You Won’t Be This Bored by This Story on Boredom

A social, psychological, pop-cultural meditation on the condition that, well, whatever…

T.R. Witcher

"In order to live free and happily you must sacrifice boredom. It is not always an easy sacrifice."

—Richard Bach

The first thing a newcomer learns about Las Vegas is that the natives are bored. I don't mean they're unhappy. It's just that whereas the rest of the world comes to Las Vegas for its thrills, the local regards the Strip with a shrug. How boring. They've already seen Cirque du Soleil or eaten at one of a dozen upscale restaurants that have been designed to within an inch of their lives. They've shopped the forums and passages and malls. They've gazed at the lights. They've sat in traffic, dealt with the crush of people. But maybe even the tourists can feel this lingering boredom in Sin City. If the PR wisdom here is that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, the wisdom elsewhere is that the perfect stay in Las Vegas is a short one.

Of course, if boredom has any foothold in shock-and-awe Las Vegas, then nowhere is safe. Kids are bored at school. The rest of us are bored at work or in marriages. The suburbs are boring. The Midwest is boring. Underneath every new bell and whistle, every fad and trend, every new celebrity, gadget, hot spot, hot town, hot neighborhood and hot club can be heard a resigned sigh. "Interesting," we say, having turned an antonym for boredom into its euphemism. "Um ... is there anything else?"

Let's face it—America is boring. I mean, in talking about boredom, no one wants to come off as a whiner or, worse, a bore. But consider this: A Gallup survey of 1,000 workers a few years ago revealed that only 26 percent were engaged in their work. Of the rest, 55 percent were not engaged, and 19 percent were actively disengaged. The survey estimated that the 19 percent alone cost the economy $300 billion a year, the equivalent of the nation's defense budget.

Does our boredom point to an emptiness at the heart of our culture—or in the fabric of existence itself? Or does it suggest something is wanting with us? Historian Laird Easton described boredom in terms that Las Vegas should understand: "Much of modern Western culture," he says, "has been a wager against boredom, just as most of premodern life was a wager against death."*

Although boredom didn't enter the language until the 18th century, it has its precursors and cousins. There is melancholy, which comes from the Greek word for black bile (one of the four humors the Greeks believe had to be balanced to maintain health). Ennui comes from an Old French word meaning annoyance. Then there is acedia, a spiritual disinterest in the world, which the poet Petrarch defined in the 14th century as a "voluptuousness in suffering that makes the mind sad" and leads to "hatred and contempt of the human condition."

In the early 21st, it's safe to say that boredom comes in two basic varieties. There is small-b boredom. This is temporary boredom: the boredom of a traffic jam on the 215, cleaning the house or running errands. It's the drag of routine, the blahs that come and go on a dead Saturday afternoon when you want to be doing something but can't think of anything. The small-b boredom is at worst just an inconvenience, a headache that will pass with a good night's sleep.

The big-B boredom is the silent predator that hides on the backs of progress and prosperity. It is the vague and vertiginous sense that behind the neon façade of our modern world exists a deep emptiness of purpose or meaning that no casino, no show can address. It stalks us and poisons our society—men rush to war to try to cure themselves—yet we can't even really identify its edges. This boredom is like a fog or a stale persistent odor that no amount of scrubbing can quite clean. Which kind of sucks: We can't identify its causes or find its boundaries. Sometimes it seems to be external, and other times it seems to be lodged right in our brains. But we can't seem to overcome it.

A lifetime of minor boredoms can certainly accrue the weight of Boredom, just as Boredom is a symptom of depression. According to the Alliance for Human Research Protection, 27 million people used the antidepression drug Prozac between 1988 and 2002, with the number of new patients in 2002 more than double the amount in 1988.

Depression is not the same as boredom. "The depressed person feels himself or herself to be inadequate to the world, whereas the bored person finds the world itself to be inadequate," as Easton puts it.

But both are on the rise. In the 19th century we had Madame Bovary, the story of a woman, easily bored, constantly clinging to dreams of a more exciting life, who is destroyed by the weight of her own yearning. By the middle of last century, there was Waiting for Godot—who could read Beckett's slender play without feeling the world open up into an abyss of endless waiting-for-nothing? In more popular literature of the day, there was James Bond, a man defined by his fear of ennui—dashing off on suicidal missions around the world was a comparably safer way to live than atrophying in London between jobs.

These days, the evocation of boredom is part of the loud shrieking wall of pop culture. Sports have given way to extreme sports. Gen-X has given us cult classics like Dazed and Confused. Green Day wails, "Take me away to paradise/I'm so damn bored/I'm going blind." The consumer-class denizens of Fight Club pulverize each other in order to feel alive again. And what is Desperate Housewives but an expression of rebellion against the doldrums of married life out in the 'burbs?

