The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Pick up a book, and discard it. Yawn, slump, and slip into a thousand-yard stare. Wander from room to room in search of some distraction—nothing appeals. Boredom is the most contrary of emotions. It’s a combination of feeling trapped, inert and disinterested: there is a vague sense of wanting something to change, but we really can’t say what.

The boredom we know today was invented by the Victorians, although that is not to say that life had never felt repetitive and uninteresting before then. Pliny reputedly believed that many an “overtoiled” Roman citizen poisoned himself because of his “tedious life.” And in the fifteenth century, feeling “irked” was an unpleasant combination of weariness and DISGUST, as is commonly felt when one is stuck sitting next to a dull person at dinner, or forced to listen to an incomprehensible lecture (see also: ACEDIA).

When the new emotional category of “boredom”—from the French bourrer (to stuff or satiate; literally, to be fed up)—first appeared in the English language in 1853, it was a consequence of a rapidly changing relationship to time. Pre-industrial societies had not distinguished between work and domestic drudgery, but the rapid expansion of factories and offices in cities from the late eighteenth century produced a new way of dividing up the day, inaugurating the concept of “leisure time.” Leisure was quickly conceived among the middle classes as a space for self-improving recreation. A lucrative entertainment industry, which included circuses, popular science lectures and theatrical extravaganzas, rushed in to meet the growing demand to be diverted and edified, and a new tourism industry emerged to cater to the combined bourgeois excitements of consumerism and novelty (see also: WANDERLUST).

In this context, finding oneself at a loose end or trapped in dreary company, or feeling unable to be interested, attentive or useful, was a mark of inadequacy. Doctors debated boredom’s unsavory health implications (alcoholism, onanism, excessive sleeping). Politicians vilified it as a social ill and blamed the poor and unemployed for allowing it to fester. Feminist campaigners and novelists pointed out the emotion’s corrosive effects on middle- and upper-class women. In Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, published in 1853, Lady Dedlock, separated from her true love and married to a kind but remote gentleman, is listless, lonely and “bored to death.” She had succumbed, wrote Dickens in what the Oxford English Dictionary cites as the first use of the word “boredom” in English, to the “chronic malady” of modern life. Twenty or so years later, Gwendolen in George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda warned this malady might have unforeseen effects on others too. Brought up like hothouse plants to “look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining,” women could be turned poisonous to the touch by boredom.

Today, we ought to be boredom-free. With the constant stimulation of ever-smarter technologies, and the celebration of a new kind of flexible “creative worker” in whose world there is no discernible split between “labor time” and “leisure time,” stress rather than boredom is the malady of our times. Yet the Victorians’ worries about boredom are still with us, reframed in twenty-first-century terms. The controversial diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among growing numbers of schoolchildren has created a whole category of people understood to be neurologically prone to boredom, their lowered dopamine levels leaving them restless, fidgety and easily distracted. Those who score highly on the Boredom Proneness Scale are considered more likely to abuse alcohol, become obese, or make mistakes while driving.

This moral and medical panic about boredom may come at a price. Turn off your smart phone, and you may find yourself slipping—via irritable boredom—into that listlessness that gives rise to pleasant reverie and daydreams. Feel an itching dissatisfaction and disinterest, and you may be motivated to change your situation. There is no coincidence that many creative people, for instance the artist Grayson Perry and writer Meera Syal, have spoken of their own childhoods as immensely tedious. Their boredom propelled them to invent and imagine; as Perry puts it, boredom is “a very creative state.” So perhaps we should take care not to rush in and alleviate the brattish whine of our children’s “I’m bored” too quickly, or fill their schedules with endlessly interesting activities. Because it might just be, as the anthropologist Ralph Linton has argued, that “the human capacity for being bored, rather than social or natural needs, lies at the root of man’s cultural advance.”

See also: ACEDIA; APATHY; CHEESED (off).