Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, by James Danckert and John D. Eastwood

Randy Malamud admires a distinctly engaging account of an energy-sapping emotion

June 25, 2020
Ageing, elderly parents sunbathe with a teenage daughter as the father oddly faces a brick wall while sat in his wheelchair. Looking bored with the family holiday, the young lady of about 18 years of age, sits on a concrete block
Source: Getty
Time drags: according to Heidegger, profound boredom ‘has no object or source. It is timeless and represents a kind of emptiness in which we get a terrifying view of reality’

If the current state of the world has you scared, angry or sad, I can’t help. But if you’re bored – and it’s hard to imagine that boredom is not one mixer in the cocktail of anxieties during isolated lockdown – I can recommend an eerily timely new book, Out of My Skull.

With nary a dull sentence (Harvard University Press’ editors must have checked diligently to ensure that the authors avoided the most obvious of sand traps here), psychology professors James Danckert and John D. Eastwood trace the facets of a seemingly nebulous and trivial condition, pointing to methods of transcending the titular phenomenon. In this boring season, it feels “meta” to think about boredom and, paradoxically, not at all monotonous (just as reading about food is not fattening and watching sports does not improve physical health).

Boredom is a wake-up call, a message from your psyche telling you to do something different – or just do something. But it’s not as easy as exhorting someone (or yourself) simply to snap out of it, the writers caution: “We would not tell someone who is drowning and unable to swim to simply swim to shore.”

Not in itself dangerous, boredom can trigger unhealthy consequences such as depression and anxiety, poor self-esteem, risky choices and a lack of purpose. Trying to escape it, we may fall into a rabbit-hole (internet addiction, excessive gaming, television bingeing), which masks but does not cure the predicament. The trick is to embrace boredom and use it motivationally: make lemonade out of your lemony mood by finding an activity that provides some kind of growth, re-engagement.

In crisp, jargon-free prose calculated to stave off any whiff of ennui – a model of academic “crossover” writing – Danckert and Eastwood explain that when boredom makes us sluggish or restless, “we should pay attention to it and understand it”. Being bored is “quite fascinating and maybe, just maybe, it might even be helpful”. We require a sense of agency, since “When this need is fulfilled, we flourish. When this need is thwarted, we feel bored, disengaged.” A call to action, boredom “forces you to ask a consequential question: What should I do?”

The book defines boredom in myriad ways. “To be bored is to be painfully stuck in the here and now, bereft of any capacity for self determination,” the authors explain. It is “a lack of meaning”, a state of disconnection, a time when “our mental capacities, our skills and talents, lay idle”, our mental capacity under-utilised, accentuated by “deficient attention” or “a break in the flow of thought”. Four telltale signs – time dragging on; struggling to concentrate; activities feeling pointless; and lethargy – produce “the uncomfortable feeling of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity”.

Psychological studies show that bored people, seeking relief, may be prone to self-harm, drug or alcohol misuse, problem eating and impulsivity. Boredom “predicts problematic smartphone use”, according to one study: “The more bored you are, the more likely your attachment to your phone will be unhealthy” and, instead of alleviating boredom, it will “likely make things worse in the long run”.

At the extreme, violent and psychopathic behaviour may erupt: a German nurse suspected of murdering a hundred people “claimed he killed to alleviate boredom”. In a study of Danish prison inmates, many reported that “boredom and the desire to seek stimulation had landed them in trouble”.

Some studies report positive consequences: people may be more philanthropically generous, to recover a sense of meaning that boredom occludes. (Perhaps that is why telethons tend to be so stultifying, the authors conjecture.) But boredom, stimulating a drive to affirm an attenuated sense of identity, may also provoke political extremism and tribalism. To sustain peace, Danckert and Eastwood write, people must be able “to author their own lives and find meaning. Otherwise boredom will flourish and, in turn, give rise to a fascination with violence and the glorification of war.” Boredom alone will not precipitate war, but it may set the stage: “When bored, we cast about looking for something that will make us feel as though our lives have purpose.” A peaceful society, conversely, provides plentiful sources of happiness and engagement.

