Is Life Boring?

Do we get bored with everything? Do friends and lovers, work and play, and even life itself eventually become dull and tedious? Does dissatisfaction with people and projects always set in? If so, should we quit what we are tired of, and try something else? Or should we accept the familiar because that’s our duty, or because we know that what’s new will become boring too?

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who I’ve written about many times in this blog, (here, here, here, here, here, and here) famously thought that boredom was the essence of the human condition, which we experience when life is devoid of its usual distractions. We keep busy so as not to experience this essential boredom. But are we bored because life is boring or because we are bores? Some are bored by everything, others find simple things fascinating. So boredom is not inevitable, nor is it essential. Schopenhauer was wrong.

Do particular activities that were once fascinating later become boring?  Yes. As a teenager I played competitive table tennis; after a few years, I was bored with table tennis. Later I played high-stakes poker; within a short time, I was bored with poker too. Later I learned to play golf; once I played reasonably well, I found golf boring. (Although I still enjoy the exercise.) Does my boredom say something about me, or does it say something about these activities? Maybe I bore easily, or perhaps these activities were not sufficiently stimulating. I know that stimulating persons need stimulation, and both our minds and bodies will atrophy without it.

Fortunately, some activities are more stimulating than others. I have never ceased to find the pursuit of knowledge interesting. Yes, I grew bored teaching introductory college ethics classes for the one-hundredth time—literally—but if you master philosophical ethics to your satisfaction, then find another topic. Don’t worry. There are plenty of things to do and learn. Might we eventually know everything and get bored? I don’t know. If I become omniscient I’ll let you know.

How about people? I have known people who have few thoughts, and others who have shallow thoughts. Such people ask few questions. And they already have their answers—usually the first ones they were exposed to. I find such people boring. By contrast, people on a journey are interesting, they are evolving. With them you never encounter the same person, they are as petals unfolding. They are like ships that sail in the ocean rather than being stuck in dry dock. How can you tire of their constant surprise?

Still, you may find yourself disappointed with someone you previously respected, or discover that someone is not as good or as interesting as you thought they were. What then? This is a difficult question and relates to a previous post about “settling,” especially for intimate partners. If your expectations for such partners are too high, you are bound to be disappointed; if your expectations are too low, you will settle for a bad partner and be discontent or even traumatized.

Here’s my advice. If you are almost always bored and you find your friends or lovers boring, it’s probably your problem. If you are usually interested in people and you find your friends or lovers boring, you should probably find more stimulating friends and lovers. If we could live multiple lives simultaneously we could discover which friends, lovers, activities, and projects were best. (A theme explored in Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being.) But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose. As Sartre’ said we are “condemned to be free.”

Another problem is that it is impossible for us to really know ourselves; for we are too close to ourselves. We don’t know if we deserve better friends, lovers, or jobs, or if we are lucky to have our current ones. The best thing we can do is ask others who know and love us what they think. Should I try something or someone else? Do I deserve better? Or should I be satisfied with what I have? Those who love us can’t know with certainty the answer to these questions, but they can be more objective about us than we can—for they stand outside of our subjectivity. In some ways, they know us better than we know ourselves. So ask those you trust, those who care about you, and ask yourself too. Then listen.

Unfortunately, this is not a complete answer, since we can never know for certain which road to travel. In the end, we don’t know which life is best, either for ourselves or others. Perhaps this is what Viktor Frankl had in mind when he wrote:

What is demanded of man is not, as some existential philosophers teach, to endure the meaninglessness of life, but rather to bear his incapacity to grasp its unconditional meaningfulness in rational terms.

I’ll end by leaving my readers with some advice I received long ago from Walt Whitman:

I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

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13 thoughts on “Is Life Boring?

  1. Thanks for your essay! Very interesting.

    ”Schopenhauer was wrong.”

    No, he was not…..if we keep in mind ALL he wrote 🙂 (Apologies for my capitalizations….I use these in place of cursive because I still cannot find it on my keyboard, and my browser doesn’t has this feature). The argument by Schopenhauer has far more depth that is commonly believed.

    First, I do not believe he wrote that ‘life is boredom’. This would be simplistic, and yes, wrong. IF this had been all he wrote, you would be entirely correct.

    He did not write that ‘life is boredom’, but that life is caught in a pendulum that is constantly swinging between BOREDOM and PAIN. A sort of vicious circle. That is quite different, and it bears more investigation.

