Friday, August 17, 2007

Adopt a porpoise: Does boredom spring from 'the illusory happiness called success'?

"But nothing lasts long in this world. Even joy grows less lively the next minute. And a minute later, again, it weakens further, until it is swallowed up by a prosaic state of mind, even as the ripple from a pebble's impact becomes merges with the smooth surface of the water. So Kovalev relapsed into thought again. For by now he had realized that even yet the affair was not wholly ended, seeing that, though retrieved, the nose needed to be put back on his face, where it belonged." -- Gogol, 'The Nose'.

Gogol's short story can be said to mean all sorts of things, 'cos it's that good that you effortlessly read what you want into it. I would like, though, to stress - as I have done by selecting the paragraph above - what Gogol is saying about the 'hedonistic treadmill'. Simply put, get what you want and you will want something else in short order. Had your Big Mac? Time for a shake, my fat little friend! Enjoying Die Hard '4.0'? Perhaps you should get a boxset of all four films on DVD! And then a poster! And then an official 'yip-ee-ki-ay' mug and toothbrush combo set!
In this manner, poor Kovalev is joyous upon finding that his nose has returned to him. It is the fulfillment of all his dreams, as having seen his nose cavort about town and holding a higher rank than him, he has become rather subdued. Well, the fulfillment of all of them except having the nose back on his face. And, a perspicacious reader may look beyond the happy ending of the tale to consider that, post-nose reattachment, Major Kovalev may yet find another dream to chase after, fantasy to fulfill, or even another nose to attach. A collection of 'em, after all, offers far more facial security than just one.
Perhaps boredom is related to this treadmill - a feeling that inexorably overwhelms us just as we think we are escaped from it, simply because we are always driven to look forward to having more, rather than looking behind to what already have. Boredom is of much importance to me, as I work with teenagers. If it were a substance that could be collected and sold, I would be rich, simply by mopping up the thick miasma left behind by disaffected teens. I see it everywhere, it clogs my pores, it worries me.
You should, I wager, be worried about boredom too. To give a slightly silly, but all the more terrifying for it example, yobbishness in young folk is often blamed on boredom. In what I must admit is the most concrete proof of 'political correctness gone mad' (yes, I am going Tory in my old age, what?), when there is a conflagration of teenage spite against society - endemic and petty vandalism, scaring old people, smelling of BO, drinking in the streets and leering at everything - a social worker can always be found to declare in exactly the same style they would declare that the earth is indefatigably round that they act like this 'because they have nothing to do'. Boredom is, apparently, motivating senselessly destructive behaviour. I have nothing to do, thinks hoodie number one, so I will do something quaintly abominable and get in the Daily Mirror.

I am not sure that I believe this. I am not sure to what extent boredom can even exist in the way that we are describing it. Let me explain.

What do we take it to mean when somebody says "I am bored"? Well, the most common reply to a 'bored' youngster from their parent or otherwise guardian is "why don't you..." This phrase, often ending in "go outside / paint the shed / clean the toilet" is not really a question, although it seems to be. It is usually a terribly backfiring attempt to motivate a self-consciously bored person to do what you want them to - as if boredom is a lack of things to do to be filled up by activities. Yet I do not think that this is the case.
The world is so crammed with activities to be getting on with that it is quite simply irrational to say "I have nothing to do: ergo I am bored". You might as well say "I have nothing to wear: ergo I am the emperor in The Emperor's New Clothes". There is neither a sufficient nor necessary relationship between these statements. Somebody who has 'nothing to do' could, at that moment, within a ten foot radius discover so many activities to be getting on with that they could occupy themselves for the rest of the day. ('What if you're in the desert?' clever readers interject unreasonably. Well, I reply, count sand in order to timekeep until your perhaps inevitable death).
Think of an animal. Are they bored? They find food, they may store food, they may build or maintain a living place, they clean themselves, they may interact socially, they find a mate, they mate. An animal never seems bored. They are always working towards the next potential payday, engaging in behaviours that fulfill drives and instincts, and then working on fulfilling the next one. Is boredom really possible? Well, there are exceptions, and we will consider one later.

So, boredom is quite simply not lacking things to do, even though popularly this is how we consider it.

