I recently heard an academic researcher present a paper on the topic of boredom and what an enormous problem it has become in modern society.
It wasn’t boring but it wasn’t what I expected either. I was surprised to hear a secular academic argue that boredom in our modern, wealthy society is largely concerned with finding meaning in a world without God. Essentially what the paper described was how decisively the philosophy of nihilism has filled the cultural air we breathe today and left us gasping futilely for meaning and satisfaction.
The Problem of Modern Boredom
People have always experienced boredom. We’ve all experienced disinterest in what we’re doing or not knowing what to do with ourselves. Psychologists tell us that this kind of boredom is essential to creativity and even to mental wellbeing as a whole. However this paper focussed on a modern kind of boredom that goes deeper, touching on our deepest longings.
Many people in our culture are disinterested in life as a whole. The sheer meaningless of life hangs an imposing shadow over us and we can’t seem to escape a sense of dissatisfaction with what life has to offer. We medicate ourselves with pleasure and distraction; gadgets, food, and toys. But we inevitably return to boredom’s relentless gravity. All the participants in the seminar expressed not just a theoretical interest in the topic but an existential connection to the problem as this academic presented it. This is their problem.
This newer kind of boredom is connected with the rise of wealth and the loss of belief in God in the western world. It is striking to recognise that being fundamentally bored and dissatisfied with life is mainly a problem experienced by prosperous, wealthy westerners. We have more career and lifestyle choices than anyone else in human history. But this has not made us content. Quite the opposite.
For bored people, time is meaningless. It stretches out before us, somehow both full and empty at the same time. All our waking moments seem to be the same, interchangeable, ordinary. We move between distracted and focussed but both are unfulfilling. ‘Interesting’ and ‘boring’ are really two sides of the same coin: a desire to distract ourselves from our miserable lives. Even the things that interest us are just brief distractions from our longing for more.
Boredom is not the same as depression, though they are related. At root boredom is an intellectual problem rather than an emotional one. With our society’s rejection of God, life has lost the kind of significance and meaning that former generations took for granted. There is no longer a sense that life has a meaning bigger than what we give it. History isn’t headed anywhere. Science tells us about a universe that is completely indifferent to our existence. Without divine revelation, life is a bleak and meaningless phenomenon. And yet we crave a sense of connection to meaning and purpose beyond mere physical and temporary things.
Searching for a Solution
Whilst the paper identified loss of belief in God as the main reason for the problem, the presenter decisively ruled out religious options as worthy of consideration. His attitude was that modern people can’t take such things seriously. In short, the paper argued that Augustine was right to say of God ‘Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee…’, but that enlightened modern people like us should add ‘…but we know that God doesn’t exist so we’ll need to look elsewhere.’
So, if God doesn’t exist, what is the solution to boredom? Since the problem itself is untreatable (we can’t find God or the kind of meaning he brings if there is no God), the paper sought to address the symptoms: ‘How can we inoculate ourselves from the yawning void of boredom?’ The proposed solution was that we ‘cultivate mundane and fleeting pleasures’ and turn the ‘immanent into the transcendent’. In normal English that means that we need to treat physical, worldly pleasures as having the kind of ultimate meaning that religious people ascribe to God. Not only should we ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ (Luke 12:19; 1 Corinthians 15:32), we need to try to convince ourselves that this is a good state of affairs.
This is a deeply pitiable solution. In order to cope with the meaningless of life we need to knowingly play psychological tricks on ourselves in order to cope. Ironically this is what atheists often accuse Christians of doing: making up comforting religious ideas as a crutch to lean on amidst the cold, hard facts of life. What a miserable solution!
Living without Boredom
Christians know why humans have this insatiable desire for meaning and transcendence. Not only does God exist, but he is the source of meaning and purpose. He designed us to be in relationship with him. It is unsurprising that our culture’s loss of knowing God has serious psychological consequences. There is a gaping hole in our sense of contentment and meaningfulness that nothing in this world can fill.
This should encourage us as we seek to share the gospel with our communities. Even if people are less open to considering Christian answers, they still deeply feel their need for what the gospel offers. Jesus’ offer of rest is as attractive as ever (Matthew 11:28).
Not only that, but in the midst of a dissatisfied culture always striving for the next distraction, Christians must look different. Jesus offers us ultimate answers, ultimate hope, and all that we need to live with contentment and joy. If we live that way in the sight of our bored, dissatisfied neighbours they just might find Christianity a very attractive option.
 Michael Gardiner is a Sociology professor from the University. He presented a paper on Boredom to a group at the University of Sydney, 2 March, 2018.