    Sure, we experience some ‘pleasures’ here and there. He never denied that pleasures don’t exist, or that they are worthless. In the Parerga, he even clearly writes: ”We should always open the door wide to cheerfulness, if this is at all possible at that moment…..We should not start trembling as soon as the clouds starts to gather….we should not anger our friends….we should not say to other people the first thing that comes to mind….”.

    But here’s the problem with pleasures, he explained. They are ALWAYS short lived. They never last long, do they? (As oppose as PAIN, which is very long lasting!).

    As soon as the ‘pleasure’ (whatever it is) ends, we immediately look for another one (whatever it is).

    Or else, if we aren’t chasing the next pleasure, we get BORED. But this argument too has more depth than commonly believed: ‘Our boredom’, he explained, ‘is in direct proportion to our poverty of imagination and ideas…..Cervantes wrote his masterwork while being jailed….’. He gives various examples of various creative people being able to create something significant and worthwhile even from every day occurrences.

    Instead, he explained, the more common and vulgar people are constantly in need of something that is found OUTSIDE of themselves, since they have little or nothing in themselves.

    (He also uses the same premises to conclude that the most creative and intelligent people tend to avoid people in general, the more common is the crowd, and that conversely, people with a poor inner life are very ‘people savvy’).

    So, in essence, he wrote that life is boring for people with a poor imagination and poor inner life. He didn’t say that people with a rich inner life are totally immune from boredom, either. But this is why in his various ‘rants’ against stupid people, which he said was the majority of them, ‘are always either playing cards, or beating a fork, or the devil’s stick. Anything, but thinking.’.

    I think it is very hard to attack these arguments. In my observations about the world around me, I find Schopenhauer was incredibly accurate about most of the things he wrote, if not all of them.

  2. PS. I just had this thought I find interesting. To create anything, one must think. It’s impossible to create anything without thinking. So I believe that when S referred to as ‘thinking’ as mentioned above, he did not exclusively address thinkers and philosophers, but to creative people in general who are really passionate about something, for the long term.

    That is my interpretation. Schopenhauer was pretty big about creativity, the arts, music, theatre, literature, etc.

    The more intellectual or artistic poverty one has, the more he’ll get bored, he wrote, ‘and since this kind of poverty is the prevailing condition common to most people in this world, they will have no choice but to engage in all the various rascalities and intrigues that are common to them all.’.

  3. I will read your post on this. My initial response, however, is: it depends. It depends on how much influence exerted upon us we allow to affect our personal expectations. The world is a busy place. It and our friends and associates within it, have agendas they expect us to meet; terms to which they will demand adherence, should we acquiesce to that. The propensity to control the lives of others is part of both individual preference and herd mentality. I feel badly for people who are overwhelmed by others’ willfulness and dominance. But, each of us must attend to our own welfare. Saying no is not a crime—often, it is self-preservation.

  4. ”Do particular activities that were once fascinating later become boring? Yes.”

    This was also explained by Schopenhauer in a letter he wrote to someone, about how the the older one becomes, the less pleasure he will take in doing things that were once exciting, etc, because the longer one lives, the less everything will have an impression on him, and the weaker these impressions become as one ages.

    ”Does my boredom say something about me, or does it say something about these activities? Maybe I bore easily, or perhaps these activities were not sufficiently stimulating.”

    I believe the latter, in your case. You were simply trying out stuff. That can’t be a bad thing. At least early on….

    ”I have never ceased to find the pursuit of knowledge interesting.”.

    We are lucky. Schopenhauer would have agreed with me, I am certain. He saw people with no ideas or people obsessed with wordly stuff like money, etc, as disabled people.

    My thing is music, although I wish I had started learning about philosophy, much earlier on. The word ‘philosophy’ seems pompous and exaggerated in my case….I simply try to be less dumb I was a while ago. Always a worthy pursuit.

    ”Fortunately, some activities are more stimulating than others.”.

    S explained that the ‘lower’ the activity one finds stimulating, the younger they are, or if they are no spring chickens anymore, the more dumb. He REALLY despised people who played cards 🙂
    Why? Because ‘intelligent people will ask themselves how to SPEND the time, whereas the fools, how to PASS it’.

    ”Yes, I grew bored teaching introductory college ethics classes for the one-hundredth time—literally.”.

    This, I believe, is completely normal for creative people like you. Most known famous composers, all hated teaching music…..Schubert, Chopin, you name it.

    ”How about people? I have known people….”. This paragraph I find magnificent. This explains why S believed that the more one is ‘people savvy’ and ‘knows the ways of the world’, the more ‘vulgar’ they are. By ‘vulgar’ I believe he meant the same thing you mean as ‘boring people’.

