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Boredom: A Lively History By Peter Toohey

"Only boring people get bored.” That at least is what I was told regularly throughout a childhood of long car journeys, wet Sunday afternoons, and tedious family excursions.
But now I discover – after reading Peter Toohey’s “lively” history of boredom – that it’s only people with defective dopamine receptors who get bored. Or rather they get more bored more often. (Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that produces a sense of joy and excitement in the brain; when levels drop, time seems to slow, life loses its savour, and boredom sets in.)

The word “boredom” does not appear in the English language until around 1755. And this has encouraged the notion that it is a relatively modern condition.
According to many historians boredom was “invented” in the 18th century, a product of the European Enlightenment’s new emphasis on the individual will, and then became exacerbated over the subsequent centuries by the unhinging effects of Romanticism, secularism, the loss of tradition, urban alienation and a cluster of other contemporary ills.
This potent “existential boredom” – as Toohey terms it – does indeed suffuse the literature of the past 200 years. It is the abiding motif in a host of works from Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov and Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea to Michel Houllebecq’s Whatever.
Toohey, however, is not convinced. He sees this sort of boredom as an elaborate literary construct, made up with a large additional dose of depression. And, while acknowledging its peculiarly modern flavour, he also makes an elegant case for connecting it with a long tradition running back through the “melancholia” of the Renaissance scholar to the “accidie” of the Medieval monk.
“Existential boredom”, for all its conspicuous cultural pedigree, is, though, only half the picture. It stands apart from the more conventional – more boring – sort of boredom, that feeling of being trapped in some monotonous and predictable situation.
This is the sort of boredom that people with defective dopamine receptors experience with such acute force. For them it takes root rapidly and, no less rapidly, can develop into “chronic boredom”, bringing with it a host of dangerous, associated risk-taking behaviours – from bungee jumping and gambling to adultery and drink.
The rest of us feel it too – albeit in a less extreme fashion. It is impossible to escape: the repetitive job, the tedious meeting, the long journey, the dull party.
One of those “recent surveys” garnered from the internet, with which this book is perhaps rather over full, goes so far as to claim that we all “experience six hours a week in a state of boredom”. Even animals, it seems, when caged, display all the signs of being bored.
One bold anthropologist has claimed that the Australian aboriginals – before the arrival of Europeans – had evolved a way of “living in the moment” that left no room for boredom. It is an attractive notion but one that is impossible to prove or replicate.
Conventional boredom – boring though it is – is apparently a “useful” emotion. According to the psychologists it acts as a warning signal for us to try and avoid situations that, if repeated, could lead on to anger, depression or worse.
Of course, sometimes boring situations can’t be avoided. And once you are embarked on the long car journey, or have received a lengthy prison sentence, there is no way out. Then you do have to fall back on your inner resources.
The Nazi war criminal Albert Speer, incarcerated for 20 years (much of the time in solitary confinement), set off on a virtual walk around the world. Measuring the exact distance he walked each day in the exercise yard at Spandau, he calibrated it carefully against a succession of maps, guidebooks and encyclopedias borrowed from the prison library.
In this way he “travelled”, over the years, from Germany, through Asia, across the Bering Straits, into America and down to Guadalajara in Mexico.
Other diversions require rather less planning. Sleep can be useful. And music is excellent, but you must choose your playlist carefully. Experiments on animals in captivity carried out at Queen’s University, Belfast, produced some interesting results. Mozart in particular had a soothing effect on the listless elephants in Belfast Zoo.
Heavy metal, on the other hand, “had quite an adverse effect on the dogs”.
Boredom – A Lively History
By Matthew Sturgis

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