Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom

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Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom and “Fruitful Monotony” in the Conquest of Happiness

“A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men… of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers, as though they were cut flowers in a vase.”

Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell, OM, FRS shines timeless wisdom and remarkably timely insight on the deep-seated demons of human nature that keep us small and unhappy, and offers sage assurance for transcending them by bringing greater awareness to our own perilous pathologies.

With the same astounding prescience that defines most of his work, Russell writes:

We are less bored than our ancestors were, but we are more afraid of boredom. We have come to know, or rather to believe, that boredom is not part of the natural lot of man, but can be avoided by a sufficiently vigorous pursuit of excitement.

He makes an especially timely note of how the hedonic treadmill of consumerism becomes our chronic, and chronically futile, refuge for running from boredom:

As we rise in the social scale the pursuit of excitement becomes more and more intense. Those who can afford it are perpetually moving from place to place, carrying with them as they go gaiety, dancing and drinking, but for some reason always expecting to enjoy these more in a new place. Those who have to earn a living get their share of boredom, of necessity, in working hours, but those who have enough money to be freed from the need of work have as their ideal a life completely freed from boredom. It is a noble ideal, and far be it from me to decry it, but I am afraid that like other ideals it is more difficult to achievement than the idealists suppose. After all, the mornings are boring in proportion as the previous evenings were amusing. There will be middle age, possibly even old age. At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty… Perhaps it is as unwise to spend one’s vital capital as one’s financial capital. Perhaps some element of boredom is a necessary ingredient in life. A wish to escape from boredom is natural; indeed, all races of mankind have displayed it as opportunity occurred… Wars, pogroms, and persecutions have all been part of the flight from boredom; even quarrels with neighbors have been found better than nothing. Boredom is therefore a vital problem for the moralist, since at least half the sins of mankind are caused by the fear of it.

And yet Russell recognizes the vitalizing value of this greatly reviled state, outlining two distinct types of boredom:

Boredom, however, is not to be regarded as wholly evil. There are two sorts, of which one is fructifying, while the other is stultifying. The fructifying kind arises from the absence of drugs and the stultifying kind from the absence of vital activities.

Our frantic flight from boredom, he admonishes, results in a paradoxical relationship with excitement, wherein we’re at once addicted to its intake and desensitized to its effects:

What applies to drugs applies also, within limits, to every kind of 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. A person accustomed to too much excitement is like a person with a morbid craving for pepper, who comes last to be unable even to taste a quantity of pepper which would cause anyone else to choke. There is an element of boredom which is inseparable from the avoidance of too much excitement, and too much excitement not only undermines the health, but dulls the palate for every kind of pleasure, substituting titillations for profound organic satisfactions, cleverness for wisdom, and jagged surprises for beauty… A certain power of enduring boredom is therefore essential to a happy life, and is one of the things that ought to be taught to the young.

4 thoughts on “Bertrand Russell on the Vital Role of Boredom

  1. Boredom–is that the quiet time that I use to pray/meditate? To align myself with God and the beauty, joy and harmony created for mankind?

  2. I guess I have been lucky so far: idle time is part of the ebb and flow of life and it’s always been good…when others say they are bored and are offered something to do the boredom seems to dissipate…doing nothing is probably impossible aye…

  3. It all depend on how someone defines boredom. Is it doing a boring task or is it becuase you have nothing to do? If boredom is as a result of having a boring job it is a different type of boredom from someone that perhpas is at home all day and feels they have no purpose.
    I get the point that Bertrand is trying to make, but I think it is not about boredom but about finding that space to ourselves to meditate or be with ourselves and be comfortable with our own company instead of trying to fill up every moment of our existance with things to do.

  4. This article has got me thinking about the spectrum between excitement and boredom. There does seem to be more and more movement towards over-stimulation and ‘escape’ from boredom.

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