Why Boredom Matters:
Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life
by kevin hood gary
cambridge, 200 pages, $29.99
Conservative commentators have long bemoaned the proliferation of “studies” fields in the university. Women’s and gender studies are well known, but now students can take courses in topics as unusual as “surf studies” and “fat studies.” Given all the boring lectures that undergraduates have endured throughout the ages, it’s amusing to note that this list now includes “boredom studies,” for which there is even a journal—the Journal of Boredom Studies. Anyone who has ever attended an academic conference will find some humor in its call for papers: “Submit a proposal for the 5th boredom conference.”
Much of this literature runs to the mundane or quantitative, but Kevin Hood Gary’s insightful book reflects his immersion in theology, philosophy, and literature. This is really a book about liberal education, as indicated by its subtitle: “Education, Leisure, and the Quest for a Meaningful Life.” If boredom is the problem, Gary argues, then the solution is learning how to be leisurely, in the classical sense.
It might be slightly misleading to say that the book is about a problem and its solution. In the tradition that runs from Aristotle through Aquinas to Josef Pieper, leisure is not a solution to anything, but an alternative way of being in the world. In Pieper’s formulation, leisure “runs at right angles” to the practical pursuits of work and achievement.
Following Pieper, Gary argues that we have become slaves to work and amusement, even though neither pursuit is truly fulfilling. Money and honor, the traditional rewards of work, do not satisfy because money begets the need for more money and honor is fleeting. Even pleasure is tiresome after a while. Who, in the waning days of a vacation, has not itched to get back to a “normal” routine?In reaching the limits of work and pleasure alike we are prone to boredom, disillusionment, and depression. Gary proposes that leisure and liberal education can remedy these unpleasant states. I agree. But the escape from boredom may require a still more radical transformation of will, and that transformation may be something we cannot accomplish by ourselves. I shall say more about this below.
Gary identifies different kinds and degrees of boredom. He first considers “situational boredom,” a state of mind that comes and goes and is usually related to a lack of agency. Every parent has heard the complaint of a child—“I’m so bored. What can I doooo?”—and answers are always deemed insufficient, no matter how many or how creative. The cure comes only in being swept up by some external force or in independently determining a course of action. Just as a person cannot be talked out of serious depression or anxiety, rational arguments against boredom seldom avail. A person must take interest in something, which requires initiative and energy.
Adults, in contrast, are too busy to be bored in the ways we were as children. If we find ourselves in a long line at the DMV or the post office, we chalk up our bad moods to impatience or overcommitment, not boredom. True situational boredom requires a significant stretch of time with no obligations, chosen or otherwise, and no electronic devices. When, now, is this likely to happen?
Yet many adolescents and adults are prone to a different and more serious kind of boredom, which Heidegger described as “existential.” Existential boredom is “characterized by a disenchantment with life and a struggle to find meaning,” writes Gary. This is a serious, fundamental boredom—closely related to ideas of despair, acedia, and ennui—that does not go away when circumstances change but permeates all of life as an “unsettledness or aimless restlessness.” A person who is existentially bored wonders why ordinary activities (like eating or making the bed) are worth doing since they must be done again the next day, why long-term projects should ever be undertaken since they seem so overwhelming, and perhaps implicitly why life is worth living at all. Such a person is tired and indifferent. Boredom—with its utter lack of interest, its humid, midday grayness—is a constant, unwanted companion.
Gary guides his readers through philosophical, literary, and theological sources as context for the modern experience of boredom—from the meaninglessness described in Ecclesiastes through the aimless “flitters” of democratic societies in Plato’s Republic to Evagrius, a fourth-century Christian monk who analyzed acedia. Gary examines Kierkegaard’s two notions of despair—of possibility and of necessity—and wrestles with the concern that “boredom-avoidance schemes,” to borrow Walker Percy’s phrase, exacerbate the larger problem of existential boredom. Heidegger hoped that cultivating a sense of authenticity might offer a permanent escape from existential boredom, but Gary is skeptical. He also discusses the movie Groundhog Day and David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Shipping Out,” a damning indictment of the so-called leisure industry.
Both kinds of boredom—situational and existential—are problematic, but the solution to the first intensifies the second. In various boredom-avoidance schemes, we escape situational boredom: While on tedious Zoom meetings, we doodle, eat, watch video clips, and scroll through social media. These activities offer temporary relief. The problem is that one thereby becomes the kind of person who doodles, eats, watches videos, and scrolls through social media. Our brains respond to these immediate forms of gratification, and sustained concentration is increasingly difficult.