    And so, S explained, one either has to end up alone, or he’ll have to lower himself to the level of the boring people. It comes as no surprise that Wittgenstein hated talking about the weather, although I believe this is common to all philosophers.

    Schopenhauer was known for being the ‘black sheep’ in the ridiculous social circles which he mockingly dubbed ‘the bon ton society’. Don’t talk about death, talk about the weather! Ha ha….who can blame S ?

    ”Here’s my advice. If you are almost always bored and you find your friends or lovers boring, it’s probably your problem.”.

    I completely agree. It is unfair to blame others for our own poverty. This was also examined by S: the more two people have in common, the more they’ll agree even on the smallest things. Conversely, the least they have in common, the least they’ll agree about anything. And since most people are shallow-minded, if you aren’t like them, you’ll end up alone. Or mostly alone.

    ”But we can’t walk two paths at the same time. We must choose.”. I am actually obsessed with the scope of this concept, I think about it all the time.

    ”Another problem is that it is impossible for us to really know ourselves; for we are too close to ourselves.”.

    Regardless: it is our job. We’ll never do it perfectly, and maybe not even adequately, but so what? At least we aren’t complete idiots :). Knowing oneself is the journey of a lifetime, and the landscape is so vast that it will never completely travelled in its entirety. But as Bruce Lee said about martial arts or Jean-Philippe Rameau about music composition: ‘You’ll never understand all of it, but you must keep at it.”.

    But look at how bad is the state of mind of most people……very few really understand anything about themselves, constantly spinning in a sort of hamster wheel. At least we are aware of these things.

    ”Should I try something or someone else? Do I deserve better? ”.

    I have little compassion for people who hang with people who treat them badly. It’s very easy to leave and burn bridges. I have done it myself (both being treated badly, and burning bridges,) and I never regretted the latter.

    S also addressed this problem. Most people can’t bear to be left alone, they are like children. I think I already wrote about this before, elsewhere, so there’s no need to repeat it (although I am sure I repeat things a lot, which I cannot help as I think of them all the time).

    ”The best thing we can do is ask others who know and love us what they think.”.

    I don’t believe that, at all. This betrays, in my view, any real knowledge about ourselves, but I respect your view. Other people cannot know us, for they only see the surface. We do the opposite: we miss the details of the surface, but we know best what’s inside of us. Those capable of doing so, anyways. I am not of course saying that this is an easy or short term job, but do you really think that you, a philosopher, can know yourself less well than your wife or your sister or friend can do? I really doubt it.

    If you’d tell me that you use drugs or that you drink a lot, or that you are out of control, then I’d agree, other people can know you better than you do. Because their minds are healthier than yours (if that’d be really the case, which would have to be looked at in detail).
    But you are a philosopher. I am pretty sure you don’t care about drugs or getting wasted on beer :).

    ”but they can be more objective about us than we can—for they stand outside of our subjectivity.”.

    Their ‘objectivity’ is likely to be a lot worse than your subjectivity. Almost always the things THEY see are related to conformism, i.e. if you don’t do things like the majority of them, you are ‘weird’. The likely fact is that if your subjectivity might not be 100 per cent accurate, their objectivity is as fallible as an almost blind darts player trying to win an international match.

    You aren’t perfect, but you are light years beyond them. While they were wasting their time watching TV, you were learning both about yourself and others. That, I believe, is as much as anyone can possibly achieve.

    ”So ask those you trust, those who care about you”

    My view: if they really love you, you don’t need to ask them anything. And if you did, what are they going to find out about themselves if they asked you? They would probably be horrified. Unfortunately, I know this for myself. I have some people who always loved me but I don’t really tell them what I think about them: they would be devastated, and I would regret it for the rest of my life.
    For example, I have read quite a lot about the Holocaust lately (including an incredible graphic novel about Anne Frank), and when I tried to say to someone who loves me, how sad it was that entire families like ours have been done all that harm, she said: ‘Yes, but that happened so long ago.’.

    That was really hurtful, I literally felt as if someone had struck me. I had spent many hours imagining what I had been reading. Had they have been someone else, I would have destroyed them, brutally, just by using logic, not insults and the like, of course.

    I would have made her cry, for my arguments would have been devastating, and brutally factual, which I don’t need to go over here. For example, how selfish it is to sob and cry all your damn life about something that has happened to you, but if it has happened to someone else, we come up with stuff like ‘it happened so long ago’, the unstated conclusion being ‘why should I care?’.

