The Benefits of Boredom

The Benefits of Boredom

L’ennui, by Gaston de la Touche

In 1964, Isaac Asimov peered down through the corridors of time to 2014 and made the following prognostication:

…mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine (Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014, New York Times, August 14, 1964).

Asimov believed that extreme boredom would be the result of the over-automation of society. This, however, has not occurred as quickly as he surmised. He was correct that boredom is “spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity,” but it is not due to over-automation. Rather it is because we have lost our souls and need to find them again.

What causes boredom? Friedrich Nietzsche did not believe it was a disease. Rather, he believed that the “flight from boredom is the mother of all art” (qtd. in Safranski 23). In other words, the experience of boredom is the impetus, sine qua non, in the creation of art. The imagination is stimulated by the onset of boredom and subsequently devises creative work to alleviate it.

For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable “windless calm” of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its effect on them (Nietzsche 108).

There are different kinds of boredom, no doubt, but what Nietzsche is referring to here is existential boredom. The soul and the world have no meaning. One knows not where to turn, what to do. This type of boredom is an encounter with existential angst. It forces one to face nothingness, the possibility of a meaningless existence.

This experience is a thoroughly modern problem, especially after Nietzsche’s declaration that “God is dead.” In throwing off the shackles of idealism and two-world theories, the modern thinker met existential nothingness head-on. Life, therefore, was experienced as boring, meaningless, nihilistic. The soul brings about this state to compel one to discover one’s true purpose in life, among other things. By looking inward and examining oneself, nihilism can be overcome and true meaning can be found. The one who embarks on this quest will, at journey’s end, find “a happy voyage and cheerful winds.”

So, Asimov apparently did not understand the great benefits of boredom. Instead of viewing the increase of boredom as damaging to the psyche, Asimov should have realized its value.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. Trans. Walter Kauffman. New York, Vintage: 1974.

Safranski, Rudiger. Nietzsche: a Philosophical Biography. Trans. Shelley Frisch. New York: WW. Norton, 2002.

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