A Philosophy of Boredom

Occasionally xraydelta considers more philosophical issues with the aim of promoting self-reflection and, hopefully, self-development and growth. I found this book interesting because it dealt with a topic that all-too-rarely is discussed.

Lars Svendsen, Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Bergen, Norway wrote a book titled A Philosophy of Boredom that I think is a fascinating perspective on the nature of Boredom and how our social-media saturated, screen-obsessed culture is both a reflection of an Age of Boredom as well as the driver of an ever-increasing level of boredom.

Boredom, both superficial and profound, affects how we conceive of products to sell to Bored consumers, manage our organizations (bored executives searching for the latest shiny object), our societies and ultimately how we live our lives and view life itself.


As a philosopher, from time to time one must attempt to address big questions. If one fails to do so, one loses sight of what led one to study philosophy in the first place. In my opinion, boredom is one such big question, and an analysis of boredom ought to say something important about the conditions under which we live…Profound boredom is one fundamental existential experience. As Jon Hellesnes has asked: ‘What can possibly be more existentially disturbing than boredom?’

The big questions are not necessarily the eternal questions, for boredom has only been a central cultural phenomena for a couple of centuries. It is of course impossible to determine precisely when boredom arose, and naturally it has its precursors. But it stands out as being a typical phenomena of modernity. On the whole, the precursors were restricted to small groups, such as nobility and the clergy, whereas the boredom of modernity is wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomena today for practically everyone in the Western world.

The reference to the boredom of “the clergy” might be kind of curious, but one of the things Svendsen explores is acedia (a state of being where the soul itself rejects, detests or tires of God and His Creation), what he sees as a forerunner of what we call boredom and was an especial concern of those in the religious life as it was seen as the “worst sin since all other sins derived from it.” One of the implications, for Svendsen, is that religion is not necessarily a way to provide the meaning that drives out boredom.

Throughout this short (150 pages) but fascinating book are references to sources as diverse as Iggy Pop, Aristotle, Andy Warhol, Martin Heidegger, The Pet Shop Boys, Bret Ellis’s novel American Psycho, Kant, David Cronenberg’s film Crash, Marcel Proust and many others. Any book with Iggy Pop alongside Proust is probably interesting on that point alone.

Svendsen explores many facets of “boredom,” such as describing Martin Doehlemann’s typology of boredom: situation boredom (as when one is waiting for someone); the “boredom of satiety, when one gets too much of the same thing and everything becomes banal”; creative boredom, which spurs us to do something new; and existential boredom, where we are without meaning in our lives.

On meaning, Svendsen writes:

Human beings are addicted to meaning. We all have a great problem: Our lives must have some sort of content. We cannot bear to live our lives without some sort of content that we can see as constituting a meaning. Meaninglessness is boring. And boredom can be described as a meaning withdrawal…In order to remove this discomfort we attack the symptoms rather than the disease itself, and search for all sorts of meaning-surrogates.

One of the important aspects of the book is his exploration of the role of modern technology in fostering what he sees as out state of profound Boredom.

That boredom is probably more widespread than ever before can be established by noting that the number of ‘social placebos’ is greater than it has ever been…Is our fascination with the bizarre fed daily by the mass media not a result of our awareness of the boring? The pell-mell rush for diversions precisely indicates our fear of the emptiness that surrounds us. This rush, the demand for satisfaction and the lack of satisfaction are inextricably intertwined. The more strongly individual life becomes the centre of focus, the stronger the insistence on meaning amongst the trivialities of everyday life will become…

That life is to a large extent boring is revealed by our placing such great emphasis on originality and innovation. We place greater emphasis nowadays on whether something is ‘interesting’ than on whether it has any ‘value.’

…as Heidegger emphasized, today’s interest is only directed towards the interesting, and the interesting is what only a moment later one finds indifferent or boring…The ‘interesting’ always has a brief shelf-life, and really no other function than to be consumed, in order that boredom can be kept at arm’s length. The prime commodity of media is ‘interesting information’ — signs that are pure consumer goods, nothing else.

Digital technology exponentially creates and distributes vast quantities of information, crowding out the space for collective and individual meaning. In our attempt to distract ourselves with the novel and interesting we, unwittingly, set the stage for greater boredom as we continue to raise the bar on what is interesting to us and expand the universe of things of which we are bored.

I agree with Svendsen when he asserts that neither work nor activity resolves the root issues of boredom, which is to say that work or activity without deep meaning to us is just as boring as a state of idleness or empty leisure. Instead, he writes, “in profound boredom, one is left empty by everything — even by oneself.” This is one of the reasons why Svendsen uses Bret Ellis’s novel American Psycho as a literary example. It is the complete absence of substance, of meaning, that describes the central character Bateman. There is no meaningful personal narrative, which is to say a lack of a substantive sense of a past and a future. “He is unable to provide the reader with anything more than a wealth of information.”

So where does this leave us? Svendsen believes that life consists of moments of meaning but that the ideal of a life filled completely with Meaning (with a capital “M”) is an illusion. Instead, it is working with the moments of meaning with boredom between them. It is accepting boredom rather than submerging it with meaning-surrogates.

Rather than immediately happen on an antidote to boredom, there could be some point in lingering and maybe finding some kind of meaning in boredom itself…Boredom contains a potential. In boredom an emptying takes place, and emptiness can be a receptiveness…Boredom pulls things out of their usual contexts. It can open ways up for new meaning, by virtue of the fact that it has already deprived things of meaning…Boredom gives you a perspective on your own existence, where you realize your own insignificance in the greater context.

My reading of Svendsen is that boredom comes into being in society once the cult of “individuality” takes centre stage at the expense of a wider context.

For boredom is time’s invasion of your world system. It puts your life into perspective, and the net result is precisely insight and humility.

A context of group, family, and community to create moments of meaning requires a degree of subordinating one’s individuality to that larger context and narrative.

The absence of the great Meaning does not, however, result in all meaning in life evaporating. A one-sided focusing on the absence of Meaning can overshadow all other meaning…A source of profound boredom is that we demand capital letters where we are obliged to make do with small ones. Even though no meaning is given, there is meaning — and boredom. Boredom has to be accepted as an unavoidable fact, as life’s own gravity. This is no grand solution, for the problem of boredom has none.