Boredom, Ennui, and Meaning in Life

Hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear some mention of the word boredom. My children used to say, “I’m bored,” in spite of the fact that the house was full of CDs, DVDs, books, games, art supplies, two televisions with DVD and VCR players, a computer loaded with software with access to the Internet, a playful dog, sports equipment, bicycles, musical instruments, and friends who lived within a few blocks. “How can you be bored?” I wondered aloud.

When children or teenagers tell me they’re bored, it usually means that they either have nothing to do or nothing fun to do. For instance, they often say they’re bored when facing the prospect of chores or homework.

We all know what it feels like to be bored, but what is it exactly? When someone says, “I’m bored,” what does he or she actually mean? It’s a slippery term.

Boredom is a relatively new word, as I learned as I researched its history. It was not recorded in the English language until 1852, and boring was not recorded until 1868. The word can be traced to a tool called a bore, which is a kind of auger, a sharp instrument used to cut or bore through things. As it was used, a bore would become dull and need to be sharpened. There is evidence that the word became a vogue expression around 1768 to connote the sense of “being tiresome or dull.”

Therefore, a bore was a descriptive label applied to someone who had lost his or her wit or was wearisome to be around. This is much different from another term used during that period, boor, which described a selfish, mean or piggish person. Later, bore and boredom transformed into a state of being that we apply to ourselves (“I’m bored!”) or to tasks, situations and events (“This is boring!”). A word that is akin to boredom is ennui, a feeling of weariness and dissatisfaction that comes from having to complete tedious or repetitive tasks. Ennui comes from a French word meaning, “to annoy.” It’s an older word first recorded in English in 1732.

Regardless of the definition used, boredom never describes a state of well-being. Alan Caruba is the founder of The Boring Institute. He created it initially as a spoof of the media; however, he soon began to recognize that boredom is a serious epidemic in our nation and has serious negative consequences on people and society. He wrote an excellent article entitled “Dying of Boredom in America” in which he describes the effects of boredom.

Surprisingly, little scientific research has been done on boredom in spite of the fact that many events in our nation have been attributed to boredom. Caruba cites one article in 1983. James D. Orcutt presented a paper at the 78th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association entitled “Some Social Dimensions of Boredom.” Orcutt wrote, “For a phenomenon that has been labeled the ‘most prevalent American disease’ and ranked among the ‘five principal possibilities of world destruction’, boredom has received remarkably little attention as a topic for empirical research.”

For instance, boredom has been cited as a reason for low voter turn-out in local, state and national elections–people state that they are bored with the whole political process and feel powerless to impact it. Boredom is the number one reason given by students who drop out of high school. They also express powerlessness in dealing with the institution called school. Some studies indicate that 2000 students drop out each day. John Taylor Gatto, who was once New York City’s “Teacher of the Year” and is now an outspoken proponent of education reform, documents that many students crave release from the boredom of schools, indicating that the dropouts may be more right than wrong in their perceptions of school.

On August 4, 1995, five youths, including two brothers (ages 12 and 13) murdered a homeless man by setting him on fire. The Newark, NJ Star-Ledger newspaper headline read, “5 Bored Youths Accused in Deadly N.Y. ‘Fun’ Torching.” When asked if they showed any remorse, an investigator was quoted as saying, “They said it was just for fun, that they were bored.” They were also suspects in a plethora of robberies in the area. In 1991, a teenager listed “boredom” as the reason why he raped and murdered a woman. College hazing incidents and accidental deaths also have been related to poor judgment related to boredom in conjunction with alcohol (“…we were bored and just messing around”).

Popular psychologist and author Dr. Joyce Brothers once stated, “I believe that a great deal of petty crime and anti-social behavior springs from boredom and the deadening depression that frequently accompanies it.” Of course, not all murders, rapes, robberies and other crimes are the result of boredom; however, boredom and the subsequent need for excitement has been linked to criminal and other antisocial behavior. People who are bored seek release from their boredom. Adrenalin junkies, for instance, engage in high-risk, thrill-seeking behaviors with little thought of consequences.

As Dr. Brothers suggested, boredom can signal either mild or severe depression. University of Pennsylvania researcher and former president of the American Psychological Association, Dr. Martin Seligman, documents in his books, Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, that depression is epidemic among Americans. He cited one study, documenting that many people experience their first major episode of depression at age 12. Drug and alcohol abuse has also been linked to boredom as well as overeating. “I eat because I don’t have anything else to do,” an obese and obviously depressed person told me a number of years ago.

