What Is Boredom?

I have started a weekly Zoom session, open to all psychology students at University of Macau, in order to provide a small support system for students (at least at the level of something being available) and to experiment with an unstructured and informal educational setting. The plan is to meet on Wednesdays, for only one hour each time, and talk about a topic in an informal and casual manner. Today was the first session. Four students showed up. Two out of the four had their cameras on, but they all actively participated and, overall, I consider it a successful session. The conversation was lively and engaging. I will here try to capture the highlights of our discussion, to at least keep a record for myself, and possibly inform someone who is wondering whether they should join a next meeting.

We began with a 1-minute shared silence. After the silence, I asked the question, “What is boredom?” and asked everyone to let the silence continue until one of us has a response to the question. I emphasized that the response doesn’t have to be a proper answer, like “Boredom is a state of mind, whereby…”. Other kinds of response (“I don’t understand the question!”, “I don’t like this question!”, “This question reminds me of my roommate who often complains about being bored!”, etc.) are all acceptable. I also asked everyone to call on someone else after they offer their own response, so we start developing the habit of inviting each other to speak (the “teacher” or the “primary facilitator” shouldn’t be the only one who invites others to speak. Ideally, the conversation belongs equally to everyone, and no one sits at the center of the conversation. Ideally, the center of a conversation would be our topic, or a set of questions, not a personal authority.)

The initial responses to the question (from the students, here paraphrased by me) were the following:

  1. Boredom results from a state of being disinterested in an activity, and not being able/permitted to quit that activity. For instance, a student isn’t interested in studying for their exam, but they’re obligated to do so. In this way, boredom is similar to feeling stuck.
  2. Boredom results from wanting to start an activity, but not knowing how. For instance, I want to start keeping a personal diary, but I don’t know how to start. I don’t know how to get from the abstract idea of “diary” to the concrete act of sitting-and-writing. In this sense, boredom is associated with lack of skill.
  3. Boredom comes to us when there is no urgency, no external pressure. Perhaps we have too many options and unable to choose among them. In this sense, boredom is similar to indecisiveness.
  4. Boredom comes to us when we cannot do what we want (similar to #1).
  5. Boredom comes to us when we follow the same routine over and over, for too long. In this way, boredom is a need for change, for novelty.

One of the attendees pointed out that boredom is subjective, and we together explored why this is significant point. The significance of calling something, anything, subjective has to do with the fact that it is accessible to a subject–to a person. If you tell me, “I’m bored,” it doesn’t make sense for me to disagree with you and say, “You’re not!” I take your report at face value. Similarly, if the students of a class tell their teacher, “Your lecture today is boring,” the teacher cannot disagree with them (“No, it’s not!”). When we say boredom is a subjective state, part of what we mean is that one person’s boredom shouldn’t be denied by another person. We can dismiss or ignore someone else’s boredom, but we cannot deny it as a subjective fact about their experience.

After exploring different meanings of boredom, and getting a sense that boredom might not have the same meaning for everyone, we considered possible responses to boredom.

What Should I Do When I Am Bored?

After exploring the meaning of boredom, we turned to possible responses to boredom. I highlighted the idea that we might respond inappropriately to our own boredom, with the following two examples: (A) A person is bored and goes on social media (Facebook, YouTube, etc.), and after spending hours on those platforms feels unfulfilled and maybe more intensely bored. (B) A person, who is in a romantic relationship, feels bored and in order to get out of boredom creates a drama (an argument, a fight) with their romantic partner. This person, we could imagine, prefers to go through an unpleasant episode if it means they can escape from boredom. Notice how this person–the creator of drama–is responding to definition #3 above, based on an understanding that creating an urgency (even if it is disingenuous urgency) can bring us out of boredom.

Illustration by Geoff McFetridge (source: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/annals-of-inquiry/what-does-boredom-do-to-us-and-for-us)

Discussing this question helped us return to the second question with a little more clarity, and eventually we settled on an important distinction between two types of boredom. One type of boredom, the relatively mundane type, is felt in our so-called free time, when we are unoccupied by our main responsibilities. This type of freedom, if we were to translate it into a complaint, would say: “I don’t know what to do with my free time.” Thus, it is relatively narrow in its scope. The problem of this type of boredom will evaporate next morning, as you go back to work, as you get together with your friends or family, as you return to your responsibilities.

Two Types of Boredom

The second type of boredom, the relatively more profound type, is felt more widely throughout the days, even during our main tasks and responsibilities. This type of freedom, if we translate it in terms of a complaint, would be: “I don’t know how I am; I don’t know my place in the world.” Thus, the scope of this type of boredom is deep and wide. The problem with this type of boredom isn’t about unoccupied time. In respond to this boredom, picking up extra responsibility and burying yourself under tasks might be a mistake. This is the type of boredom that demands attention and patience. It demands from us (not doing something), but a way of listening and a way of being curious, being curious about oneself. “Why am I feeling out of place?” Responding to, “I don’t know who I am; I don’t know where my place is in the world” is a lifelong journey. It doesn’t have a quick fix. By bringing that question, the question of “Who am I?” to mind, by adding to the intensity and force of that question, the second type of boredom serves an important function, it becomes as useful as the nudge of a compassionate friend. Of course, knowing something is useful doesn’t make it pleasant.

Toward the end of the session, one of the attendees pointed out that just knowing who you are (what you enjoy, what you desire, what you’re interested in pursuing,…) doesn’t solve the problem, if you face resistance from outside. If your family demands from you to pursue a degree in Finance, while your interest lies elsewhere, then knowing your interest cannot immediately lead to action; if you know your interests, while being unable to pursue your interests (for whatever external reasons), then your self-knowledge cannot translate to self-expression or self-cultivation. That’s true, and it might be something to which we pay attention at a future session. There are many reasons why we might end up feeling out of place in the world.

I am not sure whether I’ll take notes after every meeting, but if I have the time and energy I will do so. If you’re one of the attendees, I’ll encourage you to do the same, right after each session. This allows us to reflect further on the topic and keep a record of it.

Afterthought: I’d like to add one final note. Jonathan Culler, in his very short introduction to literary theory, writes that one of the factors that makes something a piece of literature is that it is (or can be) taken out of context. In that sense, a piece of literature is placeless, and its being placeless (its readiness to connect to a variety of different contexts) is part of what makes it powerful and stimulating. Isn’t there a similarity between a piece of literature that is out of place and a person that is out of place, the person who is asking “Who am I? Where is my place? What is my meaning?” Can’t we think of both as kinds occasions for thinking, for beginning, for embarking on a journey?