Boredom: A Sinful, Puzzling, Modern Thing

Bored children. (Image credit: Dreamstime)

Y-a-a-wn. I am so bored. I feel tired and listless, and I can't think of anything to do. Everyone around me is also bored, which suggests that boredom, as we know it, must be a common universal feeling.

Not so, says anthropologist Yasmine Musharabash of the University of Western Australia in Crawley, Australia.

Musharabash studied boredom in Warlpiri Aboriginies at Yuemdumu, a settlement in the outback northwest of Alice Springs. She discovered that the Aboriginal idea of boredom is strikingly different from the Western idea of ennui. For the Warlpiri, boredom has nothing to do with having nothing to do. Instead, being bored means there just aren’t enough people around to make life interesting.

Our Western idea of boredom is apparently a product of the times. Before the 18th century, Musharabash explains, people weren't all that bored; world-weariness was experienced only by those with the time to be bored—the rich, the clergy and the unemployed.

But soon everyone was bored, suggesting that boredom rode in on the coattails of industrialization and the rise of the middle class.

For a long time, boredom was also moral issue, a sin, because it might lead trouble. Kierkegarrd wrote "boredom is the root of all evil," a sentiment echoed by Professor Harold Hill (aka The Music Man) in his pronouncement: "the idle brain is the devil's playground."

Even now, boredom seems wrong; how can we possibly be bored with an endless supply of movies, books, music and the Internet right at our fingertips?

But the Warlpiri show that boredom is not always about entertainment.

In fact, Musharabash was surprised at how few situations were considered "boring" to the Warlpiri when not much was really happening at Yuemdumu.

Turns out, the Aborigines never say, "I am bored," but they do feel a situation is boring when it lacks other people. A long car ride might not be boring if the car is full of people, but it would be deadly boring alone.

More telling, there's no Warlpiri word for boredom, and so Aborigines at Yuemdumu have appropriated the English word to complain about an event that lacks inter-personal interaction.

Musharabash also feels that the Warlpiri are not always bored in situations that would bore the pants off Westerners, because they are very much in the moment.

Car broke down in the middle of nowhere? Don’t sit there bored. Walk around with your fellow passengers and check out the landscape. Stuck in a long line? That would be a chance to do some interesting people watching.

As long as the scene and the people keep changing, the Warlpiri see no reason to be bored.

And maybe that's why sitting on a porch or at a cafe watching the world go by is by far the quickest, cheapest and best cure for boredom.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).

Meredith Small is a professor of anthropology at Cornell University, and the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves". She is a contributor to Live Science.