Let me start bringing in some experts. Lars Svendsen has written a very well received philosophical essay on boredom (which I have not read, but obviously I don't need to talk about it. Yes, I am that deluded). He described two kinds of boredom, 'situational' and 'existential'.
Situational boredom makes excellent sense. When you are doing something that seems to be fruitless, you become bored. When it is too exhausting of inputs and produces too little output, you are bored. When it is repetitive, you are bored. Boredom, in this sense, can almost be seen as a survival mechanism, like the pain response. This is too easy for me, I can do better. It can spur you on to greater things, motivate you to change your behaviours. Situational boredom is not when you have nothing to do, it is when what you are doing is rubbish. This is one half of the meaning of Lars' statement that boredom "doesn't really have any qualities" except for the general "a lack of personal meaning". Boredom can keep you from participating in that which you find meaningless, and maybe cause you to start looking for more meaningful form of expression. Thank you, Apathy!
Existential boredom is the aspect that might worry us. It is when the world offers nothing to us, and our existence seems necessarily impoverished. One perspective would be something like: Nothing enriches me, no experience is improving to my self; everything is limited, transitory, and vain.
To turn to Wikipedia (sorry), some psychologist has said the boredom is “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity”. This covers, I reckon situational boredom. Existential boredom is "when we are simply unable, for no apparent reason, to maintain engagement in any activity or spectacle", from the same article.

We can see, then, that there are two forms of boredom. And we must cast aside one to embrace the other, and wrestle with it. The boredom we should seriously consider is not going to be solved by saying "well, go do something else, then". Existential boredom is, potentially, a life-long condition that cripples the individual so totally that vague attributions of 'depression' may seem like gnats in the face of it. It is like a self that desires negation to such an extent it wants to be a vacuum and suck everything in, destroying everything through a process of negative judgements. Or, in other words, it's really bad.
I am quite sure that many of my students cultivate this boredom preciously, as if it is a kind of lifestyle. It is necessary to be bored by the world in this fashion. You are simultaneously above everything and yet totally apart from it. The world is shit and you know it, and you gaze imperiously down like a cloud would stare at a barren desert. Yes, this sounds stupid - if you are so bored, surely this is a very negative state and you would come out from it? Let me explain again that boredom is easy to defeat. Boredom is inside you, it is how you relate to the world that is the problem - boredom is at the interface between you and the world (in your perceptions). It would be easy to help somebody to overcome boredom through retraining about what is and is not important, and establishing a hierarchy of interest. The truly bored person has a very flat level of interest, averaging at zero for everything. This boredom must be, in some way, a desired affectation to exist, otherwise it would be discarded. (Aside: yes, I am aware that many people believe depression and boredom to be linked. Let me just say that I am discussing boredom as apart from depression, as I am sure that it can be found in this form quite commonly.)

Where does this desire to be bored, and I am quite convinced that it does exist, come from?
Freeman (1991) studied 70 children registered as gifted by their parents - which admittedly makes them an unusual sample. Their intelligence led them to boredom and frustration, as the world was simply not giving them enough stimulation. It is obvious that boredom is often linked with frustration - perhaps terminal boredom is simply when you become so frustrated that you want to block the whole world out? Then again, these children may just have been reacting against parents who were rather pushy.
Perhaps we should first disabuse ourselves of the notion, if we have it, that the world is a grand, free, democratic place where everything is possible as long as we try. If there is one thing I would like to do, it would be to strip people of this asinine optimism, even if it did leave them open to long and cold reappraisals of themselves that eventually led to total and utter despair. C'est la vie.
The limits of average human imagination are, in my eyes, rather apparent, so we cannot simply rely on human ingenuity and spirit to solve all our problems - otherwise why do we still have so many? We may, as Wilde said, be sitting in the gutter but looking at the stars, yet that does not mean that the street sweeper shall refrain from obliviously destroying our little collections of trash that we have been erecting. Yes, the sad truth is that things are not perfect.
The problem of modern boredom is, to me, very quickly encapsulated by Victor Frankl, who said "Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for". Let me go into this further.
Erich Fromm, in his 'Escape From Freedom', describes how the human world changed utterly over the period of a few centuries. From a much more proscribed feudal Europe, where existence was fettered and goals set for you by society, to a modern world which became progressively more and more free. Free from, however, not free to. We have lost the constraining but equally defining customs of the past, and now are left with the need to define ourselves. And this is not easy. As Fromm says, "The right to express our thoughts means something only if we are able to have thoughts of our own". He brilliantly describes American life at the time as a patchwork of facts, put together by newsreels and newspapers: "In the name of 'freedom' life loses all its structure; it is composed of many little pieces, each separate from the other and lacking any sense as a whole". In a world where there is no whole, only atomised separateness, how can we build a self? Similarly we will become a collection of disparate facts, behaviours, activities and hobbies - perhaps only held together by the fake unity of a 'lifestyle' - and seek pleasure in conformity. For that is what Fromm says we turn to in order to escape freedom from, we chain ourselves to popular opinion and slavishly follow what is the norm.

