Danish Christian Existentialist Soren Kierkegaard

Soren Kierkegaard

Boredom is the root of evil.   That was the wisdom of Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and he had a point.

Happiness can mean many things, but it probably requires an attitude towards life of gratitude, joy and love.  Boredom works against all of that.   Boredom replaces joy.   We think we want something new, but once we get it the newness wears off and it becomes unimportant.   A fine meal is joyful, stuffing ourselves with cheap junk food is a joyless habit.   We don’t like being bored.   So how do we handle it?

Think about a game of monopoly.   Once you have the hotels on the dark blues and greens and know it’s a matter of time before you win the game, the game ceases to be fun.   If you’re struggling against an opponent, each with a chance to win, relying on the roll of the dice, then the game is engaging and stimulating.   So one response to boredom is to try to add excitement.


Therein lies the wisdom of Kierkegard’s claim.   For many people in hum drum routines excitement might be an illicit affair, playing the lottery, heading to the race track, partaking of chemicals to alter one’s state, or things even more destructive.

Of course many people have too much social responsibility to choose those kind of escapes.   Socially acceptable methods of relieving boredom include throwing oneself into a career, spreading oneself thin with commitments and social engagements, or becoming addicted to sports, television shows, books or in my case earlier this fall, following pre-election polls.   While clearly someone who relieves boredom by constantly reading new books has a much more constructive approach than one who turns to whiskey, it’s an escape nonetheless.

This brings me to another Kierkegaard quote:  “The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”

Boredom seems not only to be a lack of something intriguing to do, but perhaps a disconnect from ones’ self.   Boredom is an emotion, or perhaps a message from the soul to the self:  “don’t lose yourself…you’re alive, vibrant and you’re wasting that – do something!”

So we do something.   But in so doing we can either find/be ourselves, or lose ourselves.    Engaging in a hobby, interacting with friends, building community, doing something constructive usually means connecting to ourselves in a way that combats boredom constructively.

The problem is that distractions – actions against boredom that can actually cause us to lose ourselves – are often easier to begin than constructive responses.   If I feel bored and have nothing to do I could choose to watch TV, have a beer, and eat cold pizza.  That’s an easily accessible way to try to counter act boredom, but it brings no joy.   Sitting on the couch clicking through stations with a slight beer buzz and chewing at a cold pizza is a distraction.   It’s not joyful,  but distracts from boredom.

But is he truly happy?

But is he truly happy?

Working on a project, exercising, family activities, getting together with friends, or volunteering to help others could bring joy and connect one to their real self, but it takes more effort than trudging over to the sofa and grabbing the remote.

The irony of our convenience oriented world is that it is really a distraction-oriented world, one we can lose ourselves in more readily than if we were actually confronted directly with the question of what we need to do to survive.   If we had to tend to the garden to assure we’d have food in the winter we’d not be so easily played and manipulated by marketers selling us the latest product we absolutely need and which will bring us at least 10 minutes of distraction disguised as joy.

Boredom is the curse of the modern.   We have everything at our fingertips and survival is no longer a struggle.   So we can choose – dive into meaningless distractions or focus on not losing ourselves.   The distractions may yield dramas that cause some to seem to jump from life-crisis to life-crisis.   Or they may create a laziness that leads to an anxious depression and addictive/self-destructive behaviors.   To gain weight in front of the television and choose inaction in a world so full of promise seems insane – rejecting life in favor of emptiness.    To fall into soap-opera like personal dramas may add excitement, but rarely contentment.   Yet it is so easy to fall into those traps.

Ironic.   We’ve achieved so much and yet have not mastered ourselves.    In some ways the danger posed by boredom is worse than the threats to life and limb from past eras.   At least then we were forced to assert ourselves, recognizing the danger.  Now it lulls us in, like a quiet hypnosis.    We have to work to live awake, not to lose ourselves or our joy at living!

  1. #1 by List of X on December 4, 2012 - 22:55

    A short-term boredom is unavoidable, since you can’t always control what you have to do. For example, you could find yourself waiting in line, toiling at a boring job, riding a bus, and may have no outside means of entertaining yourself, such as a book, a smartphone or a radio.

  2. #2 by elizjamison on December 5, 2012 - 06:35

    I have to reblog this one. So many of my students complain that they are bored. They NEED to read this (and so do I, since I sat on the sofa and watched TV and ate a chicken pot pie last night.

    • #3 by Scott Erb on December 5, 2012 - 12:01

      Thanks! And this was definitely a blog post I wrote in large part to myself. I was bored and clicking through the internet for about 15 minutes and thought, “why am I doing this?”

