On Boredom and Idleness

A pragmatic argument for believing in God comes from the famous Pascal’s wager. It is a regular point of discussion in philosophy classes and sometimes in odd social conversations. However, one seldom knows that the 17th-century french philosopher had a diverse set of curiosities. One particular was on the experience of boredom. Pascal studied other humans and his own experience to understand boredom in everyday life. In his book Pensées, he famously remarked – “Tout le malheur des hommes vient d’ une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos, dans une chambre.” (All of man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to stay peacefully alone in his room.). He viewed that human life is generally empty and any attempt to seek diversions from it results back into the state in the long run, and hence, the feeling of boredom. Even though his views were one of a pessimist, he argued that boredom exists due to the lack of faith in God. He believed that with faith, one could fill the restlessness and emptiness of the soul and avoid the feeling of boredom. Being part of a long line of Christian pessimist, it is not surprising that Pascal’s solution to the human’s state of emptiness is to believe in God. 


In contrast, some people had an alternative engagement with the question of boredom. The philosopher Bernard Williams argues that the lack of boredom is a sign of impoverishment in an individual’s consciousness. He goes up to the extent that it is a moral or a human reason to be bored because otherwise, it would be a human failure. Such resonance is described by Oscar Wilde in the Decay of Lying and other essays where the character Gilbert famously remarked: “Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual”. The character note is an analogues tale of our behaviour in the time of the COVID-19 crisis, where almost half of the world population is in their homes.


“Boredom removes an illusion of meaning from things and allows them to appear as what they are: emptiness and nothingness. Who in her right mind would want to remove such an illusion?”

– Martin Heidegger

“a tame longing without any particular object”

–  Arthur Schopenhauer


When the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 virus as a pandemic, many countries followed social distancing to combat it. The immediate consequences were the panic buying of household items, changing the way we do work, and the devastating impact on unsecured workers. In all this, another outcome started emerging – the problem of boredom. As we restricted our social connectivity and were told to be at our homes (the privileged ones), we had more idle time, and in consequence, the dread of boredom started filling in. People expressed their apprehension on social media websites. Newspapers and other online websites published tips on how to cope with boredom. Different types of activities emerged on social media to engage people. Multiple online streaming shows occupied people’s attention. And in all, the uncertainty of our situation kept us engaged at least during the initial days. Then after some weeks, the activities had less effect on our preoccupation. The boredom dread started filling in again for some with enhancing frustration. But most of us found other ways of being occupied because boredom is generally seen as a state to overcome.

Watching TV. Teimuraz Gagnidze, Saatchi


The uniqueness of our current situation highlights an important part on how we have viewed boredom and in a sense idleness — as vices. In our modern life, we are expected to work to survive and improve our conditions constantly. Anything which does not amount to being “productive” or “self-improvement” is viewed as a moral failure on our part or a luxury. In contrast, being busy with work is considered to be a virtue that leads to happiness and prosperity. The inactive states perceived to have no meaning or value in themselves. It exists to be filled by some “content” like entertainment or is a failure on our part. It becomes a negative state of our life than the “real” life and purpose of work. And our quest is to remove this state from an ideal human life.


“Your work is the process of achieving your values, and to lose your ambition for values is to lose your ambition to live–that your body is a machine, but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of your road”

– Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged


Such an understanding of boredom in the present time has been the result of the historical process of ideas. The issue of idleness (and its result of boredom) found its modern resonance in the enlightenment. One of the most famous in the tradition came from Immanuel Kant in his Lecture on Ethics where he viewed idleness as an inherent irrational state. According to Kant, the rational individual will occupy herself with activities and avoid any inactive states. In adding to the discourse, for Hegel, idleness was an act which deters individuals from being with their community. And Marx extended it with the idea that idleness is considered egoism and privilege in the current class situation and instead, that idle state should work to contribute for the social good. A similar point was discussed later by Simon de Beauvoir in her works. 


