Rhodri Marsden: The lost art of boredom

Children are fed up. Their parents are too. We're uninspired at work, and listless at home. Perhaps it's time to embrace being bored – and learn to love it

Wednesday 11 August 2010 00:00 BST

More erudite and poetic writers than me are probably able to wax lyrical about the glorious summer holidays of their youth; how the days slipped past in a sun-dappled haze while they frolicked gaily, using only their imaginations and the dressing-up box to construct endlessly entertaining role-playing games involving kings and queens, cats and dogs or fantasy worlds.

I don't really remember mine like that. I remember, at the age of 10, looking at my friend Alan in disbelief as he rewound a cassette to play "Come On Eileen" for the 15th time as we sat on the floor amid broken Subbuteo figurines, audibly wondering what the hell to do.

Eventually, we'd trudge outdoors to embark on such bankable activities as throwing a tennis ball about, or riding a bicycle in some direction or other until it was time to turn around and ride all the way back again. It's safe to say that we were bored.

I don't have children, but I know from friends who do that, despite the mind-boggling entertainment opportunities available in the 21st century, helping to alleviate their boredom in the summer holidays can be a test of creativity akin to sculpting them in marble. Children still think there's "nothing to do". They're still bored. And despite adults thinking of the phrase "I'm bored" as the whining mantra of the inexplicably dissatisfied child, we adults are bored too. Boredom is endemic. And it's getting worse.

I spend huge amounts of time bored out of my skull, and I know it's not just me. We're reluctant to admit it, mainly because of the fallacy – at least, I hope it's a fallacy – that only boring people get bored. But boredom, that almost indefinable absence of something-or-other, hangs as a backdrop to modern Western civilisation – and not even a very interesting one at that. We spend huge amounts of time as passive bystanders, bemoaning our boredom and accusing pretty much everything of being boring. There have never been so many opportunities to express this via the new channels of social media, and a brief dip into the timeline of Twitter on a Friday afternoon reveals that over the course of a single minute, some 200 people confess to being bored senseless.

Paperwork and teleconferencing stand accused of failing to generate sufficient excitement, which is probably fair enough, but yoga, train journeys and the television show Countdown aren't far behind. Twitter itself is accused of being boring by the very people who are making it boring, along with superheroes, Snoop Dogg, and a bloke called Ben. Poor Ben. One wonders what he might have done in order to have had the ultimate insult thrown at him, but it probably wasn't much. The person saying it was just experiencing deep existential dissatisfaction. Ben was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Boredom isn't all nagging, nihilistic despair, of course. Plenty of it is situative, stemming from us being forced to do things we're unable to delegate to technology or make someone else do for us – ironing, defrosting the freezer, fending off cold callers trying to get us to switch our energy supplier, and so on. The world of work can make us feel wretchedly worthless, too. In bygone days, work might have involved toiling the land to feed one's family, and, I'm guessing, there's nothing like the threat of starvation to stop one from getting bored. But figures released this week show that job satisfaction levels across the UK – already low – have fallen by 24 per cent since spring last year, and, as The Idler magazine has documented in its book dedicated to enervating employment, Crap Jobs, we find ourselves obliged to do some incredibly unextraordinary things in return for cash. (One touching story came from a man who was employed as a labourer to stand on a pipe to counterweight it while it was set level. For two days.) But even in supposedly cushy office jobs, there's often so much distance between our actions (invoice processing) and the end result (theme park construction) that it's not surprising we yearn for satisfaction. No amount of perks can distract us from this – the free toast, shoulder massages, interest-free season ticket loans or, as a friend once received, a months supply of anti-bacterial hand wash. We get bored because we'd much rather be doing something else.

But even when work is done, our leisure time is shot through with a similar lack of meaning, and we frequently get the feeling that there's nothing to do, even though that's manifestly untrue. "Meaning" is probably an even more nebulous concept than boredom is; one nice definition describes it as "something that gives us a feeling that's not easy to translate into thought". But huge tranches of the popular entertainment pushed in our direction are spectacularly easy to translate into thought – thoughts along the lines of, "Well, I can see that that celebrity danced slightly better than that celebrity, so I ought to pick up the telephone and let the BBC know." In place of meaning, we're presented with reassuringly gorgeous presenters to distract us (again, easy to translate into thought – thoughts along the lines of "I might like to have sex with that person") or, at the other end of the spectrum, the freakish, the outlandish, the terrifying. But as we get bored of extreme entertainment, we demand even greater extremes; before you know it ITV will commission All-Celebrity Lion Taunting, and we'll be making birthday arrangements to hurl ourselves out of an biplane while strapped to someone we've only just met. And we'll still feel hollow.

