Is boredom meaningless or can it actually be liberating?
“Boredom is taboo in a world where all opportunities are open, and where you can always reach for your telephone if you are bored. But boredom has a built-in bullsh!t detector, that may just be liberating,” says philosopher Rasmus Johnsen. He researches boredom and lectures managers and specialists attending the executive degree Master of Business Development on… yes, boredom.
We often talk about finding meaning. Meaning in small everyday aspects of work and life as a whole. However, working with what is meaningless can actually be very useful. Because if you want to understand yourself, you must make room for what you do not understand, says philosopher Rasmus Johnsen, associate professor at CBS.
That is one reason why he has spent recent years researching boredom, a subject he also teaches experienced managers and specialists attending CBS’ executive degree Master of Business Development, MBD.
“Boredom is taboo in a world where all opportunities are open and where you can always reach for your telephone if you are bored. Yet there are good reasons to take an interest in boredom as a cultural phenomenon, especially at work. Because boredom can help us to understand ourselves and the lives we have set ourselves up for,” he says and continues:
“I’m always wary of saying that boredom can lead to something positive. Unlike what your parents told you, there is no evidence to prove that it’s healthy to be bored. On the contrary. Yet, boredom can be an empowering force for reflection and learning” he says.
He clarifies: In its basic form, boredom feels negative. But because it can be a powerful, lived experience of dissatisfaction with whatever is driving us on in life – career, expectations, self-realisation – it also offers an unsettling opportunity to come face to face with the everyday life we have made for ourselves.
Too busy to be bored?
According to Rasmus Johnsen, the self-improvement wave over the past 20 years has been driven by the imperative to become someone else, and with the subject “Organisational understanding and personal development” at MBD, Rasmus Johnsen and his colleague Jacob Vase offer an alternative to this that focuses instead on understanding yourself in the everyday social context of the organisation where you work. And this involves also not least dwelling on what you do not understand and try to avoid:
“Here, boredom is interesting as it is a way of talking about the parts of the work and the organisation that feel meaningless,” he explains.
One particular sentence crops up repeatedly when Rasmus Johnsen is teaching:
“The course does not feature a personal journey, as such, since we don’t want to go anywhere. We want to know where we are. That is the positive potential of boredom if you take time to listen.”
For example, it can involve discovering that a certain aspect of your job is boring.
Being aware of boredom permits you to think about things you rarely consider or don’t dare to think about
“The feeling of boredom generates friction and energy that can be a potential source of transformation. If you listen, perhaps you will find yourself in the world in a different way. That is why it is so important to find out where you are, and what it is about the situation that bores you, rather than just getting it over and done with,” he says and continues:
“Boredom is a suspension of meaning; but it is also a quest for meaning. The moment I realise I am bored, I feel an urge for things to be different. In a busy everyday life that offers a range of opportunities for distraction, that energy is mostly quickly diverted. But even if it is just for a moment it, it suspends the project of the self. It asks: ‘Why is it actually like that?’ Being aware of boredom also permits you to think about things you rarely consider or don’t dare to think about.”
Some would perhaps say that many of us are so busy that we have no time to be bored, and we are used to saying that we are bored because we have nothing to do. But if we are to believe Rasmus Johnsen, boredom is not so much an expression of having nothing to do as a reflection that what you are doing is not meaningful. In that way, boredom has a built-in ‘bullsh!t detector’. It can help you to understand where your work has scope for change.
Boredom and leisure
In 1852, the word boredom was used for the first time in English with its current meaning. And at around the same time, the German and French words began to mean the same as the English version. This is interesting, explains Rasmus Johnsen, because the history of boredom can be an important teacher for us today.
The German word “Langeweile” traces back much earlier than the 1800s but with a completely different meaning.
“Originally it was a positive expression for ‘the long moment’ – time for contemplation. Conversely, the French word ‘ennui’ initially had nothing to do with time. It was an expression of spiritual suffering. When people began using the word ‘boredom’ in English, the words across the languages began to echo its meaning, which combines suffering with time. With boredom, time appears as an obstacle rather than an opportunity or resource. So we have a social phenomenon that involves experiencing time as suffering, rather than something immediately available to us,” he says.
If we look at the development from an even wider time perspective, it has shifted from an outer state to an inner state, explains Rasmus Johnsen.
“In the time of antiquity and the Middle Ages, what we know today as boredom was described. But there was no single word for it, and the descriptions are of outer phenomena such as nose picking, gazing out over the landscape or tearing out hair,” he explains.
There was also the belief that real leisure was not simply the opposite of work. Historically, real leisure was linked not to relaxing but to ‘works’ of spiritual and intellectual freedom.
“This perception has been turned upside down with today’s notion of boredom. Now, leisure only marks a time of rest before work resumes. Boredom is a crisis phenomenon for the person who can find no meaning in their work,” says Rasmus Johnsen adding:
“In a cultural sense, today we have forgotten the positive value of this unallocated time. Today, we only understand ‘ledighed’ (unemployment) negatively as lack of work. But look up the Danish word in ‘Ordbog over det Dansk Sprog’ (the Dictionary of the Danish Language), and you will discover that it was once linked to openness, freedom and fun. The history of boredom reminds us that ‘empty time’ is closely associated with learning. It is no coincidence that the ancient Greek word for ‘free time’ – scholé – is the same word we use for our education institutions today.”
Does it hurt to be bored?
Rasmus Johnsen believes it can be good to be aware of boredom, because what is seen as being empty can generate new meaning – so why don’t we talk about boredom anymore?
“We are living in a time where self-improvement is in the driving seat. On the one hand, everything is progressing forwards and upwards in a roaring motion driven by fiery souls. And on the other hand, we have stress and depression. Boredom remains a peculiar phenomenon that often sneaks under the radar. It can’t, for example, be treated clinically as stress and depression,” says Rasmus Johnsen, who has held a series of public lectures with the rhetorical title “Does it hurt to be bored?”.
The more suspended meaning seems, the more boredom crowds in, reminding us that another life is possible
The answer to that question is not so simple. Boredom can be just as serious as depression but cannot be treated with medicine. Conversely, boredom can be the feeling that protects us from stress and depression because it calls for meaningfulness before we become ill, explains Rasmus Johnsen.
According to him, boredom can be a good teacher if we learn to listen:
“The more boredom makes its presence felt, the emptier and more lacking in content everyday life and its activities seem. But that sentence can also be read in reverse: The more suspended meaning seems, the more boredom crowds in, reminding us that another life is possible.”