Depending on where you find it, idleness is the devil's workshop, or his hands, or his tools, or his playground. If you ask whether boredom stems from too much work or too little, those weighing in for the latter reads like a who's-who of Great People: Da Vinci, William Blake, Franklin, Gandhi. (Of the lot Blake puts it best—expect poison, he says, from standing water.)

Lined up on the other side? A small group of modern intellectuals and artists, including Søren Kierkegaard, Virginia Woolf and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who proclaimed in a 1932 essay that "in all seriousness, a great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work." Harsher still, he continues: "The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery."

Of course, we have moved out of a world where day-in, day-out survival was no gimme. Work has become another product on the marketplace, and we've become more discriminating shoppers. We're looking for a deal or a sale, for a job that doesn't just sustain us but satisfies us. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, late boomers—those born between 1957 and 1964—switch jobs an average of 10.2 times. There are many possible reasons for this, but it's safe to say that boredom has long since ceased to be a conceit of the thumb-twiddling, croquet-playing privileged class and is squarely with the middle-class and beyond.

If the boredom of the workplace can be likened to eating a cracker with no salt five days a week, then the boredom from play is like being force-fed the sugary goo from a candy store. "Our consumer culture lends itself to boredom," says Dr. Paul Schollmeier, the chair of the philosophy department at UNLV. "We're focused on things, not on activities. New things are fun at first, but you get tired of them. Unless it allows you to do something you want to do, even the newness wears off."

American innovation is based on products having a short shelf life, breaking down and no longer working, thus enabling newer, better, faster products to replace them. This ingrains in us a feeling that our products, the things we consume, are by their very nature fleeting, insubstantial. Consumerism operates from the premise that some people are boring and some people are not, and when you find yourself on the wrong side of that divide—if you want to, you know, have a life—you'd better get down to the store with your credit card.

It's hard not to be finicky in a supersize society that offers ever more choice. We get bored if things are too ordinary and routine. Strangely, we get bored with too much variety. Being alone bores us—surely, someone out there is having just the most fun!—and then we go out and go through the motions at a bar, restaurant, nightclub, and we think, "This is boring, and I should have stayed home." Too much activity bores us. Too much rest bores us. New music bores us because it's different from our favorites. Our favorites bore us because we've heard them too many times. Choice itself eventually wears us out.

Count on a psychoanalyst to locate the problem of boredom squarely in the realm of desire. Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips finds two assumptions in boredom, "two impossible options": having something to desire and having nothing to desire. "But which of the two assumptions, or beliefs, is disavowed is always ambiguous, and this ambiguity accounts, I think, for the curious paralysis of boredom," he writes in his book On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. "In boredom there is the lure of a possible object of desire, and the lure of the escape from desire, of its meaninglessness."

Two choices. Two ways out. One is satiation. This is the preferred way in Las Vegas. Have a desire; find a way to satisfy it. If the desire can be satisfied with goods or services, so much the better. This way is full of difficulty. For one, the dizzying array of choices and noise makes it harder than ever to really know what we desire. Another psychoanalyst, Edward Bibring, who is quoted in a book on boredom by Reinhard Kuhn, The Demon of Noontide, argues that people are bored because they repress their desires and replace them with inadequate substitutes like television. So there's no guarantee that we can even find (or 'fess up to) our real desires. And then, of course, there's no guarantee we can achieve them.

Option two is to eliminate desire. This is along the lines of Buddhism, which posits that all suffering comes from desire, from attachment. Cast off your false image of your self, try to see through your desires, and you can defeat boredom, this spiritual pain forever entwined with a world that believes in the permanence of material things. That's a tough path for us in the West. Ask the monks. Americans in particular are better at doing than being. We are a nation of builders and engineers, problem-solvers, social climbers, risk-takers. We equate happiness with stimulation, motion, and on-demand availability. Faced with moments of stillness, we don't know how to respond. Meditation is, unfortunately, unbelievably boring. So we turn back to desire. We seek stimulation, and stimulation becomes habit-forming. Soon we need more stimulation to keep up. But then we realize that there is so much stimulation, so much pressure or desire to somehow swallow it all, that we can take only a nibble from anything, and the nibble leaves us hungry, and slowly we become discouraged by the whole process.

Easton puts his faith in adventure—a quest for the unknown—as the antidote to ennui. And maybe he is right. When I see that American Express commercial with surfing god Laird Hamilton, I don't exactly think to myself that his life looks boring. As a short-term spike of adrenaline and thrill, the world of extreme sport or extreme travel makes sense. I suppose one could string together a whole series of such adventures and build an Adventurous Life.

