What the Mysterious Boredom Divide Teaches Us

July 21, 2020

Some people are a lot more susceptible to boredom. And from “covert narcissism” to low self-control, the reasons why can teach us about the origins of this mysterious emotion.

The thumping of valves. The cacophonous rumbling. The powerful kick in the back as the rocket’s engines ignite. The alarmingly realistic possibility that these will be your last precious moments alive.

By all accounts, the journey into space is a thrilling ride. During the second launch of his career in 1982, the cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev sensed the rocket swaying to the right and the left, as if it were losing balance… then finally, he felt himself leave the ground. As the crew soared into space, they yelled “G-o-o-u” – it’s not entirely clear why.

But though Lebedev’s space adventure began with a hit of adrenaline, this soon wore off – and just a week into his seven-month mission aboard the space station Salyut 7, he was bored. In reality, hurtling through low-Earth orbit at around 8 km/s (17,900mph) in a small aluminium can was not enough to absorb him. As he wrote in his diary “the drab routine has begun”.

We tend to think of boredom as a fairly straightforward response to tedious activities. After all, it’s rare to find someone who claims to enjoy washing up or doing their taxes – and it’s deeply suspicious when you do. Except that boredom isn’t quite this clear-cut. Decades of research have revealed that it’s as mysterious as it is agonising, and there’s a surprising amount of variation in how much monotony each person can handle.

“I think everybody gets the boredom signal,” says James Danckert, who heads a boredom lab at the University of Waterloo, Ontario. “Some people are really, really good at dealing with it though.”

In 2014, a team of social psychologists from the University of Virginia discovered during a series of experiments on mind wandering that many participants – around 25% of women and 67% of men – were deliberately electrocuting themselves when they were left alone in a room for just 15 minutes, purely for something to do. One person shocked themselves nearly 200 times.

And from the man who diligently recreated a Babylonian feast from a recipe on a 3,750-year-old clay tablet to the woman who resat her school exam paper from seven years ago out of mild curiosity, the recent lockdowns have revealed that peculiar and desperate strategies for dealing with boredom are very much not limited to a lab environment.

At the other end of the spectrum, some people actively seek out situations which might normally be considered tedious. The hermit Christopher Knight, who drove to a forest in Maine in 1986 and didn’t emerge for 27 years, claims he never get bored once – though by his own admission, for the majority of his time there he was occupied with doing absolutely nothing.

So, why is that?

One of the earliest accounts of boredom dates back to Roman times, when the philosopher Seneca may have begun the long tradition of moaning about it. During a ponderous exchange of letters with a friend, he asked “Quo usque eadem” – “How much longer [must we endure] the same things?”, and followed up with “I do nothing new. I see nothing new. Eventually there’s a nausea even of this”.

Later, there was the medieval preoccupation with “acedia” – from the Greek word for indifference – which was thought of by Christians as a kind of sinful apathy or slothfulness.

Though the English word “boredom” was invented in the early 19th Century, it wasn’t in the public consciousness until the author Charles Dickens slipped it into one of his novels.

Fast-forward to today and boredom is apparently everywhere; it’s sometimes described as the plague of modern society. Back in 2016, a French worker sued his former employer for “bore-out” – burnout’s less well-known cousin – and won. Meanwhile Generation Z – those born between the mid-1990s and late 2010s – have already invented a new kind, “phone boredom”, which involves scrolling aimlessly through your apps and finding nothing that interests you. Now people are even diagnosing their pets with it.

Defining boredom

Deciphering why some people experience chronic ennui, while others can live without constant entertainment, has been complicated by the fact that for a long time, psychologists couldn’t agree on what counts as boredom.

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