Bored in the USA: America’s Century Long Struggle With Monotony

Kaitlin Gawkins
Assistant Online Editor

On Jan. 20, 2017, President Trump was sworn into the Oval Office. All political opinions aside, most people know that one of the first orders of business for a new president in office is to be flown to a highly classified location and filled in on all of the nation’s biggest secrets.

It is probably at this time that Trump learned of America’s most sworn enemy, an entity that threatens all of modern life and takes control of every conceivable industry: boredom.

Boredom has been around since the beginning of time; the very definition is “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest,” according to Merriam-Webster. However, it was only in the past 100 years or so, beginning in the “Roaring 20’s” that it has been heightened in the attention of the general public as a problem requiring a solution.

The 1920’s as an age was marked by the rise of extreme prosperity, individualism, consumerism, and cynicism. During the ‘20s, people were faced with wealth like they had never seen before.

Suddenly, they had time for leisure activities and money for any material possessions they could desire. In addition, there was a rise in common culture in conjunction with the rise in mass media and the ability to communicate social norms and ideas.

Americans were being repeatedly hit over the head with the idea that they should be a constantly stimulated, individualistic, and happy person who had such an exciting life that they never would be bored.

In an article titled “American Boredom: The Origins of a Way of Life,” Chris Stacey of Rutgers University comments on this shift in the American psyche: “In the twenties, as in other historical epochs, Americans desperately longed for happiness, to find the answer to why life was worth living. But their obsession with material goods and unrealistic expectations for what constituted personal fulfillment increasingly ended in a sense of discontent.”

This shift in attitude wasn’t necessarily any one person or group of people’s fault, rather, it was an arguably inescapable byproduct of the culture of mass consumerism.

Though its roots were grounded almost 100 years ago, boredom is still a threat today, and as our way of life has evolved over time, so have our coping mechanisms with this entity. Just like in the ‘20s, it is a product of the times.

Today we are constantly stimulated by each other’s lives through Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook. And if we’re not scrolling through each other’s feeds, were watching Netflix or listening to a nonstop flow of music. The question then arises: how can we be bored if we’re constantly being stimulated?

David Foster Wallace, a renowned American writer, thinker, and professor of English, was keenly focused on American culture during his life, specifically, what it means to experience the broad range of human emotions that appear in a lifetime.

He wrote extensively on the subject of boredom in our modern society, both what it meant and why it exists. Wallace argued that the over emphasis on boredom (or rather, against it) was a result of our times, a natural human response to the culture of self-centeredness and constant stimulation.

Though this may seem counter-intuitive, it actually makes perfect sense: if your brain is stimulated every second of the day, there is no time for thinking about and processing the world around you, rather, you would go on autopilot. It is in this space in our heads that boredom arises, not from a lack of activity, but an overage of it.

So how do we go about dealing with boredom in our daily lives? Though he never really condemned boredom itself, Wallace did suggest that it is possible to overcome, by turning off our default setting of unconsciousness and practicing simple awareness.

As Wallace noted at his famous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, true freedom from the confines of boredom entails “being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” 

In other words, we cannot know for sure whether or not there is true meaning in our lives and the boring day-to-day tasks that fill them, however, we can choose how we react and construct our own meaning from these things by simply being aware of all the possibilities of each person’s life.

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