There has to be a reason for boredom and why people suffer it; one theory is that boredom is the evolutionary cousin to disgust.
In Toohey’s Boredom: A Living History, the author notes that when writers as far back as Seneca talk about boredom, they often describe it was a kind of nausea or sickness. The title of famous 20th century existentialist writer Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel about existential boredom was, after all, Nausea. Even now, if someone is bored of something, they’re “sick of it” or “fed up”. So if disgust is a mechanism by which humans avoid harmful things, then boredom is an evolutionary response to harmful social situations or even their own descent into depression.
“Emotions are there to help us react to, register and regulate our response to stimulus from our environment,” he says. Boredom, therefore, can be a kind of early warning system. “We don’t usually take it as a warning – but children do, they badger you to get you out of the situation.”
And though getting out of boredom can lead to extreme measures to alleviate it, such as drug taking or an extramarital affair, it can also lead to positive change. Boredom has found champions in those who see it as a necessary element in creativity. In 2011, Manohla Dargis, New York Times film critic, offered up a defense of “boring” films, declaring that they offer the viewer the opportunity to mentally wander: “In wandering there can be revelation as you meditate, trance out, bliss out, luxuriate in your thoughts, think.”
But how humans respond to boredom may have changed dramatically in the last century. In Eastwood’s opinion, humans have become used to doing less to get more, achieving intense stimulation at the click of a mouse or touch of a screen.
“We are very used to being passively entertained,” he says. “We have changed our understanding of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled.” And it’s become something like a drug – “where we need another hit to remain at the same level of satisfaction,” says Eastwood.
There is hope, however, and it’s back at the Boring Conference. Rather than turning to a quick fix – YouTube videos of funny cats, Facebook – the Boring Conference wants people to use the mundane as an impetus to creative thinking and observation.
“It’s not the most amazing idea in the world, but I think it’s a nice idea – to look around, notice things,” says Ward, the conference organizer. “I guess that’s the message: Look at stuff.”