The ideas corner: A chronic malady

Joe Moran on why we should all take more time out to be bored

Earlier this year, the academic psychologist Richard Ralley came up with the un-boring idea that boredom is good for you. He argued that boredom is an emotion and as such must have an evolutionary function, such as conserving energy in the brain or reminding us of the need to interact with others.

If boredom is an emotion, it is an unusual one. It doesn't have the short-lived intensity of more tangible feelings such as anger or fear. In fact, boredom is a modern notion: if our ancestors suffered from it, they didn't call it boredom. The verb "to bore" was first used in the late 18th century, while the noun "boredom" dates only from the mid-19th century. By then, it was often seen as an illness: in Bleak House (1852), Charles Dickens refers to it as a "chronic malady". The literary critic Patricia Meyer Spacks traces a shift from 18th-century notions of boredom, which saw it as an individual's personal responsibility or moral failing, to more modern notions which situated the sources of boredom outside the self. Spacks argues that this "reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power".

In this sense, boredom could be seen not as an emotion but as a specific response to modernity - the repetitiveness of factory and office work, the monotony of bureaucratic procedures, the regimented time of clocks and timetables. Boredom was also the luxury of people whose lives had become relatively comfortable. That more glamorous subset of boredom, ennui, was a generalised angst or world-weariness - likely to be experienced by those upper-middle-class men who could delegate tedious tasks to their minions, and dwell on life's futility at their leisure.

Boredom has a lowly status in modern philosophy, which stresses the hidden potency of our inner lives or some other, deeper reality beneath the veneer of mundane experience. Boredom's reputation reached its nadir in the 1960s, when the new left argued that western society offered a life of dull routines and soporific distractions. Capitalism, wrote the Situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem, has created a "universe of expanding technology and comfort, a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom".

The problem with boredom is that it is often a way of dismissing those experiences or people that we consider beneath us. Vaneigem is magnificently condescending towards the suburban masses who are "turning in upon themselves, shrivelling up, living trivial lives and dying for details". Boredom denigrates whole areas of our lives, often ones that we share with others - such as commuting - but in which we have little personal investment. If we took time out to be bored occasionally, we might begin to notice this commonplace, everyday world that we normally regard as unworthy of our attention. We might even find boredom itself quite interesting.