But adventure turns out to be a relative, competitive undertaking. It only counts if your adventure is better than your neighbors. The travel magazines publish exciting photos of esoteric corners of the world. They keep getting more and more remote. This should be exciting, but I find it only makes me anxious. It's no longer enough to go visit Europe. That'd be like feasting on a shriveled orange rind. Asia? Played. South America? Getting there. Africa. Give it time. I fear that by the time I'd be able to scrape up money to visit the off-the-beaten path places, they will all be guidebook-ized.

Easton quotes an author named Harry Kessler, who wrote about his travels to Mexico. "Ours is perhaps the last age in which one can still travel. Already we can barely escape our civilization. The picture remains astonishingly the same from one part of the world to the next."

And that was 1896.

In medieval times, boredom was a sign of spiritual lack. Those poor monks, sitting in their cold, silent monasteries, weren't even allowed to be bored, for Christ's sake, without being made to feel as if they lacked the spiritual chops to engage God—who obviously, since they were in a monastery, was all around them. In our world, we've managed to turn boredom around and direct it away from ourselves. To us it's become a sign of a society that stokes our insatiable desires but cannot keep pace with them.

So what do we do in the face of this gap? We pose. We feign boredom for whatever cool points we think it will win us, whatever much-cherished feeling of artistic or intellectual superiority. No one wants to be vulnerable in a society that pounces on weakness. Deliberate disaffection allows us to defend our inability or unwillingness to make a stronger connection with the world around us, and then to press the attack. Posers may not engage, but they never get taken in, they never get found out. They are not suckers.

Boredom is at its juicy best when we use it against other people. It is immensely satisfying to coldly dismiss someone by saying, "You're boring me." It's the same act as staring right at someone and refusing to see them. Merely telling people you hate them seems by comparison crude and clumsy.

Moral worth (not to mention fame and wealth) seems increasingly based on skill at entertaining others. No one wants to be the bore at the new nightclub opening. Better to be perceived as a jerk. This may help explain the (the increasingly boring) way American Idol parades out one group of lousy singers after another in the early weeks of the show. We don't respect their "effort" in trying—that façade is easy enough to see through. But we laugh anyway because these clowns are not nearly as boring as the steady yet unspectacular singers who fill the belly of the competition. People appreciate genuine talent, usually, but marginal talent of the solid but unspectacular kind is a long road to obscurity. Loud, flamboyant non-talent is, practically speaking, the safest bet of all. It is better to have sucked but not been boring than not to have sucked at all.

A colleague sent me to the Reading Room, a bookstore at Mandalay Place, in search of Boredom, a book that contained a lot of doodles and sketches, photo montages, visual experiments (a picture of an illustration alongside another picture of that same image run through a copy machine 270 times), a bit of porn, a smattering of text. The book had neither a table of contents nor page numbers (obviously too boring), but began with a nifty introductory page where writer John Jay suggested that Gen X proudly took the label Slacker as a kind of rebellion against their self-indulgent foes, the baby boomers. If he's right about this, then underneath the surface of vacant-staring, heroin-chic supermodels we would find a series of rebellions against our parents. We're not really so bored as we let on. We're only pissed that they created the modern consumer world before we could.

Jay was an optimist about the pose of boredom. "By suspending reality using the mask of boredom as an expression of urban style," he writes, "they created this generation's version of a cool pose." The mask was transformed into art. Some defenders of boredom argue along what are essentially creative grounds. Art would never advance, they say, if each generation didn't find the work of the last boring. This is probably true, though this rejection of the past often strikes me as reflex more than self-reflective. Still, a certain fluidity with our identities, a certain willingness to play and reinvent, to be bored enough to rearrange the pieces of our lives just for the hell of it, may be a good check against anomie. (Then again, it may be its cause.)

It is clear we have much contempt for boredom and for boring people. This permeates a lot of discussions about cities versus their suburbs, for instance, the way in which, say, Downtown Las Vegans may take umbrage with folks in Henderson for the presumed stultifying homogeneity of their lives. Finding boredom in others is the smug mind-set of those who believe they have their consumer bona fides in working order. But then again, we sometimes fear that it is us, after all, who are the boring ones. Everyone else is out there having more sex, making more money, traveling to more exciting places than we are.

Here ironic detachment comes in handy as a shield. Don't believe the hype on those people who look like they're having too much fun. They are simply hypnotized by the media-informational complex. Those of us who are bored, um, are in touch with the age's spiritual emptiness, or the essential mortality of all things, while the people who claim they are not bored are sadly enmeshed in digital webs of superficiality.