Media critic Neil Postman wrote a book entitled, Amusing Ourselves to Death. In it, he suggests that Americans are seeking to be entertained instead of creating their own entertainment. This passivity, in my opinion, is based on the boredom and ennui that so many people experience in their lives. Even journalistic decisions are made based on which stories are most entertaining to the public rather than on which stories are most important for the American people to hear. Network ratings are based on entertainment value and drive marketing decisions. Movie producers seek to make the next big blockbuster, complete with special effects and action sequences never before seen. Plot and character development seem to have taken a back seat, maybe because bored viewers don’t have the patience or attention span to mentally concentrate on these things.

Business productivity has suffered because of boredom. Many people are bored at their jobs and do as little as possible to keep them. The changes in mid-life have been attributed to boredom and the need for new challenges and endeavors. Extra-marital affairs and divorce have been linked in part to boredom. “She just doesn’t excite me anymore…there’s no spark between us…I need someone new and different,” a close friend told me seven years ago as he justified his affair and subsequent divorce. Since then, he’s been though a lot of “new and different someone’s,” but to paraphrase Bono of the rock group U2, he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. Perhaps he had it all along and didn’t know it.

Boredom leads to a preoccupation with self. Psychologist Alfred Adler wrote that healthy people display social interest. In is book by the same name, Adler postulated that “an individual’s level of social interest is the key to his or her success in solving the problems of life, from forming meaningful relationships to being successful at work. Formulated in childhood, social interest refers to how individuals view themselves in relation to the external world. Ideally, it should involve a strong sense of community and fellowship as without these, Adler believed, individuals have great difficulty relating to others and dealing with the world.”

How is it that so many are bored despite living in such remarkable times where, compared to the rest of the world, there is great affluence and amazing opportunity? Boredom is an ontological state. In the 19th century, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard used the word boredom to describe a state of being he saw in many people. For Kierkegaard, boredom is having no real understanding of the purpose for your life. Let this definition sink in a moment–think about it. Boredom is having no real understanding of the purpose for your life.

In adolescence, the two most important developmental questions that must be answered are, “Who am I?” and “What is my purpose?” These questions return in mid-life, often leading to a crisis as men and women look at their lives and ask: “Is this all there is?” “Is this all my life has amounted to?” “Am I who I set out to be?” A healthy self-concept and positive self-esteem are related to self-identity and purpose. Boredom is related to low self-esteem and poor self-concept.

Boredom is a very self-absorbed state of being because if passively focuses on the self—”I’m bored!”—and generally provokes no meaningful action. If young people understood who they are and where they are going, then they would not cycle from boredom to thrill seeking. Instead, they would do things that align with their perception of self and their goals and display social interest.

This is also true of adults. Unfortunately, too many adults have not adequately answered the two important developmental questions of adolescence and therefore live with little meaning or direction. The words written by Henry David Thoreau over a hundred years ago apply today: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

The Peter Pan Syndrome, a best seller several years ago, described men who couldn’t seem to grow up. Many still lived at home. They were frivolous, had trouble with intimate relationships, and cycled in and out of boredom. Some may have been depressed. Bottom line: The men described by the author did not know who they were or what was their purpose in life. Thus, they remained adolescents on many levels. Of course, this could apply to many women as well.

Gifted children, adolescents and adults sometimes suffer from existential depression, and the key to helping them, according to therapist Andrew Mahoney, is identity formation. A parent once wrote him about her gifted daughter who seemed to have an affinity for nothing. Mahoney replied:

“Let me start by defining what affinity means to me. Meeting my affinity in life has become a guiding force and powerful motivator. I believe that purpose and meaning are truly the most powerful aspects for moving beyond basic existence and into a life of thriving fulfillment. Having a purpose, a will to live, a sense of living one’s life for something beyond self is the nature of meeting your affinity.

“I have come to know that when a child is not aware of or has not been exposed to her affinity she is missing something crucial to her identity formation. She may be tapping into a fragmented sense of purpose in life and not a complete sense of meaning for her existence. This uncultivated affinity also deprives the child of motivation and a drive to partake in life on a meaningful level.” [http://www.counselingthegifted.com/qanda.html]

I’ll bet that Andrew Mahoney is not a man who gets bored—he knows who he is and is locked into his purpose. He also feels a sense of control and power that allows him to take control of his life. I, too, cannot remember the last time I felt bored. Life is exciting and purposeful when you know who you are and are doing what you are meant to be doing.

Has a plague of ennui descended on America? The epidemics of boredom and depression would seem to indicate that a plague has arrived. So many people seem to be caught in the doldrums or content to go wherever the currents take them. They are rudderless, out of fuel…in a word, they’re bored.

Assess your own sense of identity and purpose by writing a short paragraph in answer to the following questions: Who am I? What gives me purpose in life? If you have difficulty answering these questions, then it may be that you could benefit from developmental counseling.

One thought on “Boredom, Ennui, and Meaning in Life

  1. Excellent article, John…well-written and well-researched about an elusive subject. Did not know that you were blogging. Looking forward to new entries!

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