Bertrand Russell on Boredom

Boredom would seem to be a distinctively human emotion.
Animals in captivity, it is true, become listless, pace up and down, and yawn,
but in a state of nature I do not believe that they experience anything
analogous to boredom.

One of the essentials of boredom consists in the contrast
between present circumstances and some other more agreeable circumstances which
force themselves irresistibly upon the imagination.

It is also one of the essentials of boredom that one’s
faculties must not be fully occupied.

Boredom is essentially a thwarted desire for events, not
necessarily pleasant ones, but just occurrences such as will enable the victim
of ennui to know one day from another. The opposite of boredom, in a word, is
not pleasure, but excitement.

[Excitement is healthiest when it is of the form you invent
actively for yourself, rather than the passive excitement that comes from
watching TV, reading a book or listening to the radio. ] Pleasures which are
exciting and at the same time involve no physical exertion, such, for example,
as the theatre, should occur very rarely [in order to be appreciated and retain
their excitement].

A life too full of excitement is an exhausting life, in
which continually stronger stimuli are needed to give the thrill that has come
to be thought an essential part of pleasure… Too much excitement not only
undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure,
substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, [and] cleverness
for wisdom.

There is a place for boredom in life. Socrates could enjoy a
banquet now and again, and must have derived considerable satisfaction from his
conversations while the hemlock was taking effect, but most of his life he
lived quietly with Xanthippe, taking a constitutional in the afternoon, and
perhaps meeting a few friends by the way. Kant is said never to have been more
than ten miles from Konigsberg in all his life. Darwin, after going round the
world, spent the whole of the rest of his life in his own house. Marx, after
stirring up a few revolutions, decided to spend the remainder of his days in
the British Museum. Altogether it will be found that a quiet life is
characteristic of great men, and that their pleasures have not been of the sort
that would look exciting to the outward eye.

[Thing is,] certain good things are not possible except
where there is a certain degree of monotony. [Nature itself is slow.] A
generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of
men unduly divorced from the slow processes of nature. The special kind of boredom from which modern urban populations suffer is intimately bound up with their separation from the life of Earth. 

 A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy can live.

Source: Bertrand Russell: The Conquest of
Happiness (London; Allen & Unwin, 1930):


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