On Boring Experiences

By Leo Zaroff

What makes an experience boring? There are a number of ways to approach this question. Certain types of activities tend to be boring for certain people; for example, a large segment of the population finds the study of philosophy to be extremely boring. Additionally, experiences of boredom seemingly vary based on a number of mental factors; not only do different individuals tend to experience boredom when doing different things, but a single person can find an activity boring one day but stimulating the next. For example, the extent to which I am enraptured by Hegel’s writing varies depending on the context of my mental state at any given time. In this way, boredom can be understood as a kind of connection between mental state and external factors, like what a bored person is doing. If we take boredom to be dependent on these two factors, what is it that makes some activities more boring than others? And what is it about an individual’s mentality that engenders a feeling of boredom during such an activity?

By examining this connection between mentality and activity, we can attempt to frame our thinking about boredom. One is that mentality precedes activity with respect to its importance in the determination of boredom. The easiest way to test the validity of this assertion is to examine our existing intuition about what constitutes boredom. Ultimately, the experience of undergoing any activity can be stimulating, as long as mental conditions allow it to be so. Even the most mundane activity has the potential to be stimulating, or at least distracting, for someone at some time. Though it’s conceivable, it is hard to identify an activity that is boring no matter the situation. Even a markedly boring activity like doing taxes provides some level of stimulation to a segment of its participants. Additionally, it seems to be possible to experience boredom even while partaking in activities that are generally the most stimulating. It is hard to imagine that any single activity, regardless of how exciting it is, would remain stimulating if a person had to continue participating in that activity for a sufficiently long period of time. Again, it is not logically impossible for such an activity to exist, but it seems extremely unlikely given our intuitions about the experience of boredom.

We have established that the experience of boredom is ultimately dependent on an individual’s mental state. But if this is the case, then to what extent is boredom determined by traits of an activity itself? It seems to be true that different activities bring about different levels of boredom, both for individuals and for society at large. It is important to classify this variance within the bounds of the mental factors that are more important for determining boredom than the activities they are accompanied by, however. With regard to their effects on a state of boredom, the internal mental factors constrain any external factors. This is not to say that external factors have not played a part in determining the mental factors in general; it is just that the boringness of external factors in their ability to affect experience are limited by mental factors. 

This inquiry builds up to a certain framework for thinking about the feeling that we call boredom. By examining the connection between mentality and activity with respect to experiences of boredom, we have been able to distill our intuitions about the concept of boredom into something much more conceptually lucid.

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