This jumping from stimulus to stimulus is directly at odds with what is required to overcome existential boredom. Overcoming it requires deep, sustained thought about life’s purpose. It also demands concentration and perseverance in conceiving and completing long-term projects, because the most rewarding human activities are not quick or easy. They ask that we work through boredom instead of avoiding it.
One might even understand existential boredom as a wake-up call: Why does nothing seem interesting, everything dull and gray? The answer might be not that the world is boring, but that we ourselves are dull, shallow, and malformed. This ignorance and lack of formation is partly due to the usual suspects of modern culture—vacuous television programs, electronic devices in general, the advertising industry—but we have allowed these influences to shape us. It doesn’t have to be this way. Thus do we arrive at Gary’s therapy for boredom: liberal education understood as the practice of leisure.
If directed by an inspired teacher, a liberal education offers the (willing) student a vision of a better life, an expansion of the imagination, and escape from the tyranny of trivialities. “We can wander through this world,” writes Roger Scruton, “alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here. . . . The experience of beauty guides us along this second path.” In becoming alive to beauty in its myriad forms—moral, intellectual, spiritual, and aesthetic—one cultivates a disposition to delight in the “uselessness” of contemplation. The French writer Maurice de Guérin describes this as “letting [the] soul wander at will, living in idleness, but in a contemplative idleness open to all impressions.”
Leisured contemplation, however, requires setting aside everyday priorities. The idea is decidedly anti-modern and, in some respects, even anti-human: We engage in contemplation only insofar as there is a “divine element” within us, as Aristotle writes in the Nicomachean Ethics. It asks that we suspend attempts to improve the self and the world. As essayist Agnes Repplier observed in 1893, leisure is a “special form of activity, employing all our faculties . . . it is from his leisure that [a person] constructs the true fabric of self.” This countercultural activity may issue in an entirely new self-understanding, offering exhortations, even commands: Don’t be slaves to the world’s current standards of value! Pursue insight, live differently, make meaningful art, and build healthy local cultures! Resist becoming part of the world of total work!
If this attractive vision of life is in principle available to anyone who wants it—and if it is the antidote to boredom—then why don’t more people pursue liberal education and a contemplative, leisured life? Why, despite the efforts of thoughtful authors like Gary, do the vast majority of American undergraduates persist in majoring in fields like nutritional science and supply chain management?
The conventional response is that liberal education is an expensive luxury. Since college tuition is so high, students and their parents expect a tangible return on investment. A somewhat different response takes for granted the value system of contemporary America: The aim of life is to make a difference, change the world, save the planet, transform politics. Achievement is the measure of a life well-lived. But leisure and liberal education do not necessarily or directly contribute to this vision. They may even oppose it.
For although liberal education can have the salutary effect of producing good statesmen, citizens, and workers, this is not its primary aim. Someone who reads and loves novels is also apt to be a good reader of legal briefs and corporate reports; yet a love of reading is not essentially related to these practical tasks. Like liberal education understood broadly, reading is an intrinsic good. The practical outcomes that may result from it are always contingent and secondary, always subject to examination and revision.
In fact, liberal education asks people to approach all tasks and careers with equanimity and a certain disinterest. Is it best to be a lawyer, a politician, or a priest? A musician or an artist? The answer to these questions—and to so many others—is: It depends. The liberally educated person has been freed to ask and answer these questions for himself.
A more arresting response to “Why not leisure and liberal education?” has to do with the very structure of human desires. The American neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp found that of all human orientations, the most enjoyable is that of “seeking” or working toward a satisfaction. This seeking is even more pleasant than the consummation of a desire or possession of a desired object. In planning a party, for example, we are filled with purpose and anticipation; the pursuit of a romantic interest gives life energy and vitality; even in gambling and lotteries the thrill is not exactly in winning or losing but in wagering.
The point is that most of us, most of the time, crave excitement and purpose. Lacking those things, we incline not toward contemplation, stillness, and leisure but toward boredom. Oscar Wilde illustrates this fact in an anecdote from The Picture of Dorian Gray: “A certain philanthropist . . . spent twenty years of his life in trying to get some grievance redressed, or some unjust law altered. . . . Finally he succeeded, and nothing could exceed his disappointment. He had absolutely nothing to do, [and] almost died of ennui.”
The bitter truth is that we modern Americans are privileged to have enormous potential for leisure and liberal education; yet we cannot seem to understand or desire it. Our spare time is filled with distraction and amusement, not meaningful activity. Is there any way out of this predicament?