    Or that how Primo Levi opens one of his books with a devastating statement, which I’ll never forget, it goes somewhat like this: ‘If you are aware of the terrible things that happened during this period, and you will not care, may you and your family die.”.

    It’s not that I think no other evils happened other than the Holocaust, but just that it is so widely and well documented that it is the perfect topic for understanding that really most people are too stupid to understand.

    But instead I said nothing, and I have promised myself to never talk to her about this again. For this person really loves me, and I was not silent to save myself, but her. I have no problem being alone, but of course to know that some people loved you, or love you, it is heartwarming. But after all it is not absolutely necessary, except for the people Schopenhauer described in his writings, the ones who cannot bear to be left alone.

    But as Schopenhauer advised: we should be tolerant with people, even with the worst types.

    And I add: we should be VERY tolerant with our friends and family. Truth to be told, they might be as dumb as any other stupid person in the crowd. But this is the person I grew up with, etc. They did something nice for me, and they deserve special treatment.

    Otherwise I would have been devastatingly brutal, like Levi. I understood his pain.

    (The poem at the end is fantastic. Thank you!)

  5. Is life boring? It certainly can be if you think about how Thoreau summed it up in Waldon: “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and someone has added to this quote: “and go to to their grave with the song still in them.” This is not meant to be a disparagement of those plugging away daily to feed family and home, in a way, they may be the real quiet heroes that keep this world going. However, for those of us that tire of whining kids saying “there’s nothin’ to do,” or the philistine that bores you to death at a gathering is often enough for me to scream– “get a life, please!” This is why I secretly admire those born knowing exactly what they wanted/need to do. These are the prodigies, the lucky duckies. The rest of us have to figure it out.

    Sometimes I think we’re programed to resist change, avoid rocking the boat, staying with what you know and endure, for some, strangers are danger, while to others, they’re folks you haven’t yet met, and who could change your life. I like how the philosopher Isaiah Berlin characterized folks with this clever observation: ” while the fox know many things the hedgehog knows one big thing. How has this helped me avoid the temporary boredom we all experience? Because as one that knows that stimulation is the antidote to boredom, it’s my constant. As I master something, be it tennis, golf skiing, work or relationships, I move on without totally abandoning what I’ve learned. I believe this constancy has made me a hedgehog, but stimulation of many things also makes me a fox that know many things. Each stage in life has it’s own stimulus. What interested me in my twenties is not the same in my September years. I’ve moved on. I do not want to be the person that the French philosopher Jean de la Bruyere described: “Man has but three events in his life–to be born, to live, and to die. He is not conscious of his birth, he suffers at his death and forgets to live. I want to live and sing that song in my heart. This is also why I consider the scourge of Alzheimer’s–the loss of memories and cognitive faculties, that long goodbye–a fate worst than death. It would turn Descartes quote : “I think therefore I am” into a meaningless observation. God spare us this curse, and God save the new King.

  6. Boredom could be seen as a natural state for the human being. It is said that boredom is an evolutionary trait that gives motivation for exploration. You grow bored and seek new places, foods, hobbies, or new mates. Boredom expands the repertoire of human possibilities. People do not enjoy boredom, some
    seem to seek pain even to quell boredom. Boredom exists as a painful state.

    Boredom can lead to states worse than itself. It can be eliminated through work and practical affairs.

    Schopenhauer seemed to take on an exaggerated view on boredom seeing it as the great tragedy. A state in which hints at the misery of life. If life was good, why would we then feel boredom, why are we not happy all the time. It is proof he concluded, that life is misery since we have to occupy ourselves in order to feel good.

    The symbolic representation of boredom in a religious context. God created humans to quell his boredom, then humans became bored, so animals were made to entertain the people. So out of boredom grew the entirety of life. Could we not then, look upon boredom as the genesis of all creation.

    Boredom isn’t stimulating, and stimulation is a requirement in the acquisition of pleasure. If one then seeks pleasure, boredom will be the enemy.

    Boredom however could be seen as something that shouldn’t be feared as much. To convince people that boredom is to be avoided and feared, a market is created for those who must replace boredom with consumption. The embrace of boredom is the enemy of capitalism. When the consumers fear boredom they will seek satisfaction through consumption of stimulants.

    One could also consider boredom as the true state of things. We see the world as is, without illusions, as emptiness and nothingness.

    Boredom can thus be seen as a motivation for change and exploration. Vilified by capitalism to urge consumers to consume more. And in a religious context god created everything in response to boredom. All of the greatest creations has its roots in boredom. Boredom isn’t stimulating. Boredom is a state of mind.

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