James Dankert and John D. Eastwood. Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020. $27.95, 282 pp.
In a study where participants were instructed to sit in a room with nothing to do for only fifteen minutes, nearly half of them chose to self administer painful electric shocks rather than sit with their own thoughts. Where does this profound aversion to boredom come from, and what does it say about human nature? These are the questions James Danckert and John D. Eastwood set out to answer in their book Out of My Skull: the Psychology of Boredom (2020). Approached from a rigorously scientific and psychological perspective (Danckert is a neuroscientist and Eastwood a professor of psychology), the book offers an illuminating examination of both the psychological origins of the subjective experience of boredom and the severe maladies that can afflict a society beset by it. Its insights are salient, and its implications pressing, but in its neglect of the spiritual dimensions of boredom, it leaves something significant to be desired.
The book begins with a brief history of boredom and its philosophical parentage, from acedia, the noonday devil of monastic practice, to the distinctly French and modern experience of ennui, and finally the monotony brought about by the mechanised labour of the industrial revolution. Glossing over these historical (and often theological) definitions of boredom, the authors pivot to providing their own psychological definition: “the uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but being unable to, engage in satisfying activity” (19). Boredom arises from a perceived or actual loss of agency; the feeling that our effort will have no effect on the activity in which we are engaged. The counterpart to this frustrated desire for engagement is the experience of “flow,” the sense of absorption we attain when we are involved in activity that is just difficult enough to require our full attention, but which does not produce a sense of defeatedness. We are hardwired to enjoy the feeling of mastery, absorption, and accomplishment. We hunger for this experience of “meaningful engagement” as intensely as we do for food, water, and companionship.
Boredom, then, is an important form of pain; a psychological cue for action. Like the physiological experience of withdrawing our hand from a hot burner, boredom is a sign that our essential need for meaningful engagement is not being met.And as with any essential human need (food, water, companionship), when we are deprived of it for a long period of time, we will suffer profound consequences. In a meticulously researched recitation of dozens upon dozens of psychological studies on boredom (which to the academically uninitiated may occasionally feel onerous), the authors show that people who are often bored are more likely to engage in compulsive and risky behaviours, commit crimes, and ascribe to extremist political ideologies. These harmful behaviors are maladaptive ways of reclaiming agency, ineffectual means of accessing the meaningful engagement we crave.
This perspective on boredom illuminates the simultaneous chaos and malaise of the past year. Over the past year, we have experienced a global loss of agency. Households and whole nations have found themselves in a metaphorical room with nothing but their thoughts, life on hold as time passes on at its usual unforgiving pace. For some, the promptings of boredom led to an increase of creativity and familial connection, healthful ways of reclaiming agency. And yet for most, the results were mixed, producing anxiety, depression, listlessness. One could even extrapolate that existential boredom might have contributed to the furor of the violent events of the year, and the apparent rise in political extremism.
Though it came to a crisis point this year, the authors argue that society has been tumbling toward an “epidemic of boredom” for a long time: modern people are overstimulated and under engaged. Society is full of what Matthew B. Crawford describes in his book Shop Class As Soul Craft as “knowledge workers:” people trained from a young age in highly specific (and usually digital) skills who lack the ability to do basic tasks like tune up their car, fix things around the house, and grow a garden. He laments that modern people are “more passive and more dependent” counterparts to being engaged and independent. The ready-made world has decreased the arena of our agency. Furthermore, constant exposure to global news diminishes our sense of agency because we are constantly exposed to crises about which we can do very little. In the paralysed hypervigilance of the modern world, there is no way for us to meaningfully engage with a world so vast. The result, the authors propose, is a fulfilment of William James’ dour prophecy that an “irremediable flatness is coming over the world.”
What, then, is the solution to the “irremedial flatness” so pervasive in the modern world?
