people retire. The pre-horse Comanche had what I like to call the Republican Social Security Plan. When he could no longer do the work of a Comanche, he died. The modern American? When he no longer wants to work, he retires and becomes bored.
None of this is mere speculation. Modern anthropologists such as Yasmine Musharbash in her article “Boredom, Time, and Modernity: An Example from Aboriginal Australia” have confirmed that boredom is an affect of agriculture and the “integration” of hunter-gatherers with Western slave-capitalism. The concept of boredom was previously unknown and indeed in the Walpiri language there is still no word for it; speakers revert to the English to describe the concept. Similar conclusions have been reached by researchers at the Grass Creek Reservation in the U.S. More particularly, looking at aboriginal Australians helps resolve the conflict between Kierkegaard’s observation that boredom is the root of all evil and has been with us since the beginning of time (it hasn’t), versus Russell’s more accurate claim that boredom is a modern affect. Well, not modern in the sense of the industrial revolution, but modern in the sense of the agricultural one.
So what’s the point of all this speculation about boredom?
It’s to share what I believe is the best way to overcome it, which is to go outside and use your physical faculties in conjunction with your mental ones to solve basic outdoor problems such as “How do I get there on foot/by bike?”, “What is that bird/tree/rock?”, “How far can I run/ride/hike?”, “How do I stay active outside despite extreme heat and cold?”, and even more narrowly practical things like “How do I make a fire?”, “Where are the freshwater springs I can drink from?” and many, many more.
One study found that study in school was the most boring thing for most people, and the most stimulating was sports and exercise. I began to return to the world of the interested (though maybe not interesting) when I took off my shoes and began to explore more deeply, not just with my mind, but with my sinews as well. The nerves in the foot produce extraordinary effects on neural activity.
And one of those effects is certainly, absolutely, money-back guaranteed not to be boredom.