This suggests that self-reflection can be intrinsically aversive and that we have a near hysterical dread of boredom. Is it any surprise that we structure our lives to avoid it?
Apparently, this wasn’t always so. The very concept of boredom seems to be a modern invention. As Luke Fernandez and Susan J. Matt wrote recently in Salon, the word boredom did not enter the lexicon until the mid-19th century. Before that, tedium was an expected part of life. It was only with the rise of consumer culture in the 20th century that people were promised nearly continuous excitement; boredom was the inevitable consequence of such unrealistic expectations.
Mr. Fernandez and Ms. Matt posit that our modern intolerance of boredom might even be fueling the spread of the coronavirus, as novelty seekers who have had enough of the lockdown head to bars, beaches and amusement parks.
The fact is that humans crave, to a varying degree, stimulation, and a quarantine effectively prevents us from getting very much of it. Those who are more novelty and sensation seeking, like teenagers, are particularly prone to boredom. So are people who use lots of recreational drugs, because at baseline, they are walking around in an understimulated state in which the everyday world feels uninteresting.
Being bored might feel intolerable, but, unlike clinical depression, it will never seriously impair your function or kill you. While depression calls for treatment, boredom is a normal state. It doesn’t need medical treatment any more than everyday unhappiness requires an antidepressant.
But we can still do something about it. We can, perhaps, even take advantage of it. Sure, boredom is a signal that we’re underaroused, but if we sit long enough with our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, boredom could provide us with an opportunity to rethink whether we are spending our lives in a way that is rewarding and meaningful to us. What things might we change to make life — and ourselves — more interesting?
I do not mean to suggest that the pandemic might not cause an increase in serious mental illness; that’s certainly possible. I’m simply saying that it’s premature to make that judgment. In the meantime, however, let’s not medicalize everyday stress. And let’s not dread boredom, but try to use it to our good.