  3. #4 by elizjamison on December 5, 2012 - 06:36

    Reblogged this on A Daily Journal of my Comp/Rhet Dissertation and commented:
    This is a must read! We can all make better choices in our free time. I know I certainly can!

  4. #5 by bravesmartbold on December 5, 2012 - 08:16

    I was thinking about this the other day when overwhelmed with work. It was my way of dealing with my stress, but I do agree with you. Focused use of energy makes all the difference.

    • #6 by Scott Erb on December 5, 2012 - 12:05

      Yeah, and I think sometimes when stress levels are high the best response might just be to relax too!

  5. #7 by GiRRL_Earth on December 5, 2012 - 08:58

    Great post, Scott!

    I think you nailed it with us no longer needing to survive. As much as I can, I try to sustain myself via my own garden. However, when crops die, like my zucchini plants did this past summer thanks to the d@mn vine-borer, I knew I could always go to Whole Foods to buy zucchini so it wasn’t a big deal to me that the plants died. However, if my garden was the only way I could survive, I probably would have been really upset.

    I also think you nailed it with people need to trump up drama in order to combat boredom. I know a few people who could use a serious hobby (or something) because if the idle mind is the devil’s playground, well then their minds are about to become an amusement park!


    p.s. I may re-blog this, as it’s a good one that all can relate to.

    • #8 by Scott Erb on December 5, 2012 - 12:03

      I enjoy your blog in part because it’s clear you’ve found a focus that is constructive and is really meaningful to you. That’s inspirational, I tell myself, “I can do more…”

      • #9 by GiRRL_Earth on December 5, 2012 - 12:54

        Wow! Thanks… that means a lot coming from you and your blog — which I find very education but not in an over-my-head fashion. You were especially helpful during the election. Your posts allowed me to organize my jumbled inarticulate political thoughts, which enabled me to make my point in various conversations around the office and/or with family members (or strangers on the train).

  6. #10 by GiRRL_Earth on December 5, 2012 - 09:00

    Reblogged this on GiRRL_Earth and commented:
    I felt this was worth re-posting because I don’t think there is a person out there who cannot relate to what Scott Erb has written about “Boredom”. Well done Scott!

  7. #11 by Snoring Dog Studio on December 5, 2012 - 09:13

    I think that I often mistake my boredom for restlessness. I guess I must believe that I’m missing out on something – “something” – I don’t know what it is, but it’s nameless and floating around me. Boredom isn’t something I suffer from too often, but when I experience it at my job, I’m very miserable. But I’ve found that a dose of it spurs my motivation to get out of it.

    • #12 by Scott Erb on December 5, 2012 - 12:07

      I think you hit on something. That sense we’re “missing out” on something is really common, I certainly know that feeling. I think we get primed by our culture to think we always need something more, there’s something we’re lacking.

  8. #13 by Sherry on December 5, 2012 - 13:00

    Since moving to New Mexico, I guess I’m never bored. My days seemed perhaps more filled than I would care. Perhaps I’m avoiding boredom? Now I’m conflicted. lol..

    • #14 by Scott Erb on December 5, 2012 - 16:28

      I guess you’re just engaged in healthy self-actualization!

  9. #15 by Titfortat on December 5, 2012 - 15:18

    I think Pink Floyd hit the nail on the head, I wonder if they were bored when they wrote it. 😉

    Ticking away the moments
    That make up a dull day
    Fritter and waste the hours
    In an off-hand way

    Kicking around on a piece of ground
    In your home town
    Waiting for someone or something
    To show you the way

    Tired of lying in the sunshine
    Staying home to watch the rain
    You are young and life is long
    And there is time to kill today

    And then the one day you find
    Ten years have got behind you
    No one told you when to run
    You missed the starting gun


    And you run and you run
    To catch up with the sun
    But it’s sinking

    Racing around
    To come up behind you again
    [ Lyrics from: ]
    The sun is the same
    In a relative way
    But you’re older

    Shorter of breath
    And one day closer to death

    Every year is getting shorter
    Never seem to find the time

    Plans that either come to naught
    Or half a page of scribbled lines

    Hanging on in quiet desperation
    Is the English way

    The time is gone
    The song is over
    Thought I’d something more to say

    Home again
    I like to be here
    When I can

    When I come home
    Cold and tired
    It’s good to warm my bones
    Beside the fir
    Far away
    Across the field
    Tolling on the iron bell
    Calls the faithful to their knees
    To hear the softly spoken magic spell…

  10. #17 by Titfortat on December 5, 2012 - 15:25


    Your last several posts made me think of this song recently. Im not sure if you have ever heard it but I thought it might inspire another one of your “spiritual” posts. 🙂

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