Aiming to diagnose rather than to prescribe, the authors remain mostly demure on this point, but give some promptings, inviting readers to draw their own conclusions. We must get better at being bored, resisting the urge to numb the pain of boredom by scrolling through twitter, and, instead, find better, more meaningful ways to respond to its promptings of boredom. The principles behind Crawford’s project provide a healthful antidote to the malaise of modern life described by Danckert and Eastwood. Crawford presents an economic and psychological case for the benefits of manual labour, advocating for the “kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves.” By taking tools in hand, we become more engaged with our world, we grow in competence and satisfaction. In its most lifegiving moments, the lockdowns led us to take charge over areas of our lives we had outsourced and undervalued.
In learning to bake bread, garden, and fix things around the house, many of us were reclaiming a primal human satisfaction. We understood in a visceral way that the words uttered to Adam and Eve in the opening pages of Genesis were, in fact, a blessing: “be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.” In our mastery, husbandry, and artistry we reflect a God who, complete and satisfied in the endless joy of the trinity, created a cosmos not out of necessity, but love.
But Dankert and Eastwood would simply not be interested in these sorts of reflections. The question of whether or not there is a spiritual dimension to boredom is repeatedly referenced, but summarily dismissed. Boredom is a desire, and like any desire, they claim, are merely “biological drives that function to preserve our lives and the future of our clan” (60). The final chapter closes with a reference to Nietzsche’s remarks on the Sabbath as the manifestation of God’s boredom, suggesting that the concept of eternity is inherently boring, the ultimate absence of agency and urgency, deprived of the boundaries of time, death, and the struggle to survive.
It reminded me of the final episode of The Good Place, where, after four seasons of fighting their way to heaven, Chidi and Eleanor are disappointed to discover that the Good Place consists of an eternal banality and existential malaise. As a solution to this, they introduce an “exit strategy” essentially reinventing death. The show seems to embody Martin Hagglund’s claim in This Life, “not that an eternal activity would be ‘boring’ but that it would not be intelligible as my activity.” And it seems Danckert and Eastwood agree: the only thing that ultimately keeps us from boredom is the constant but ultimately fruitless evasion of death, propagation of the species.
This seems, to me, to be a hollow and overly assured position. The book sets out to diagnose the origin of boredom, and this it does with clarity and insight, but by adopting this incurious materialism, it leaves something to be desired. Would we all benefit by engaging in activities which challenge and satisfy us, reading more books, climbing more mountains, perhaps even raising more children? Very likely. But I can’t help but think that there is something inadequate in suggesting that the sole solution to the existential ennui of modern life is simply more and better quality meaningful activity. For many people, there simply is an existential dimension to desire. From where does this gnawing ache for something “more” come? Is it merely a malfunction of our evolutionary heritage? Or could it testify to some deeper aspect of human nature?
The fourth century theologian Gregory of Nyssa describes the destiny of mankind as epektasis, which Liviu Petcu calls “the doctrine of unceasing evolution in eternal happiness.” For Gregory, human nature is fulfilled when it exceeds itself through union with God, growing in deeper knowledge and deeper love, a process that will go on in perpetuity because there is always more to know and love in and about God. This is a process initiated in our earthly lives through experiences of desire, satisfaction, and even manual mastery. Our earthly experiences of desire, work, and satisfaction have an eschatological dimension: they tutor us in desire, eternally pulling us into deeper and deeper intimacy with God, the mind which can never be mastered, but of which there is always more to be explored. Earthly desires, even boredom, begin the process of our ultimate telos: endless meaningful engagement.
When I watched The Good Place, this is what I saw: not a nihilistic abandonment of pleasure, relationship, and existence, but a progression of desire into the source of all enjoyment. Perhaps this is merely because my brain has been oversteeped in theology, but I think this theological account of desire nourishes the insights of Out of My Skull. We are hardwired for meaningful engagement, yes. I would merely object that it is not death which gives the bounds of our activity meaning, but God, who made us the sort of creatures who find profound satisfaction in mastery, engagement, and craftsmanship. In loving God we find the unceasing evolution of happiness, the task which can never be mastered, and yet always be enjoyed.