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The Transformative Potential of Boredom

Abstract

Much of the recent psychological literature on boredom aims to define, categorize, and measure boredom in order to assess it, to identify correlated mental pathologies, to find the psychophysiological bases of boredom, or to apply the findings to specific settings or social groups. This literature uses both quantitative and qualitative methods to seek an objective, scientific understanding of boredom. It presupposes that boredom is an aversive, individual experience, which psychology can help ameliorate, prevent, or divert. By contrast, Kierkegaard uses his methods of ‘experimenting psychology’ and ‘indirect communication’ to deploy boredom in awakening his reader to the task of becoming a self. He uses literary devices and exemplary characters to this end. Heidegger pursues a similar aim: to awaken the reader/listener to the possibility of attuning herself to profound boredom in a way that will enable her to become an authentic self (Dasein). Heidegger uses a method of historical, hermeneutic phenomenology to enable his reader to hear the call of being through an attunement to profound boredom. He starts with the familiar experience of boredom, then defamiliarizes his listener to enable an original grasp of the meaning of being.

Keywords

  • Boredom
  • Creativity
  • Dasein
  • Experimental psychology
  • Heidegger
  • Kierkegaard

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Notes

  1. 1.

    On the distinction between state boredom and trait boredom, see Elpidorou (2018, pp. 457–468). On the measurement of state boredom, see, for example, Fahlman et al. (2013). On trait boredom, or boredom proneness, see Skues et al. (2016). For psychological definitions of boredom, see Eastwood et al. (2012) and Vogel-Walcutt et al. (2012).

  2. 2.

    Exceptions are O’Brien (2014); Calhoun (2011); Dalle Pezze and Salzani (2009); Svendsen (2005) and Frankfurt (1992). Although Elpidorou is a philosopher and his article is published in a cognitive science journal, I count Elpidorou (2018) as part of the psychological literature since it develops its theory of boredom primarily on the basis of a review of the psychological literature.

  3. 3.

    For example, some studies point to low arousal as a defining feature of boredom while others regard it as a high arousal state (Vodanovich and Watt 2016, p. 195). Elpidorou (2018) has a plausible explanation for this discrepancy, to which we will return.

  4. 4.

    Even Eastwood’s expanded definition fails to distinguish boredom from frustration: “Specifically, we propose that boredom be defined in terms of attention. That is, boredom is the aversive state that occurs when we (a) are not able to successfully engage attention with internal (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external (e.g., environmental stimuli) information required for participating in satisfying activity (b) are focused on the fact that we are not able to engage attention and participate in satisfying activity, and (c) attribute the cause of our aversive state to the environment” (Eastwood et al. 2012, p. 482).

  5. 5.

    Note that the Danish Stemning and the German Stimmung share the same etymology and are related to the words for “voice,” “vote,” and “attune” (Nielsen 1966, p. 381).

  6. 6.

    Note that Heidegger claims that these forms of boredom are not necessarily discrete: “the forms of boredom are themselves fluid: there are manifold intermediate forms in accordance with the depth from which the boredom arises, more accurately: according to the depth which man grants his own Dasein” (Heidegger 1995, p. 157).

  7. 7.

    Note that there are methodological problems with inducing boredom in subjects by prescribing repetitive, monotonous and meaningless tasks since this limits the types of boredom to Heidegger’s superficial boredom, or being bored by. It is not necessarily legitimate to generalize results from this type of boredom to other types. There are also potential methodological problems for those studies that correlate boredom with alexithymia, the inability to correctly identify one’s own emotional states, if they require subjects to be able to identify themselves correctly as being bored.

  8. 8.

    Kierkegaard derives the notion of collateral mental events from his teacher F. C. Sibbern, who also thought that psychology should be understood in the context of a person’s existence, which develops dialectically. See Malantschuk (1980, pp. 162–176) and Koch (2016, p. 234).

  9. 9.

    Note that these are far from exhaustive of Kierkegaard’s existential stages and are not necessarily as discrete from one another as they are often presented.

  10. 10.

    The interesting “is properly the category of the turning point” (Kierkegaard 1954, p. 92).

  11. 11.

    Kierkegaard’s pseudonym Constantin Constantius congratulates the Danish language on its word for repetition, Gjentagelse, which literally means a “taking again” (Kierkegaard 1983, p. 149).

  12. 12.

    Note that Heidegger does not claim that boredom is the only possible mood with which to start this inquiry. In Being and time, he focuses on the mood of anxiety instead.

  13. 13.

    This passage is reminiscent of the aesthete’s discussion of the art of forgetting in Either/Or.

  14. 14.

    For a comparison of Kierkegaard’s notion of the moment [Øieblik] with Heidegger’s notion of moment of vision [Augenblick], and their common derivation from the Christian notion of the fullness of time, see (Carlisle 2015, pp. 37, 49–52).

  15. 15.

    Note that a predecessor concept to boredom is acedia, a word that derives from the Greek for not-caring. Harry Frankfurt (1992), approaching the concept of boredom from a very different philosophical perspective from Kierkegaard and Heidegger, also finds a potential within boredom to inform us about what we should care about, especially in terms of our ‘final ends.’

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McDonald, W. (2019). The Transformative Potential of Boredom. In: Ros Velasco, J. (eds) Boredom Is in Your Mind. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-26395-9_6

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