Boredom. What is it?
There are two distinct types of boredom, active and passive.
Passive boredom, or ennui, is boredom brought about by a person’s circumstances. Most people know this as the boredom of a rainy Sunday afternoon or a holiday in Wales. Ennui is not created by a specific activity, but rather by the lack of any activity that isn't actively boring. Although it can feel similar to active boredom (and was thought to be the same for many centuries – hence the confusion in terminology), ennui is now known to be a fundamentally different phenomenon. To the layman, the best way of describing the difference is to compare it with the difference between alpha and gamma radiation: although they have similar effects on the human body, they are very different physical mechanisms.
Active boredom, sometimes known as ‘elective’ or ‘task related’ boredom, is boredom a person experiences while actively engaging in a boring activity. As active boredom is easier to isolate under experimental conditions, we know far more about the mechanics and dangers of active boredom. Crucially, active boredom can be mediated and its harmful effects limited by careful management.
In addition to these two commonly-recognized types, it is widely accepted that the vague region between active and passive boredom may contain several more types of boredom yet to be named by science. Recent groundbreaking research at the Llareggub Valley Facility in central Wales has fueled speculation that there may be as many as 15 distinct subtypes of boredom, although it should be noted that several may only be reproducible under laboratory conditions.
The severity of active boredom is measured in Melvilles (Mvl).
1 Melville is the level of boredom equivalent to earnestly trying to read Herman Melville’s 1851 magnum opus Moby Dick. For scientific purposes, Chapters 55–57 ("Of the Monstrous Pictures of Whales"; "Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales, and the Pictures of Whaling Scenes", and "Of Whales in Paint, in Teeth, in Wood, in Sheet, in Stone, in Mountains, and in Stars") are the most commonly used to calibrate equipment, as some of the book's livelier passages can cause inconsistent readings when a high level of precision is required.
Some example boredom levels, in Melvilles:
Sorting laundry (in silence) – 0.5Mvl
Radio 4 (typical) – 0.7Mvl
Writing a college paper - 0.6-1.1Mvl (depending on subject)
Proofreading indexes - 1.3Mvl
Wallpapering - 0.5Mvl
Any discussion of the measurement of boredom must begin with a profile of the man who almost single handedly revolutionised our conception of what it is to be bored. So, without further ado, here it is
Feldengräss von HohenloenUntil 1996, when the Artificial Boredom Experiencer (ABE) was devised, the highest level of boredom to be experimentally verified and independently reproduced was 2.63Mvl – experienced by a literature student at Montreal University in 1957 as she tried to read her way through volume four of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu.
Dr Feldengräss von Hohenloen is a colossal figure in the field of boredom research. His work is generally credited with lifting boredom out of the realm of philosophers and into the remit of objective science. He was born to a hardworking German-American family in 1911 and spent most of his childhood in Cathode Falls, Missouri. A gifted child, he excelled in his studies and eventually won a scholarship to Harvard University, where he decided to become a doctor. His dream of opening a practice in his home town was cut short, however, by the outbreak of World War II. In March 1943 he was recruited into the Army Medical Corps. He served with distinction as a battlefield surgeon, working first in England, and later moving across Europe with General Leonard T. Gerow’s Fifteenth United States Army. The dramatic events of World War II seem an unlikely crucible in which a great boredom researcher could be created, but – to quote an old soldier's maxim – ‘war is nine parts boredom, one part terror’*. His interest was first piqued when he noticed that the boredom experienced by soldiers on sentry duty seemed to be fundamentally different from that felt by the orderly that had to inventory the field hospital’s medicine stocks every week. In his landmark 1944 paper “So Many goddamn boxes: An investigation of administrative boredom” (first published in the British journal The Lancet) he laid down the basic division between active and passive boredom that continues to be used to this day. In the post-war period he watched as the field of study he created grew at an astonishing speed. He was responsible, along with his research partner Greta Simpson, with the creation of the Melville as a unit of measuring boredom, and the soft-biscuit membrane used in many boredom detectors to this day. Although he largely retired from active research in the late 1960s (largely as a result of concerns raised his own findings about the long-term effects of boredom exposure) he remained the elder-statesman of boredom research, and had some 37 honorary doctorates by the time he died in 1983.
*This assertion, incidentally, was extensively tested by Hohenloen during his time at DARPA (then known as ARPA) in the early 1960s.
Attempts to measure higher levels of boredom were banned by most Western governments in 1973 following the notorious ‘Jonathan Schieffler incident’. Schieffler, a Phd candidate at MIT, had been encouraged to attend a Jam-band and poetry evening in order to take readings, but was not warned of the danger of doing so sober. Due to a freak bean-bag landslide he was trapped in the bar for the entirety of a four-hour cover of the song "Flying Teapot" by Gong. By the time a rescue team was sent in he had lost consciousness. The boredom-meter found clasped in his rigid hands was allegedly (it was lost in the aftermath of the incident, possibly as part of MIT's attempted cover-up) jammed at 4Mvl (the highest it could go). Schieffler remained in a coma for six weeks, and has been afflicted with severe narcolepsy ever since.
With the invention of the ABE, the risk has been removed from boredom research, although accidents do still happen. Currently the record stands at 5.96Mvl – recorded when a remote-controlled ABE was sent into the auditorium of a avant garde jazz evening at a Belgian golf club (The phenomenon whereby it is possible to perform avant garde jazz is still not fully understood by science).
Is it safe?
Exposure to boredom levels of up to 1Mvl are generally considered non-harmful, although the long-term effects of regular exposure are still unclear (see Further Resources). Above 1Mvl, however, most people will begin to experience drowsiness, fidgeting and a perceptible decline in their ability to concentrate. If the boring activity is not halted, these symptoms will increase in severity until the afflicted person loses consciousness. The time it takes for this to occur varies according to each individual’s age and baseline level of ennui (see our pamphlet ‘An Easy Guide to Calculating your Ennui’).
Regular exposure to high boredom levels can, over time, enable individuals to develop a degree of tolerance – in much the same way that fighter pilots develop techniques that allow them to resist high g-forces. Successful humanities graduates often exhibit high levels of boredom tolerance, as do solicitors and accountants.
Health and Safety officers are permitted to take a degree of assumed tolerance into account when assessing workplace boredom protocols, although it must be stressed that even the most resilient Tort specialists lose consciousness after around 30 minutes’ exposure to levels higher than 1.9Mvl.