The last time I was “truly, painfully, bored”, says Jemima Kelly in the FT, was a year ago, during a “seemingly never-ending church service” in a sleepy village in northern France. But when the ordeal was over, I noticed that feelings of pleasure intensified. “How the river glistened in the morning sunshine! How wonderful to be alive and free and on holiday!” This kind of “unadulterated” boredom, while sometimes painful, often creates space for reflection and creativity.
There’s a different, “more listless strain” of boredom that we experience far more regularly, thanks to our “always switched-on lives”. It might take hold when “frantically flitting from app to app on your phone, perhaps with the TV on in the background, while also stuffing something into your mouth” – maximum stimulation, but no real interest. Despite the “embarrassment of digital distractions” available these days, one 2019 study found that boredom had been on the rise among American teens for years. The author noted a widespread quality of “sensation-seeking” – more like ennui, in truth, than boredom. A mind suffering from ennui is not desperate for stimulation; “its problem is that it isn’t desperate for anything at all”. Boredom, or at least the possibility of it, is “vital”. By using digital devices as a mental crutch, “we end up suffering a much more profound sense of malaise”.