Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Chronic Malady: Joe Moran on Why We Should All Take More Time out to Be Bored

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

A Chronic Malady: Joe Moran on Why We Should All Take More Time out to Be Bored

Article excerpt

Earlier this year, the academic psychologist Richard Ralley came up with the un-boring idea that boredom is good for you. He argued that boredom is an emotion and as such must have an evolutionary function, such as conserving energy in the brain or reminding us of the need to interact with others.

If boredom is an emotion, it is an unusual one. It doesn't have the short-lived intensity of more tangible feelings such as anger or fear. In fact, boredom is a modern notion: if our ancestors suffered from it, they didn't call it boredom. The verb "to bore" was first used in the late 18th century, while the noun "boredom" dates only from the mid-19th century. By then, it was often seen as an illness: in Bleak House (1852), Charles Dickens refers to it as a "chronic malady". The literary critic Patricia Meyer Spacks traces a shift from 18th-century notions of boredom, which saw it as an individual's personal responsibility or moral failing, to more modern notions which situated the sources of boredom outside the self. Spacks argues that this "reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power".

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In this sense, boredom could be seen not as an emotion but as a specific response to modernity--the repetitiveness of factory and office work, the monotony of bureaucratic procedures, the regimented time of clocks and timetables. Boredom was also the luxury of people whose lives had become relatively comfortable. …

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