Boredom And Meaningful Work

By Kian-Yoo Sharifi

It is a constant source of interest for me how the most entertained generation in history nonetheless is so frequently bored. The obvious answer, of course, lies in the quality of the entertainment we’re provided with. But this cheap, if accurate, shot at modern media fails to fully explain this phenomenon: humans—including me—have been consuming lowbrow content since the beginning of time, and have continued to enjoy doing so. Some simply suggest that people have simply been bored to death for most of human history and that this is a relative improvement, and there’s some truth to that as well. Defining and producing our own ends is a relatively new project for humanity, and though we’ve created a host of wants and needs inconceivable to the pre-modern human, I would hope we’re only getting started. But nonetheless, I feel unsatisfied with this answer as well. When depression and anxiety has been on the rise for decades, it is hard for me to claim the world is more engaging for us than it was for our parents—even, again, as we likely consume far more media on a weekly basis than they would in a year. At the core of this concern, then, is an uncomfortable question: if this won’t satisfy us, what will? Will boredom forever be central to the human experience?

It’s possible, to be sure. But I don’t think it’s that simple. Rather, boredom seems symptomatic of a greater problem, and it’s one touched on by thinkers as intellectually diverse as Karl Marx and Hannah Arendt: we are bored because we live in a world in which we are unable to participate in meaningful activity. On its face, this sentiment seems obvious at best and trite at worst. But it is describing a very specific problem, best encapsulated by a quote by Marx from his 1844 Manuscripts, in which he discusses the problem of alienation: “man (the worker) only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal.” By human functions, Marx is referring to labor. Arendt, in discussing the problem, might instead refer to the public sphere and the loss of political action. But the core of the argument is one they largely agree on: our relationship with our work (for a certain value of the word) is fundamentally misaligned, and it’s frustrating our potential as a species.

As a society, we live to eat, sleep and relax. To the extent that most people participate in society, we do so to satisfy our needs: work appears to us as an onerous, arbitrary chore, imposed on us by necessity so that we do not starve. It’s hard to say that there’s something wrong with this on a moral level, and if there is, then it’s something I’m as guilty of as everyone else. The vast social surplus produced by society is a good thing (at least for humans), and we shouldn’t shame ourselves for being able to satisfy, or multiply, our wants or needs. It’s fun to rewatch a cartoon from your childhood, or to get drunk with friends, or eat junk food and scroll through Twitter. But at the risk of stating the obvious, consumption—be it of food, alcohol, or content—should not be the point to our lives. 

What makes humans special is our ability to go beyond satisfying our base needs: unique among the species dwelling on this planet, we have an extraordinary capacity for self-improvement. When we try, we can perform medical miracles and send representatives of our species to the Moon. And hyperbolic though they may seem, these dizzying accomplishments are representative of the fact that we (perhaps uniquely) are a species capable of more than subsisting and reproducing. But the majority of the species spends their lives working themselves ragged to do just that: most people spend their lives waiting for the hours off work that we spend replenishing our strength to keep working (in ways both physical and emotional). And while that’s not wrong necessarily, it’s still draining to spend most of your life doing something you find relatively pointless, especially while aware that as individuals and as a species we are capable of so much more. Weekends with friends and Netflix are nice, but they can’t give you back your week.

And this is the fundamental issue—when work is simply a means to consumption, our lives will remain unsatisfying. We cannot distract ourselves permanently from the boredom and meaninglessness of everyday life, and in turn, the boredom and meaninglessness of everyday life in turn renders our distractions cheap. This problem has been one we’ve struggled with for centuries, and the solution seems remote: we cannot transform the way we think about work without transforming the nature of work itself. But I nonetheless refuse to give up on the idea that this is impossible, and by extension, that the abolition of boredom (as a widespread societal phenomenon, at the very least) is as well. If our potential as a species is a source of deep dissatisfaction, so too is it our greatest source of hope. We have shown, throughout human history, that meaningful work is possible, and if our lives seem bleak in comparison to the lives we dreamed of as children or read about in history books, they seem so precisely because we are capable of imagining ourselves fulfilled, pursuing the projects that matter to us. As long as humans can dream of a better world, then there is a possibility we can create it. It is only when we resign ourselves to our present, deeply bored condition that we sacrifice a chance for anything more.

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