Boredom is a Killer
Please, readers! If you experience disinterest, apathy, ennui, malaise, dysthymia, lassitude, or neurasthenia as you peruse this essay… click away to safety! If you sense your cognition tumbling towards a fetid swamp of brain-paralyzing boredom — abandon me! I don’t want your death on my conscience.
Boredom is a killer, suggests an essay in the April 2010 International Journal of Epidemiology. Researchers Annie Britton and Martin Shipley at University College London examined questionnaires completed by 7,524 civil workers in 1985-1988 that queried the bureaucrats on their interest level regarding work. Multiple-choice options ranged from experiencing boredom “not at all” to “all the time.” In 2009, the surveyors reconnected with their subjects. They discovered that those who expressed severe job boredom were 2.5 times more likely to be dead of cardiovascular disease. Their conclusion: “those who report being bored are more likely to die younger than those who are not bored.”
Were the victims “bored to death”? Can their employers be imprisoned for murder? In the future, can we indict all droning bores on charges of “assault with a lethal weapon”? Not really, no, and no. Shipley and Britton admit that boredom is not the specific cause of the victims’ demise. Nobody suddenly collapsed face-first on their keyboard, crushed by an actuarial task. Truth is — small amounts of daily boredom won’t hurt you. You can safely continue to launder your clothes and ride your exercise bike.
But when boredom becomes chronic, it’s dangerous. The numb condition lures desperate humans into “make-me-feel-alive” behavior like over-eating, alcoholism, sex addiction, smoking, drug dependency, self-mutilation, fist-fighting, off-road racing, pathological gambling, and vandalism. It can plunge one into poor grades in school or poor work performance. Boredom can spiral into depression, which carries a high risk of heart disease. Anxiety produced by boredom and depression releases hormones such as cortisol. These hormones damage the circulatory system. “Anger suppression” in boredom is also detrimental. Bottled rage increases blood pressure and weakens the immune system.
Health experts are attacking the Ennui Enemy by advising the usual cures: walking, exercise, dancing, puzzle-solving, reading, writing, drawing, get-a-pet, tend-a-garden, watch-funny-shows, learn-new-things-that-you-find-interesting. Obviously, anyone who’s feeling apathetic needs to avoid dull environments. Forbes.com’s “America’s Top Ten Most Boring Cities” fingered Aurora (Colorado), Hialeah (Florida), Mesa, Chandler, Gilbert (Arizona), Henderson, North Las Vegas (Nevada), and Santa Ana, Chula Vista, Bakersfield (California) as voids to avoid. Website chatters have nominated the “most boring” in multiple categories: Boring food? Oatmeal, tofu, celery. Boring names? James, Mary. Boring books? Moby Dick, Crime and Punishment, everything by Charles Dickens. Boring jobs? Envelope stuffers. Poultry processors. Boring habits? A survey says, “complaining about oneself” and “muttering trivialities.” And finally, my tip if you’re malignant with malaise is… don’t vacation in Baltic or Slavic nations! The five top suicide spots are Lithuania, Russia, Latvia, Estonia, and Belarus, with Slovenia, Ukraine, and Croatia close behind.
The word “boredom” is modern. Charles Dickens (yes, him again) first coined it in his 1853 novel Bleak House. Philosophers and psychologists have embraced boredom. Martin Heidegger wrote 100 pages on the tedious mood. Arthur Schopenhauer categorized boredom as inherent in the human condition. Soren Kierkegaard defined boredom and its cousin despair as “inner death” in The Sickness Unto Death and postulated that all human life is in motion towards boredom. Sigmund Freud theorized that boredom was the result of repressed emotions and Albert Schweitzer concurred with this diagnosis when he compared boredom to African’s sleeping sickness. “Your soul suffers if you live superficially,” Schweitzer warns, advising readers to combat “indifference” by searching in “their inmost selves” for their “inner voice.”
And finally, my tip if you’re malignant with malaise is… don’t vacation in Baltic or Slavic nations!
A more recent philosopher — Sir Bernard Arthur Owen Williams of Cambridge and Berkeley — addressed boredom in a context that has provoked intense transhumanist rebuttal. Williams’ 1972 essay, “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,” asserted that immortality would doom us to a joyless existence that would be horrifically boring. Williams’ guidepost was a play, The Makropulos Affair by Karel Čapek, later an opera by Leoš Janáček (both Czechs, see Slavic warning above). Both works feature a 342-year-old woman who can’t die because she’s been given a magic elixir. Her “life sentence” fills her with anguish, and Williams regards this emotive state as unavoidable. He accepts the “Death Gives Life Meaning” maxim that’s enclosed in the anti-immortality stance. On fightaging.org, Australian transhumanist Alejandro Dubrovsky informs us that he randomly surveyed people who opposed life extension. “Boredom,” Dubrovsky reports, “is the reason most people give for not wanting to live for 150 years.”
Will life be fun if we live forever? Sir Williams’ negativistic argument — that we’ll all be drained of interest in everything there is to be interested in — is attacked by extropian Max More in his 1991 essay, “Meaningfulness and Mortality” that concludes with the sharp remark: “ennui has to do with laziness rather than the availability of too much time.” Aschwin de Wolf of depressedmetabolism.com analyzes Williams’ theory in similar fashion: “Perhaps arguments of this kind do not so much reflect logic but temperament… tell[ing] us more about the philosopher in question than about the nature of the universe.” Link
John Mellencamp’s ageist, lyrical opinion, “Life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” was critiqued by George Dvorsky of sentientdevelopments.com at the Institute of Ethics & Emerging Technology (7/13/07). Eliezer Yudkowski of singinst.org tackles the topic in his “Singularity Fun Theory Sequence.” Michael Anissimov of acceleratingfuture.com suggests in a comment to a post on “Existence Is Wonderful” that the future will offer apathy-annihilating stimuli: “the number of new nations, cultures, trends, and philosophies… developed by posthumanity, will greatly outclass the current menu.” But the most surprising commentator in the debate is Harry R. Moody, director of the Institute for Human Value in Aging. In his essay, “Who’s Afraid of Life Extension?” Moody admits that he first viewed radical longevity as “a delusion — an appeal to vanity, to narcissism and denial of reality.” His scientific mind abandons these biases as he dives into the data and faces his own emotional reservations. He concludes his examination of boredom in eternity with pragmatic advice: “Life extension will require creating new institutions to help people overcome boredom…. second careers, lifelong learning, new varieties of marriage and other forms of social relationship.”
Boredom, I believe, will vanish in the future, especially after all redundant work is performed by robots. The brain is plastic, ever-changing. As it transmutes, new interests, passions, goals and fantasies arise for each of us. I think Freud and Schweitzer are correct when they claim that boredom only cripples us when our animus is chained, when our ambitions are thwarted, when our lusts are denied. Hunger — the desire to be, to know, to experience — obliterates boredom. If we weren’t bored at 20 we won’t be bored at 200. If our curiosity is insatiable we will never be finished. The bored can die if they want to. They can go to Belgium today and get euthanized if they wish. I don’t care… because I think… their anti-immortality arguments… are just so… extremely… boring!