If you cursorily read about boredom on the internet, you will find a number of books have been written on the subject quite recently (again, I haven't read any). A common conclusion is that society produces boredom. A sociological Marxist reading would mostly pin the blame on conscious control by those in power to keep us subservient. This makes exciting Invasion of the Body Snatchers sci-fi narratives possible, but is too breathlessly tense and, let's face it, clever to stand up to the reality of our uncontrolled and opportunistic political climate. I agree with Fromm - when you fulfill material desires more and more as we have unprecedentedly been able to do using the glorious machinery of capitalism, mass humanity is given huge amount of time to devote to whatever they would like to. Yet, at the same time, capitalism has taken away many of the things we would have previously spent time on, such as agriculture, religion, community. Astonishingly, the answer has been to acquire more, even though we have plenty. My students, although mostly from high-earning families, who have their needs fulfilled, are full of desire to buy yet more stuff. Almost all of them regularly spend the money they earn in part-time employment on things they do not need, and when asked will quite happily acknowledge that, in some respects, it is wasteful. Yet the process of buying is so fun that they will continue to buy things, forgetting that past the buzz of the checkout bing it becomes a hollow victory for most purchases.
Also, we subscribe to the idea of leisure. We feel as if we are so harassed by economic life that we want to take 'time out' to 'relax' - a process of doing very little that sounds to me like the most fertile ground for boredom possible. We are making states of boredom, of intellectual inactivity through aimless leisure-pursuit or purchase, central to our idea of self-betterment. I think that we are literally aiming to be bored, by achieving a state where we do not have to do anything, and doing something is suspect.

Fromm's answer to this is sponte: Latin ofr "of one's free will". He wants us all to be spontaneous, expressing ourselves endlessly, constantly, always producing what is original to us (and perhaps, occasionally, the outside world), living in and of ourselves and just being who we are. This process leads to an unstoppable expansion of the self, according to him, you cannot be yourself honestly without loving others and growing through your learning from the outside world. To quote: "man misses the only satisfaction that can give him real happiness - the experience of the activity of the present moment - and chases after a phantom that leaves him dissatisfied as soon as he believes he has caught it - the illusory happiness called success".
To sum it all up, he helpfully truisms that "there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself". And this is where I must explain my dubiousity.

I am not so hot on Fromm's answer to the problems which he quite clearly delineates. He is a humanist, and I am not so faithful, as he seems to be, that the spontaneous nature of the human is always so positive. I do not see why spontaneity could not be, in many people, an awful thing worthy of suppression by outside forces. Also, I do not think that it is so easy to be-who-you-are. Ask somebody to "be spontaneous" and the last thing they will do will be spontaneous. Instead their response will be bluntly critical, or forcefully contrived, or something otherwise not spontaneous at all. Perhaps we must accept that human self is so bound up in control by the outside world that just to be somebody is to be directly or indirectly caused and affected by everything around us, especially human-invented meanings of the self.
Fromm rails against the idea that we should be content to be carefully organised individuals participating in an already-existing structure. I am similarly dubious that we can be fully free and individuals spontaneously creating a structure that benefits us all so mutually.
If 'the act of living' is the meaning of life, and we are all alive, then Fromm must end up having to point at people who are alive - but not in the 'right way' - and say "that's not true living". This is tricky, to me, very tricky; simply endlessly disputable.

What is the answer, then, to a world which seem to rush headlong into boredom by prizing what is always going to be boring? Let me return to the idea that being very intelligent might lead to frustration and boredom. Do intelligent people tend to do amazing things - is intelligence enough to make original people who change the world?
Unsurprisingly, no: Subotnik et al. (1993), studied 210 adults who previously attended a New York school for high IQ kids (average IQ of group, 157). They did not generally achieve much of note, going for modest success in a profession instead.
Furthermore, above an IQ level of 120 (which 9% of the population achieves) original achievements are determined by personality or motivation (Martyn Long, Psychology of Education). Intelligent people are ten-a-penny, yet world-leaders are not. What is this magic factor that produces people who do something, who slip between the cracks of normality and shake things up? What is meant by 'determined by personality or motivation'?

To put it simply, some people adopt a purpose.

I do not think that, at this moment, anything terrifies me more. Purpose can be an alien thing, pushed on you from outside. A child could be raised to perform terrorist acts because of another's purpose being pressed into them, like a seal into wax. Purpose can lead you blindly into fresh hells of your own devising. Purpose can destroy you, as it is a strong motivation that may know no reason.
Yet, it is the one thing that keeps us moving, that totally dispells boredom. When we want to do something.
The problem is simple - we have somehow made a world in which purpose is alien. Drives have been reined in and subsumed to such an extent in order to power normal, conformist existence that there is nothing left of us. We want so little, apart from what the world has designated for us, that our aims are literally mundane ('of the world'). We commonly think that humanity is somehow spiritually able to 'break the mould', 'push the limits', yet we do not do this ourselves. We are seduced by the normal so strongly we think it extraordinary, and pursue it relentlessly, forever tiring of our immediate gains and going for more.

Boredom makes us think, "I don't want to do anything". Perhaps we should be thinking more, "what is it that I must do?"


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