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  • Writer's pictureDebbie Thrower

Boredom – what's the point of it?

Updated: Sep 29, 2022


Terry Martin writes:


'I'm bored' must be one of the most common complaints of teenage children and one that is guaranteed to infuriate their parents. Very young children, however, are insatiably curious and can be equally infuriating to parents by endlessly asking 'Why?' of anything and everything. It seems that the innate curiosity of the young child has been extinguished in adolescence, ironically by the very educational processes intended to foster it.




In his book with the intriguing title On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored, author Adam Phillips writes:


'Children are not oracles, but they ask with persistent regularity the great existential question, "What shall we do now?" Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child’s life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.' (Emphasis added). [1]


Shanti Balaraman, president and CEO of the Children’s Innovation Center, writes that according to neuroscience:


'… curiosity is a cognitive process which leads to the behaviour-motivation. A highly curious person will be a highly motivated individual.' (Emphasis added). [2]


Dennis Prager, an American nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist, has suggested a simple formula to account for boredom in adults:


'Affluence + Secularism = Boredom


'Many people lack meaning in their lives. And lack of meaning is another way of stating "boredom" — a boredom of the soul.


'This need for meaning has traditionally been met by four things: religion, family, providing for oneself and one's family, and patriotism. And all are fading.' [3]


Boredom can be a symptom of soul sickness or demoralisation, and 'is characterised by feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and a perceived sense of incompetence. This condition typically involves vague, unexplained physical symptoms.' [4] The danger of this characterisation is that it medicalises what is essentially a spiritual condition. Although medical interventions may provide necessary short-term amelioration of the associated physical and psychological symptoms, longer-term interventions may need to draw upon spiritual wisdom with maybe the help of a spiritual director.


Wijnand Van Tilburg writes that the term boredom:


'… was popularised by Charles Dickens, who famously used the term in Bleak House (1853) where the aristocrat Lady Dedlock says she has been "bored to death" by, variously, the trying weather, unremarkable musical and theatrical entertainment, and familiar scenery.' [5]


One might add that, from the same novel, Horace Skimpole must surely be a close competitor, but whose antidote to boredom is total self-absorption.


Van Tilburg also argues that there are positive aspects to boredom if we have a mind to take advantage of them.


In doing so, it seems that boredom helps to regulate our behaviour and prevents us from getting stuck in unrewarding situations for too long. Rather than merely a malady among the upper classes or an existential peril, boredom seems, instead, to be an important part of the psychological arsenal available to people in the pursuit of a fulfilling life.


An outward focus on the needs of others is a tried-and-tested antidote to all those spiritual disorders characterised by excessive self-absorption, often referred to disparagingly as navel-gazing.


References

  1. Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic essays on the unexamined life (Harvard University Press, 1994).

  2. 'Is lack of curiosity becoming the norm?', Children's Innovation Centre (2019) – read here.

  3. 'Affluence + Secularism = Boredom = Leftism', The Dennis Prager Column (2021) – read here.

  4. Charles Perakis, 'Soul sickness: A frequently missed diagnosis', The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association 110 (2010), p. 347–9.

  5. Wijnand Van Tilburg, 'Leprosy of the soul? A brief history of boredom', The Conversation (2020) – read here.


Terry Martin is a trustee of Southampton charity, Caraway: 'gathering the harvest in our later years'.


 

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