Monday, July 28, 2014

Sitting Quietly In A Room Alone: It's The Boredom, Stupid!

Gene Wilder, Young Frankenstein
By now I'm sure you've heard about those recent studies that found many people would rather give themselves painful shocks than sit quietly doing nothing. Reading about this research in the popular press, I was like "Can you say Rorschach Test?" It's like everyone who encountered the basic facts had their own spin on how to interpret what happened.

The facts are roughly these: when told to sit quietly alone for 6 to 15 minutes, almost everyone found the experience unpleasant, and many people -- in one case 12 of 18 men and 6 of 24 women gave themselves painful electric shocks rather than just sitting there.

The conclusion in the abstract for the actual scholarly paper says simply, "Most people seem to prefer to be doing something rather than nothing, even if that something is negative."

OK, I admit to being a little bit surprised about the shocks -- but really, is it really news that people find it hard to sit quietly doing nothing? Almost no one ever does this by choice, when people do manage it it's a whole special activity called "meditation," and people who regularly ponder things just in their own minds for long periods of time are considered strange and even sinister. So: how is this a surprise?

After all, it's only been like three-hundred and fifty years since Pascal said that "All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone."

But everyone had their own ideas about the significance of the findings.

The Guardian, and some of the researchers quoted, seemed to emphasize the "being alone with your own thoughts" aspect of the whole thing -- as if it were the thoughts people were having that bothered them, as if people just use activities to avoid thinking about things.

This makes no sense to me. People are constantly thinking about things -- I mean, it's not like brooding and worrying are nineteenth-century activities.  The fact that people want to brood and worry while pacing, listening to stuff, and texting doesn't mean they're not brooding.

Many Guardian commentators wanted to pile on the whole "Kids Today! They Can't Think!" ridiculousness. Yeah -- I'm sure you guys all sit around alone contemplating the mysteries of quantum mechanics all day.

Predictably, The New York Times linked the whole thing up to the OMG modern society is so BUSY we have no time to THINK we're always RUSHING AROUND! As if we're the first generation in the history of the universe that spends a lot of time doing things and talking to other people.

Personally I was astonished that no one mentioned boredom. Isn't it just boring to sit alone with your thoughts doing nothing? I spend a lot of time thinking about things, but I'm almost always reading, typing, writing, talking, listening, drawing, or doing something other thinking-associated activity. Often I'm also doing other activities, like drinking coffee, or looking out the window, at the same time.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things doesn't mean I don't contemplate. I contemplate all the fucking time -- I'm a philosopher; I'm stuffed to overflowing with contemplation.

The fact that I almost never just sit quietly alone in a room thinking about things is because sitting quietly alone in a room is BORING.

It might seem like this boredom hypothesis is less exciting or revolutionary than the "people can't be alone with their thoughts" hypothesis, but in my view that's not the case. Because the fact that boredom can make people crazy and self-destructive is a profound and unreckoned with truth.

Often our modern western theory of people sneaks in an assumption that beyond basic needs what people want is best described as pleasure or happiness. It depends on what you mean by those things, of course -- but given the depth of the hatred of boredom, it seems to me that pleasure and happiness are barely scratching the surface.

Interestingly, the Guardian subheadline for the story says "Report from psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities tackles question of why most of us find it so hard to do nothing."

But as far as I can tell the report does nothing of the kind. The report tells us HOW EXTREMELY most of us find it so hard to do nothing, but it tells us nothing about WHY most of us find it so hard to do nothing.

In that area, we haven't really made any progress-- we're just back with Pascal, observing the human condition. 

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