The conventional wisdom of argument against idleness has rarely been challenged, and in result, we have co-opted in our lives with various meanings. However, there are reasons why such dismissal of idleness needs to be looked back again. One particular reason argued by the philosopher Brian O’Connor is that the state of idleness can allow one of the highest forms of freedom.

Up in the Studio. Andrew Wyeth (© 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)



In his book Idleness: A Philosophical Essay, O’Connor looks back at the arguments against idleness and lays down reasons for it in our contemporary life. He defines idleness as “an activity that operates according to no guiding purpose … a feeling of non-compulsion and drift.” It innately rejects social norms of the pressure for being busy and productive. By defying such behaviour, one can lead to a radical sort of freedom — free from any kind of social expectations and the ability to have a free mind. 


“freedom from the norms that make effective modern social beings of us” 

– Brian O’Connor

The defence of idleness goes back to Bertrand Russel where he addressed the cult of workaholism in the 1932 essay In Praise of Idleness. He reflects on the norm of “virtuousness of work” in modern life and how it greatly impairs human existence. It views idleness or leisure as a weakness or laziness in the person’s personality. 


“The morality of work is the morality of slaves, and the modern world has no need of slavery.”

– Bertrand Russel


One of his primary defence of idleness is the time it could bring to the person to develop curiosities and passion. It can also allow one to get away from the monotonous work hours and have time for contemplation. Even though the consequence of boredom could be difficult for some, he nevertheless saw as a way of endurance for an individual. Russel considered idleness as a way where humans emerged from barbarism. However, he differentiated between types of idleness. The passive notion of idleness is going to cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio etc. In contrast, he argued for an active notion of idleness where there is the scope of engagement for the person. He viewed this lack of activeness due to the result of fewer hours for leisure time.

“Without the leisure class, mankind would never have emerged from barbarism”

Russel connects the idea of idleness with the unequal historical relationship of it between the rich and the working class, where the former was able to the enjoy the fruits of it at the expense of the latter. Through the defence of idleness, he wanted to redefine the power structures which does not allow idle time to the working class. And with the aid of technology, there was a possibility of such a vision to be successful. However, Russel would be appalled to see that in contemporary times, not only we have less idle time (over productive) but also continue to view it as a hindrance to our productive life.


The problem of boredom is also because of the realignment of how we have viewed idleness or free time. The philosopher Theodor Adorno equated “free time” (idle time) as “recovery time” from the pain and tiredness of our working hours. Because of the exhaustion of our work, we perceive free time as watching Netflix or drinking alcohol for recovery. He argued that this leads to the lack of imagination from doing anything else (politically aware, organising, etc.). In today’s contemporary literature, some philosophers have come to the view that because of the rapid transformation of technology, boredom will rise. There will be an increase of on-demand stimulation which will result in a lack of imagination of using our idle time.


Appreciation of idle time is not an individual choice which many self-help books or meditation apps tend to portray. It has a structural constraint where due to the limits and unequal relation, many people cannot enjoy the fruits of idle time, especially in today’s precarious gig economies. In addition, ideology shapes the perception of idle time where “productivity” and work worship is viewed as highly desirable to continue the hyper-consumerist system.

Illustrated Scrolls of Tsurezure-gusa (Essays in Idleness). Kaiho Yusetsu


The journalist and writer Paul Lafargue in the essay The Right to be Lazy discuss the false and dogmatic notion of work ethic as an element which enslaves human existence. He argues that without time for ourselves, which includes boredom and space to imagine, we will not be able to progress as individuals. In relating to today’s self-isolating situation, the appreciation of idleness should be given a second thought. It is a time which can be used for more than just filing it by some sort of stimulation but a way for contemplation and also for doing nothing. It is the lack of conditions which makes it liberating. And understanding that it is not an individual choice to demand/have such time but a society one, is essential to bring out through structural reimagination. 


Divanshu Sethi is the editor of Catharsis Magazine. 

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