A modern lack of wonder doesn't help. It's hard to conjure up excitable, childlike wonder when most of our experiences are decoded for us to the point of banality. There was once a time when the ability to coax music from a lozenge-shaped object with no visible connection to anything else would have had you burned at the stake; we can be grateful that we're not slaughtered for streaming music to an iPad, but most of us don't have a clue how that kind of thing happens. It just does. We nonchalantly take for granted things that would have made previous generations gasp – and into that yawning vacuum of boredom rushes stuff like conspiracy theories, where mundane truths are dissected infinitesimally. The outlandish stories that supposedly explain 9/11 or 7/7 could, just conceivably, have been prompted by the actions of a sinister Zionist global cabal. But, actually, they're constructed by bored people with too much time on their hands and an existence blighted with a lack of meaning. Without religion to offer gentle explanations for unpleasant events, we rely on our imaginations, fuelled by boredom.

The gobsmacked surprise that greeted the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th century coincided with the first use of the English word "bore" to describe our new state of dissatisfaction. Prior to this we'd had limited access to the French word "ennui" – a more grandiose, long-term boredom – but once we had our own word for listless dissatisfaction, we embraced it. The rich, having finished reading all their books and exhausted all topics of conversation, suffered from such paralysing boredom that they turned in desperation to parlour games such as Are You There Moriarty?, where they would blindfold themselves and attempt to hit each other with rolled-up newspaper before weeping in the corner about life being "such a bore". By the mid 19th century, the related words "bored", "boring" and "boredom" were being uttered with increasing frequency as the malaise spread downwards through society to people who, thanks to the seed drill and the reverberatory furnace, had more time on their hands than they knew what to do with. Interestingly – although, of course, you'll be the judge of that – the word "interesting" emerged at about the same time. Before this we simply didn't require such a word, as things were, presumably, inherently interesting. But when boredom assaulted us, we needed a word for things that weren't insufferably tedious.

But not only are we living in the worst era for getting bored, we're also living in the wrong place. No one is as bored as we are in the West. In many Eastern cultures, the state of emptiness that we find so distressing and feel compelled to obliterate with video games and cut-price cocktails is seen as a beautiful, placid liberation; observe the intense contrast between travelling on internal flights in parts of the Middle East (passengers largely staring ahead into space in blissful silence) and an internal flight in the UK (passengers fidgeting, getting up and down for no reason, complaining about standards of in-flight catering, singing along to Gloria Gaynor on the iPod). Coop us up in a metal container for a few hours and savagely cut back our potential experiences, and we go to pieces. Literature that may advise us on overcoming our fear of flying normally concentrates on the unlikelihood of the aircraft nosediving into a housing estate, but few bother to mention the crushing boredom that helps to ignite those irrational fears in the first place.

The introduction of airborne internet access could theoretically keep us quiet for a bit, but technology in general does little to banish the underlying problem. Modern communication has made us so used to being mentally prodded every few seconds that we start feeling bored when it's taken away. Alternative online realities that allow us to reinvent ourselves as sexier, wealthier, or more reptilian individuals become a compelling option – but they don't change the fact that we're sitting on a sofa in our underwear directing an goblin carrying a shield into a cave that doesn't even exist. Virtual meeting places for children such as Habbo, Neopets, Poptropica or Club Penguin may provide an easy way to keep them occupied on rainy days and away from the perceived threat of stranger danger on the streets, but it's unlikely to provoke a feeling of self worth after the computer is turned off. Similarly, the internet as a source of multi-channelled entertainment is so alarmingly huge that the choice is simply paralysing – and, as we're painfully aware, watching kittens play the piano isn't a cure for boredom.

Does this persistent, gnawing boredom damage us? It's not a question that's been asked much in the 150 years since we started moaning about it; even philosophers seem to find boredom boring, preferring instead to concentrate on ethics and epistemology. Goethe reckoned that boredom was the premier creative impulse, and without it we'd never even bother picking up a pen, paintbrush, musical instrument or, these days, a 5-megapixel digital camera. But the average teenager in an average British town on an average Friday night would find themselves hard pushed to value the boredom that's been forced upon them by modern life. Boredom is the predominant cause of inner city violence, because, tragically, violence is exciting. And that briefest of thrills is increasingly unlikely to be displaced by the prospect of a game of table tennis.

I'm not a philosopher, obviously. I'm just someone who's a bit bored, so the idea of me offering advice is laughable. But in the absence of religious fervour, class war or complete economic meltdown to distract us, a better way to deal with boredom than desperately pursuing excitement might be to embrace it. Welcome that feeling of mild dissatisfaction. Search hard for the meaning in a visit to a furniture showroom, or Chelmsford, or, indeed, in listening to "Come On Eileen" 15 times in a row. In a recent documentary on Channel 4, Amish teenagers from the US were introduced to a group of Londoners of the same age. In one beautiful scene, two Amish girls were working on embroidery and singing a folk song in a London flat, while their contemporaries, more used to spinning around Soho or gyrating to the sound of Tinchy Stryder, gazed at them, transfixed by the exquisite calm. Eventually, one of the British girls muttered something along the lines of: "Maybe I would like to make a quilt, innit." And, you know, it's only one step from that to: "This doily is totally bangin'."

I'm not saying that needlework provides the ultimate answer to the question of boredom during the summer holidays and beyond. But maybe it's a start.

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