By Esfandiar Rouhani
In thinking about boredom, one of the things that stands out to me is the seeming paradox involved in trying to embrace boredom. In other words, the problem I am interested in is that it seems contradictory to desire boredom. There is something inherently negative (for lack of a better word) in the idea of boredom.
Let us begin by investigating boredom.
Boredom seems almost too familiar. We can usually have a conversation about boredom without having to constantly refer to a dictionary. This, I think, is the result of a particular quality of boredom, which is that it is first and foremost, a sensation or, rather, a state of being. In the same sense that I am only happy when I feel that I am happy, I am only bored when I feel that I am bored. It is the conscious experience of the state.
The immediate question that arises is this: what is it about the state that gives it the quality of being experienced as boredom?
In a given conscious state, say a random moment in my life, I tend to be doing something. What this means is that something about my physical or my mental state is concerned with completing (or even partially completing before completely abandoning) some form of activity. This activity could be physical in the sense that I am using elements of my senses to act on my surroundings, which is seen in examples such as exercising, cooking, reading, or even writing this very piece. On the other hand, this activity could be non-physical and mental, seen in philosophizing about a certain topic, daydreaming, imagining, etc. In both of these types of activity, boredom seems to be possible. However, daydreaming with my eyes closed and running a 100 meter sprint seem to be completely separate things. For this reason, it cannot be the activity itself that is inducing boredom, but rather my conscious experience being that of boredom, regardless of the activity.
It feels tempting to blame the activity itself. A lot of students will promise you that it is in fact math that is boring them, or that the essay about boredom is surely what is inducing boredom. This is false for the following reasons: First, the obvious observation that not every person is bored while engaging with a so-called ‘boring topic’ casts doubt into the claim that a topic is boring. If it were the topic itself that inherently and necessarily led to the experience of boredom, then all engagements by all people with said topic would induce boredom. But this is simply not true. What could clarify this claim is that a given topic is ‘boring’ for a particular person.
This brings us to the second part of the argument: Not all instances of engaging with a ‘boring topic’ (such as math) induce boredom in the same way. If there is even one instance of engaging with mathematics in some way that does not induce boredom, then it cannot be the topic that is boring. Perhaps this particular student’s instances of boredom highly correlate with times when they are in math class, but it is not true that they would feel bored every time they engage with the topic of math, such as when they read the time on a digital clock, count their money, recite their age, etc. Therefore, the topic is not the culprit.
Boredom, then, is the conscious experience of a specific state of being, regardless of the activity at the given moment. It certainly has something to do with the activity, but it is not the activity itself. Rather, it is the experience of doing the activity.
Additionally, it is still possible to experience boredom even when one is not doing an activity. It is rather difficult to imagine a conscious state in which no mental or physical activity is taking place, but in fleeting moments when boredom forces us to switch between a few ‘boring’ activities (by which I mean activities, in doing which, we experience boredom), there could be ‘boring’ instances of not doing any particular activity.
So, our understanding of boredom can be better phrased in the following way:
Boredom is the conscious experience of a specific state of being, regardless of the activity or lack thereof. It certainly has something to do with the activity or lack thereof, but it is precisely an experience of doing some activity or not doing any activity.
In our interaction with our boredom, there is a difficulty in ignoring it. We are aware of the fact that we feel bored when we are bored. In other words, it seems impossible to not know of one’s own boredom precisely when it is happening. It cannot be that I did not experience boredom just now, but in thinking back at a future moment, I come upon the conclusion that ‘Ah. Perhaps it is true that I was bored the entire time’.
This acute awareness of one’s experience of boredom typically puts a pressure on us to dislike that state. When we become aware of our boredom (which is also when we start to experience boredom), we experience a pressure to change our state of experience. If I am in the process of doing an activity, experiencing boredom puts a pressure on me to change my activity, or at least, change the way in which I am doing the activity. In some way, I feel pressured to alter my experience, whatever the activity.
In the case of no activity at all, the mental activity of thinking about my own boredom not only begins an activity, but also pushes me to change it to some other activity (unless I am perhaps someone who enjoys the experience of thinking about boredom).
This particular ‘push’, which puts a pressure on the subject experiencing boredom to experience something else, is the reason for the negative quality of boredom.
To be sure, we are not forced to change our experience of boredom upon experiencing boredom. We could certainly choose to continue doing the same activity, but with this, a negative sensation is accompanied. We are now begrudgingly experiencing the activity, but now, we are also experiencing boredom in tandem.Boredom, then, is a negative conscious experience of a particular state of being, which supplements other experiences, and puts a pressure for altering that which it supplements.
For this reason, the contradiction of the embrace of such a state shows itself. By nature, boredom is negative, and thus embracing it (or desiring it), which would be a positive experience, is in itself incoherent.