Gary suggests that we cannot think our way out of boredom but must rather act in ways that change us. He offers three directives for leisure: Become an apprentice, cultivate a spirit of study, and remember our epiphanies. In apprenticeship, one gives oneself over to a master, which requires both trust and patience. Anyone who has studied a musical instrument or a language knows that in the beginning much is boring and sometimes even embarrassing—learning the vocabulary, memorizing the notes on the staff, practicing scales, awkwardly trying to speak or play. Yet as skill develops, one sees intrinsic goods that were not evident at the outset. These goods appear only after significant time has been invested in the practice. A student must have faith that his mentor both knows things and cares about his learning.
The cultivation of “a spirit of study” is related to this kind of apprenticeship. The spirit Gary recommends is something akin to the faculty of intellectus, which is decidedly not the calculative, deductive, and intentional use of reason as ratio. Intellectus is receptive, appreciative, and calm in its willingness to look, trust, and be acted upon. A. G. Sertillanges observes that the intellect, “taking it all in all, [is] a passive faculty; one is intellectually strong in proportion as one is receptive.” How foreign this idea is to the modern university, where reason is so often a weapon or a point of pride.
Finally, Gary recommends that we “remember our epiphanies,” advice he gives not so much to young people just starting out as to those of us who have been around for a while. Boredom results not only from continuous distraction or youthful ignorance but also from jadedness about the world. Remembering our epiphanies means recollecting the first time we saw something in nature or perceived a philosophical truth. It means recalling our first meaningful musical performance or skillful painting, that long-ago sudden insight into the mind of another person, or our first falling in love. We must keep hold of epiphanies like these if we do not want to turn into boring, disenchanted old people ourselves.
I think Gary ultimately has it right: The cure for existential boredom must be a certain kind of liberal or “freeing” education, which simultaneously liberates us from the compulsive seeking of pleasure and achievement and shows us the beauty of contemplation. In this wondering, almost childlike mindset, the world is anything but boring. All the impressions, ideas, and happenings we see or receive become permanently ours, filtered through our minds or “inwardly digested,” in the words of Thomas Cranmer. In our idle moments, we no longer need to run from ourselves but have stored up provisions for the welcome times of real leisure.
The irony of self-examination, though, is that we may discover that our greatest happiness comes in paying attention to everything that comprises the not-self. This is a curious kind of self-forgetting.
To recall the apprenticeship that Gary recommends: When a person submits to the guidance of another in learning a musical instrument, for example, the activity takes place not just within the student’s mind but in the interaction between teacher, student, and instrument. The relationship is “triangular,” not self-focused. Similarly, when walking in nature, one observes the landscape not with an eye to how it affects one personally, but as an instance of God’s miraculous creation. Of course, it is we who perceive, but we are simultaneously aware of a creator and creation that have nothing directly to do with us. We are filled with wonder that anything exists, and that what does exist is so good. Such experiences offer temporary escape from the insistent demands of the self.
The stubborn characters who appear in C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce illustrate the immense difficulty of such an escape. In this short fantasy, heavenly spirits welcome their visitors from Hell, urging them to forget themselves and embrace the great joy and release that await them in Christ.
Instead, almost to a person, the visitors refuse to relinquish their hard-won identities. The bishop wants to continue his intellectual questioning and paper-giving; the painter insists upon continuing to paint; the mother protests that her love for her son is more important than anything else. All perversely refuse to see the beauty that is right in front of them. If only they could let go of their obsessions with self and work, they would live eternally in the beauty of Heaven. God is calling them to be permanently free from triviality, self-obsession, and, of course, boredom.
This permanent freedom isn’t as easy for us, who live in the world and still face the task of self-making. Nevertheless, we can take from Lewis’s story the insight that escaping boredom requires not only a transformation of intellect through liberal education, but also a transformation of will. Perhaps only prayer can really deliver us from our willful pride and self-centeredness, traits that seem to stick with us despite our best efforts.
Gary did not write an explicitly religious book. He does not make the argument that escaping boredom requires conversion. But I think he would agree that a religious assumption lies deep within the notion of leisure itself. Something about leisure is divine, for Aristotle, or “festal,” to use Pieper’s term: It is a celebration of beauty, goodness, and the possibility of eternal life. In understanding leisure this way, we are invited to turn away for a time from our own insistent desires and our own self-imposed projects. We are free to cultivate that wonderful disponibilité to experience, an openness and availability that encourage us to “take interest” in the world and in the lives of others. This kind of affirmation may indeed be countercultural. But it is never, ever, boring.
Elizabeth C. Corey is associate professor of political science in the Honors Program at Baylor University.