A very brief history of boredom

Historians often puzzle about whether people in the past experienced the same emotions as we do. The consensus is that they probably did but that the meanings of those emotions could be quite different. Long and strenuous working hours made the absence of something to do probably more a relief than anything and it never lasted long, at least for most people. But it’s difficult not to think that those, say, bed bound or imprisoned must have got bored, even if that’s not a word they would have used to describe their condition.

In the pre-modern world, time was viewed as limited and thus precious. Those who wiled it away doing nothing or trivial things could be seen as self-indulgent or sinful. This was a sentiment found in several places in the Bible and encapsulated in the proverb ‘The devil finds work for idle hands’. In contrast, using time for contemplation and prayer was deemed good for the soul. Indeed, the challenges of a monotonous life in an isolated, enclosed monastery was part of what was supposed to make the experience spiritually worthwhile.

Such beliefs probably explain why the word ‘bored’ is relatively modern, seemingly dating back only into the 18th century. Even then, it was used more to describe uninteresting conversation rather than a lack of anything to do. 

By the 19th century, public discussion of boredom was more widespread and concentrated on the tedium of polite social gatherings. In 1893, an Anti-Boredom Society was even formed. Its aim was livening up small parties through complicated conversation rules. However, the society’s public launch came across more as someone showing off how they clever were, rather than an indication of a real problem.

This did not mean that Victorians did not worry about boredom but the concern was not the condition itself but what it might lead to. Crime, violence and sexual excess could all sometimes be blamed on people having too much time to themselves.

Having nothing to do became regarded as a particular social problem during the mass unemployment of the interwar years. Discussions of being on the dole were not framed in terms of boredom but there were genuine concerns that ‘idleness’ would damage the mental and physical wellbeing of the unemployed. Schemes to occupy and entertain them were developed and even became a matter of national concern, as the threat of another war emerged and authorities worried about whether the population was capable of fighting it.

Such concerns mixed genuine sympathy with considerable moralising and a belief that the workers were less resilient and capable than the ‘thinking’ classes. The idea that only people without self-discipline, imagination or intelligence got bored did not disappear. In the middle of the twentieth century, the popularity of cinema, television and petty crime were all attributed at times to people bored because they were not clever or creative enough to entertain themselves.  

Boredom was thus seen as evidence of declining standards in public and private life. It could be even be seen as a sign that life had got too comfortable. One 1938 newspaper attack on the supposed rise of boredom and the associated popularity of the radio and cinema, complained that people now lived life second-hand rather than ‘adventuring themselves, as was necessary in a sterner age’.

Amidst such moralising, this writer did rightly identify loneliness as a cause of boredom. The sociability of humans is one emotion that clearly stretches back through the ages. It is also something ripped apart for many people by lockdown. ‘Bored to death’ is a throwaway and exaggerated phrase dating back into the 18th century but it also masks a much grimmer reality that being alone can help send people to an early grave.

This piece was first published by Wales Arts Review as part of a feature on the Art of Boredom.