The cultural history of boredom goes back to Seneca, who linked it to disgust: “How long the same things? Surely I will yawn, I will sleep, I will eat, I will be thirsty, I will be cold, I will be hot. Is there no end?…All things pass that they may return. I do nothing new. I see nothing new. Sometimes this makes me seasick [nauseous].”

Charles Dickens gets credit for introducing the word “boredom” into English usage (in Bleak House, obviously). A smorgasbord of other terms and tropes include the German langeweile (literally, “long while”: interminably stretching time); in Middle English it was “spleen”, in Latin acedia (which became the sin of sloth, from “slow”), in Italian pococurante (“caring little”).

William James wrote of “irremediable flatness”; Søren Kierkegaard thought boredom was the root of all evil, as it “rests upon the nothingness that winds its way through existence”. Martin Heidegger describes a continuum from superficial boredom (such as waiting for a late train as time drags on) to profound boredom, which “has no object or source. It is timeless and represents a kind of emptiness in which we get a terrifying view of reality.” This existentialist morass, Danckert and Eastwood write, spotlights the crux of boredom: “the sense that things lack meaning”.

Humanists have generated a small but distinguished collection of monographs including Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (1995), by University of Virginia English professor Patricia Meyer Spacks; University of Bergen philosopher Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom (2005); and Boredom: A Lively History (2008), by University of Calgary classicist Peter Toohey. Out of My Skull extends this interdisciplinarity into psychology, although certainly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), about happiness, positivity and fulfilling involvement with life, is an influential predecessor.

Indeed, the final chapter, “Just go with the flow”, uses a Csikszentmihalyian template to explain how we may surmount boredom by finding “a balance between what the moment demands of us and our ability to skillfully meet those demands”. We need a Goldilocks equilibrium – just right – so our experiences are not too simple nor too complex, either of which disgruntles. We must feel in control, with clear options and goals that encourage us to throw ourselves into the activity at hand; boredom-prone people are good at procrastinating, talking themselves out of embarking on things.

Our lives flow most effectively when we are focused, not distracted. If bored people are excessively self-aware and anxiously self-doubting, people in a state of flow may find that “all awareness of the self dissipates” and their experiences, even if they require skill and training, seem effortless. For a bored person, time plods on, but people in the flow feel liberated from time. Interest, curiosity, exploration, even just pleasantly quiet relaxation, all become possible, as they are not to the person suffering from boredom.

Randy Malamud is Regents’ professor of English at Georgia State University and the author of Email (2019) and Strange, Bright Crowds of Flowers: A Cultural History (forthcoming).

Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom
By James Danckert and John D. Eastwood
Harvard University Press, 272pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780674984677
Published 26 June 2020

The authors

James Danckert, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, Canada, was born and grew up in Melbourne, Australia and studied literature and psychology at the University of Melbourne before going on to graduate work at LaTrobe University and then postdoctoral research at the University of Western Ontario.

John D. Eastwood, an associate professor in the department of psychology at York University, Canada, was born and raised in Toronto. After studying psychology at the University of Toronto, he went on to a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Waterloo and now claims that “having one foot in the clinical realm and another in the basic science of cognition shapes my academic career”.

Asked what led them to the slightly improbable topic of boredom, Danckert says he “feel[s] boredom’s sting more than I would like and so want[s] to understand it”, although adding that his brother sustained a head injury at the age of 19 and, during recovery, “talked about being bored and hating it”, which led him to “want to know more about how his brain had changed”. Eastwood, meanwhile, “was drawn to study the unengaged mind because of my curiosity about how the structure of thought impacts feeling, as well as observations of my patients who struggled with unremitting boredom”.

As to ways of coping with boredom at a time of social distancing and other restrictions, Danckert suggests that “if we can calm down and figure out what matters to us most, I think we can conquer it”. Eastwood adds that “we should focus on internal factors such as emotional avoidance that can thwart our agency from the inside and leave us bored. We have some control over internal causes of boredom, and self-determination is precisely what’s at stake when stuck in boredom”.

Matthew Reisz


Print headline: Deadly dull, full of ennui

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