Boredom is an incredibly common experience, yet it doesnt 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 Failures 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 its 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 doesnt 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. Its 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 its an emotion then probably not. Whether the technology weve got makes us more or less bored, its too soon to say. Its the sort of thing youd like to say yes, but I dont know how you prove that. Learn more about psychic