Could you bore someone to death? There’s no proof, although the entertainment provision in many care homes suggests this isn’t for want of trying. According to the poet Philip Larkin, ‘Life is first boredom, then fear.’ But far from a timeless feature of the human condition, boredom is fairly modern, and we haven’t always feared it.
In medieval times, after long days hacking fields, people weren’t bored, but fervently desired, as old graves do, ‘Rest in Peace’. The verb ‘to bore’ only sauntered into English around 1750, ‘boredom’ making its debut the following century, on the arm of languid Lady Dedlock in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Leisure mass-produces boredom. Hence, while 52 per cent of Britons rated themselves ‘very happy’ in poor, hard-working 1957, only 36 per cent did by indulged, consumerist 2007. It seems the richer we are, the harder we seek happiness, and the harder it is to find. Fear of boredom is part of the problem.
Admittedly, bores aren’t endearing. When cornered by one, the sensation of life ebbing away – and going on elsewhere, where people laugh and the sun still shines – is painful. Although it feels like a hostage situation, the underlying issue is lack of imagination. Malign bores sense no obligation to engage our interests. Benign bores don’t sense their interests aren’t universal. Too often, however, the fault is our own; we’re not extending imaginative hospitality, neither listening nor attempting to steer conversation somewhere less dull. Instead, like lazy consumers, we sit back, wait to be entertained, then call the other person boring.
Boredom has two causes: too much of something or too little. Similarly, there are two extremes of bore: amateur lecturers, and silent types. To make either interesting, you must make them take turns. In this sense, bores can help sharpen our wits. And boredom in general spurs imagination, because through it, we learn to amuse to ourselves. Anthropologist Ralph Linton argued, “Capacity for being bored, rather than man’s social or natural needs, lies at the root of cultural advance.”
Imagine if everybody was happy, all of the time. How dull would life be? Imagine if kids were never allowed to be bored, but the instant they whinged, plonked in front of TV – teaching them to sit back, and wait to be entertained. Can you imagine that?