“Boredom is an incredibly common experience, yet it doesn’t get a lot of airplay,” says Peter Toohey about the subject of his latest book, appropriately titled “Boredom: A Lively History” (Yale University Press). Toohey, a professor of classics at the University of Calgary, believes boredom deserves respect, in part because of its little-recognized benefits, which include: how it acts as a stimulus for creativity, and how it functions “as an early warning signal indicating that certain situations may be dangerous to our [psychological] well-being.” Following is a portion of Failure’s recent exchange with Toohey, in which we addressed: the types of boredom, the benefits of boredom, and whether there is a cure.
In the book you discuss two types of boredom—simple and existential. How do you differentiate them?
The definition I give for simple boredom is that it’s an emotion whose feeling is one of mild disgust, produced by temporary, unavoidable and predictable circumstances. Simple boredom comes and goes. Existential boredom can be defined as a powerful and unrelieved sense of emptiness and isolation. In the book I argue it exists as a literary tradition and not something that people experience.
What about chronic boredom?
Chronic boredom is simple boredom that doesn’t go away. Well, it does, but it lasts longer. It seems to be linked to the amount of dopamine that a person has in their system. If dopamine levels are low, so the theory goes, one of the symptoms is going to be chronic boredom. To get rid of it you need to cause dopamine levels to spike. The easiest way is through risk-taking behavior—anything from dangerous sex to skiing to swimming with sharks. Chronic boredom seems to affect men—particularly young men—more than women.
Does everyone get bored?
I think so. It’s just like shame, disgust, pain—we all feel them. If you happen to be in a phase where you have tons of friends and a really interesting job your time is going to be filled in a rewarding way and you might go [a long time] without feeling bored.
Are people more prone to boredom today than in the past?
If you accept that it’s an emotion then probably not. Whether the technology we’ve got makes us more or less bored, it’s too soon to say. It’s the sort of thing you’d like to say “yes,” but I don’t know how you prove that.
What are the telltale visual signs of boredom?
The most common one is the face [resting] on the hand. That one is also linked with melancholy, and for sure, it should be. There was an exhibition at the Louvre that charted this gesture from the Romans to the present day. It’s astonishing how common it is. And it’s when a person has got their head in their hand—the telltale posture—that a message is really being sent out. If you have your head in your hand now, I’m in big trouble [laughs].
What are the benefits of boredom?
Because it’s an emotion—and emotions are designed to help us adapt to circumstances that don’t suit us—it warns us away from things that might be harmful. If someone is putting you down, a reaction of anger is a beneficial thing, is it not? Disgust is a helpful emotion, because if someone serves you a bowl of moldy food you won’t eat it. Similarly, boredom exists to help us avoid toxic sorts of situations.
There’s also a link between boredom and creativity. I have a quote from [poet] Joseph Brodsky in the book which says, “When hit by boredom, go for it and let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit rock bottom.” His notion was that the experience can bring you to a creative state. A quick trigger for boredom will make you dissatisfied and drive you to look for new ways of doing things.
Is there a cure for boredom?
Aerobic exercise seems to make people less prone to boredom. It isn’t a cure but it’s a help. There seems to be some sort of physiological basis for it. Dr. Norman Doidge—[author of] “The Brain That Changes Itself”—argues that monotony is harmful for brain plasticity. If we substitute boredom for monotony, which probably is a reasonable thing to do, boredom is physiologically bad. So what is good for brain plasticity? Doidge’s answer—and that of many others—is that aerobic exercise is one of the best things for neurogenesis or rebirth of brain cells. Bad news, but what can I say?
When you sense boredom in your students, how do you remedy that? How do you get their attention?
Oh boy, it’s tough isn’t it? You know what it’s like; you’re talking to a group and suddenly you feel like you’re losing them. What do I do to get them back? When I was younger it was easier because I could do something idiotic and by and large it would jolt them and make them laugh and get them back on track. But as people have pointed out to me, you’ve got to be careful nowadays because students will use their camera phones and put it on YouTube.
So it is more difficult for teachers. You have to make a lot of eye contact and draw students out and get them to talk as much as you can. And if you walk to the edge of the stage so it looks like you’re going to totter and fall off—that works. But it’s not easy. I wouldn’t claim to have discovered the answer. But I know when it’s happening.
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