This attitude can be just as condescending as those who are shoving in your face how exciting their lives are, but I am sympathetic to the distancing tactics of boredom. We all sense the deeper silence and emptiness beneath life's glittering whirligig. But confronting the sources of boredom means 'fessing up to those things we don't like to think about, our dreams, failures, weaknesses, loneliness, mortality, fear of death, fear of life. Maybe such a confrontation will lead us to a spiritual rebirth. But maybe it will only lead to the downer realization that, as Phillips concludes, "You may not be leading a charmed life."

And so boredom becomes a naïve but well-intended holding action. It's a frost-covered idealistic faith that tells us if we can just hold out a little longer, the world will finally deal us a hand worth going all in on.

There is little literature on boredom, and much of it deals with boredom in literature. But there are tantalizing suggestions of boredom's role in the history of the 20th century. From author Charles Van Doren—the infamous Quiz Show contestant from the 1950s—comes the remarkable claim that perhaps boredom underlay the ostensible causes of World War I. "The ruling bourgeoisie did not at first believe it was lethargic, because it was so busy making money," he writes. "Making money is not heroic human action! cried the artists. Making money is boring you to death! ... Money bored them, but worse, so did peace. Finally they could not endure the boredom any longer, and they allowed the war to begin." He's not the only one. Historian Zara Steiner writes, "It may well be that, for reasons which the historian can only dimly perceive, Europe was deeply ready for war. It is not just that a generation 'had been taught to howl'. It may be that some profound boredom with the long years of peace and with the tedium of industrial life led men to volunteer for France and to find in that Hell a final confirmation of manhood. ... It was 'Vain Glory,' but it was glory."

Even Easton speaks of a "yearning for a catastrophe" at the close of the last century. Which is ironic given the extensive literature on the long droughts of boredom soldiers encounter in warfare.

It is tempting to see events post-9/11 in this light. It is hard to say what has really changed in the United States since that day. We have not suffered another act of terrorism in this country, though experts habitually claim that it's not a matter of if but when. Officials are blasted for crying wolf on the terror-threat level, then blasted for not announcing that some city was a target for a strike. The war on terror has morphed from a limited series of global intelligence and military actions to an almost evangelistic campaign to bring freedom to the rest of the world—or at least that part that is believed to support terrorists.

If anything has changed, our post-9/11 narratives are certainly more compelling. In the '90s boom, communities from Las Vegas to Denver to Atlanta trumpeted the same boasts about new housing developments stretching farther into the country, new upscale chain stores, suggesting that these developments were great moral achievements of our age. Even then the success stories of growth were more than a little boring.

I suspect people on the left and the right both feel boredom, but may locate it differently. People on the left may feel this most strongly in the homogeneity that our modern world requires to function at such a high level of efficiency. Folks on the right may feel boredom as a kind of moral lack, a symptom of a society grown lazy and soft, too timid and relativistic to etch out in stone a divide between right and wrong.

It's hard to be bored lately. The Bush administration and its supporters on the right are engaged in its great adventure to bring the nation's power to bear and remake the world. The left is engaged using the tools that have traditionally been in its bailiwick—the media and the arts—to stand in the way. "In epics where people are politically engaged," Easton says, "you have less boredom."

So what are we to do? Spacks lets us know we should not be surprised by the "exponential" increase in evocations of boredom throughout the last century. The rise, she argues, is "implicit in the common understanding of modernism, which posits an isolated subject existing in a secularized, fragmented world marked by lost or precarious traditions."

Yet if the modern age is marked so fundamentally by uncertainty, a point that Easton echoes, how on Earth are we bored? Wouldn't the challenge of creating meaning for ourselves, our families, our communities, be enough work, offer enough engagement to banish boredom? Maybe that prospect is too daunting and discouraging. Maybe we feel that every effort to make sense of the world is doomed to fail, and we lose the will to try.

What seems clear is that the remedy to boredom is not more freedom—in the sense of a growing glut of trivial choices about what crap will fill our homes. But the stability or moral certainties of an earlier age don't seem to be the answer, either—that is the path of soul-deadening conformity. The remedy to boredom is most likely connection. It should be easy, right, in a world of so much interconnectivity? Any interest you could possibly have, no matter how niche, how obscure, will yield a community of fans on a web search. Any desire can be met or bought.

But real engagement is not that easy. Connection requires active participation on our part. Mere passive reception of goods and services and stimuli isn't enough. Real engagement takes time and effort. It's more concerned with process than outcome. But it's hard to slow down for very long in this society if you want to get ahead. And it comes with real risks—the hurt of having chased a desire through hell and back and come up empty.

For starters, though, we could at least try to let go of our fear of boredom.

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