Philosopher Julian Baggini and psychotherapist Antonia Macaro have teamed up to create a helpful guide to common conundrums, drawing on the insights of thinkers like Sartre, Spinoza and Socrates. We’re pleased to share an extract from the entry on boredom
Ordinary boredom isn’t very interesting – it’s just a sign that we need to change what we’re doing or look harder for what might be absorbing in whatever is driving us to tedium. However, chronic feelings of global boredom, which can stop us fully engaging with the world, are more of a problem.
Deep and all-pervasive forms of boredom have historically been seen as sicknesses of the soul and given special names such as ennui and accidie. Kierkegaard, for example, thought that ‘Boredom is the root of evil.’ For him, it is not an absence of stimulation or of things to do but an absence of meaning, a sense of emptiness. ‘How dreadful boredom is – how dreadfully boring.’ You can’t break this kind of boredom by simply doing things – you have to understand why life has become drained of meaning and how you might recover it.
The Portuguese writer and poet Fernando Pessoa identified another source of profound boredom, which he described as ‘nothing but the monotony of myself’. His ‘heteronym’ (an aspect of himself that he turned into a fully formed character) Bernardo Soares knows full well that ‘since today is not yesterday’, every moment of life is unique. But still he cannot escape the wearying sameness of his own self.
Schopenhauer was even gloomier, taking the view that profound boredom is the inevitable result of the human condition. For him, life consists in constant striving after something that we think will remove our dissatisfaction and make us happy. But as soon as we reach a goal, instead of being elated we are overcome with boredom, which ‘hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey’. Then we set new goals, and so it goes on. We can’t win: if we’re not bored, we’re dissatisfied; if we’re satisfied, we’re bored.
Schopenhauer may have been too pessimistic, but he was on to something. Setting ever more ambitious goals to stave off boredom is indeed something of a trap. It will never get us where we think it will. We might not agree with his take on the pervasiveness and intractability of boredom. Nonetheless, we are undeniably often more energised when we are working towards a goal than when we’ve finally attained it, which can bring feelings of emptiness.
The analyses of boredom offered by Kierkegaard, Pessoa and Schopenhauer are all different but have something important in common. Boredom is not a simple problem of being unoccupied but is rather rooted in an attitude to the world or we that sees either or both as dull and lacking in meaning or value. Trying to cope with this by keeping ourselves busy is just a form of distraction.
That is why Bertrand Russell thought that a happy life required tolerating a certain amount of boredom. ‘A life too full of excitement,’ he wrote, ‘is an exhausting life, in which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come to be thought an essential part of pleasure.’ To him, activity was like an addictive drug that dulls the pain of dealing with the world as it is and ourselves as we are.
A happy life, in Russell’s view, is therefore to a large extent a quiet life, in which we have reduced our need for novelty and excitement. In their place he advises us to cultivate the kinds of pleasures that are not so liable to lingering dissatisfaction. Chief among these, he thought, are the things that bring us into contact with the natural world. We are ‘creatures of the Earth,’ he writes, and ‘we draw our nourishment from it just as the plants and the animals do’.
To avoid the wrong kinds of boredom, we do not need frenetic activity or a constant stream of new experiences. All we require is a life that honours what we most value and is sensitive to the textures and rhythms of the world around us.
Extracted from Life: A User’s Manual by Julian Baggini and Antonia Macaro published by Ebury Press on 30 July. Pre-order a copy here.