Friday, May 27, 2011
I have this theory about boredom. I think it is the cause of a great deal of mischief in people’s lives and even may underlie why nations go to war. Even the current turmoil throughout the Maghreb and the Middle East may have an element of boredom as people grow tired of their current despots and seek to overthrow them.
In 1984 I created a media spoof called The Boring Institute© and it was tremendously popular. I averaged a thousand radio interviews a year, learning in the process that American cultural figures were well known worldwide. Through films and television, foreigners followed our homegrown personalities and, of course, both provide an escape from boredom.
After 9/11, I put the Institute on hiatus and, not until 2010 did I revive its popular list of “The Most Boring Celebrities of the Year”, but my absence of nearly a decade ensured a limited media response. I had, however, learned a lot about boredom’s impact on our lives.
Peter Toohey is a professor of classics in the Department of Greek and Roman Studies at the University of Calgary. He might be deemed an unlikely author of “Boredom, A Lively History” ($26.00, Yale University Press), but the subject, but the book jacket says he “has long been bemused by boredom”, i.e. “lost in thought” by definition.
The result is an exhaustive study of boredom; an intellectual exercise that ultimately tests the reader’s willingness to explore every novel, every painting, every cultural and historical artifact regarding the subject. This is the nature of intellectuals and not really a criticism of Prof. Toohey who has done a masterful job.
“To my mind, existential boredom is a hotchpotch of a category, and one whose basis is more intellectual than experiential—it is a condition which seems to me to be more read about and discussed than actually experienced. This book will unapologetically give simple boredom an equal billing,” said Prof. Toohey in his preface.
As to what makes something boring, Prof. Toohey says it is “predictability, monotony, and confinement.” This is as good a definition as any, but my interest in boredom has been what results from this universal mind-numbing experience.
Over the many years I maintained the “Institute” I collected all manner of data in order to respond to serious questions about boredom. I probably should have written a book about and am glad that Prof. Toohey has.
Boredom and Social Problems
Criminal behavior provides a frisson of excitement in the same way that gambling does. A great deal of crime is committed by people in their teens and twenties. Desperately bored, it becomes an outlet for their energy and may well account for why communities deliberately sponsor athletic and volunteer activities to soak up that energy.
Boredom lies at the heart of why marriages grow stale and partners cheat on one another and often seek divorce. Sex with the same partner reflects Prof. Toohey’s identification of predictability and, to an extent, confinement. So boredom carries with it some real challenges for any society.
Entertainment media and even news is a major escape mechanism. Those that hold an audience’s attention thrive. Those that don’t fail. I suspect that, in the run-up to the 2012 elections, many will find the endless analysis and speculation boring enough to “turn off” and wait, as many do until the days just prior to the election to make up their mind.
For myself, boredom is your mind demanding to be “fed”, “stimulated”, fulfilled in the same way the body must be fed and for the same reason we explore different foods as opposed to eating the same thing every day. My late Mother taught haute cuisine, gourmet preparation and dining for three decades. She was never bored and neither were those in her classes. Dinner time at the Caruba home was always a treat.
It is an irony and a tragedy of our school system that education has been turned into a dreadful “teach to the test” exercise in boredom when learning new things should at its heart be one of the most exciting things youngsters (and adults) can do. It is the ultimate “food for thought.”
Boredom is such a danger to individuals and societies that we have created all manner of ways to avoid it. Sports, either as a participant or a spectator, are a valuable escape from boredom. Travel is another. All manner of community or business related organizations provide valuable outlets. Politics, a blood sport in America, is another.
Finally, as a longtime book reviewer, I cannot fail to say that reading is absolutely essential to avoid boredom. There are few pleasures that can rival a good book whether it is fiction or non-fiction. They shine a light in the dark and empty places of the mind.
Short periods of boredom are to be expected, but extended boredom is a good definition of depression. When the mind is deprived it turns in on itself and literally punishes an individual for starving it of activity. People do a lot of foolish things to escape boredom and that applies to entire nations as well.
© Alan Caruba, 2011