Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

On Boredom

by Kevin Gary

Should we be concerned about boredom? Several recent psychological studies suggest that we should. Boredom, or more precisely the avoidance of boredom, is causally correlated with a number of troubling behaviors (drinking too much, overeating, gambling, and excessive consuming). In schools, boredom is linked to waning student attention, declining grades, and dropping out. Pondering the human struggle with boredom, Blaise Pascal amusingly quipped that the root of human evil stems from our “inability to sit still in a room.” This might sound overstated, but parents and teachers know all too well the trouble that ensues when children are bored. Road trips are increasingly fraught endeavors when screens run out of power.

Pascal’s insight was sensationally illustrated by a recent study conducted at the University of Virginia in 2014. Participants were asked to sit with their thoughts for fifteen minutes, or they could opt to push a button and self-administer a painful shock. The results were (pun intended) shocking: 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose to shock and hurt themselves rather than endure even a brief span of time free of stimulation.

When we do think about boredom we tend to think about it objectively. Boredom is seemingly an extrinsic or environmental problem. This is the primary takeaway for students. Boredom is caused by their environment: a boring book, a boring teacher, etc. There is something outside that causes boredom. But upon further reflection, we know that this is just part of the story. Boredom is both objective and subjective. It tells us something about our environment, but it also tells us something about ourselves. Experiencing boredom we are making a judgment or an assessment about something or a particular situation. In this respect boredom is a curious and perplexing mood state. What bores one person may be interesting to another.

Given this subjectivity, it is not always clear what I should do if I experience boredom. It is kind of like a dashboard light indicator in a car that alerts us that something is amiss, along with instructions for what to do (get gas, change the oil, etc.). When the boredom dashboard light goes on, however, it does not provide clear instructions. Most of the time we do not even notice the boredom warning light because it is continually flickering. Each day, often unawares, we navigate away from boring to more interesting spaces. We have developed strategies for coping with boredom, without even realizing it.

And how do we respond? There are two primary responses: The first is adopting what author Walker Percy describes as a “sophisticated boredom avoidance scheme”—maintaining a steady diet of endless stimulation so as to avoid this aversive mood state. The second response, when avoidance is not an option, is to simply endure it. This is the posture students often feel compelled to take when having to put up with boring classes, or the familiar experience of being stuck listening to someone drone on endlessly.

Both responses are problematic—avoidance because it prompts a knee-jerk, unreflective response; and resignation because it abdicates our capacity to imagine possibilities for meaningful engagement. When my kids were younger, I used to institute technology fast weekends (a total ban on screen time). At the outset, a chorus of complaints would ensue, which essentially amounted to the following grumble, “Dad, I am so bored; there is nothing to do!” This complaint betrays both a lack of imagination (my kids literally could not see possibilities for meaningful engagement) and a loss of agency (there was seemingly nothing they could do about it). How should we respond to boredom? Human flourishing, according to Aristotle, is constituted by the exercise of virtues, or particular excellences, with respect to various mood states and situations that arise. For example, we might experience anger

How should we respond to boredom? Human flourishing, according to Aristotle, is constituted by the exercise of virtues, or particular excellences, with respect to various mood states and situations that arise. For example, we might experience anger when we are insulted. We can feel the force of this mood, and it can prompt a strong reaction. With respect to anger, the virtuous person navigates a middle ground between two extremes: aggressive overaction, on the one hand, or passive submissiveness, on the other. Likewise, when enjoying pleasure the virtuous person strikes the mean between indulgent excess and ascetic forbearance. Or when threatened, the virtuous person finds a middle way between acting rashly or acting cowardly and thereby enacts the virtue of courage. Boredom is yet another mood state that we must learn to contend with wisely.

At this point, two misleading conceptions regarding boredom should be addressed. The first is the view that boredom is a good thing that we should embrace or even encourage. Such boredom proponents claim that boredom can be a source of creativity, authenticity, or self-discovery. A similar (and specious) argument could be made on behalf of anger or fear. Fear is good, according to this logic, because it alerts us to threats that we should be aware of. Likewise, one could argue that anger is good because it emboldens strong action. But what this reasoning overlooks is the critical importance of how we respond to these various mood states. Fear can paralyze us; anger can lead to destructive outcomes; and boredom can lead to a litany of troubling behaviors. In short, boredom needs to be approached with caution.

A second misleading conception tends to neutralize and subjectify boredom. According to this view, boredom is a subjective phenomenon that we each have to sort out for ourselves. We should not presume to tell or direct others on how to engage with or handle boredom. Given the number of troubling behaviors linked to boredom and boredom avoidance, this posture of neutrality is also deeply problematic. Far from neutral, the boredom state is morally fraught. While situational context always matters Aristotle’s ethics provides normative (and not neutral) guidance that we should attend to. Like our responses to other emotions, there is a golden mean to be discovered between the extremes of boredom avoidance, on the one hand, and resignation, on the other.

In schools students often complain about being bored, and, to be sure, boredom will follow them beyond the walls of classrooms into workspaces; at family gatherings; into long lines at hospitals, grocery stores, and the DMV; in household chores; and in the grinding monotony that pervades nursing homes, where aging relatives and many of us will spend our final days. Given this, it is strange that boredom is hardly ever talked about explicitly or carefully reflected upon. By ignoring the problem of boredom, we ignore a fundamental struggle with being human.

Kevin Gary is a professor at Valparaiso University, where he teaches theology, education, and in the Christ College Honors Program. His book, Why Boredom Matters: Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life, was recently published by Cambridge University Press in 2022.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How have industrialization and technology either created or deepened the problem of boredom?
  2. Do you think boredom was a problem around the time our Constitution was written? How did people occupy their time?
  3. How does our Constitutional system work with people who are perpetually bored? Are a lot of our divisions and hostilities simply a result of boredom?

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