Professor of philosophy addresses the benefits of boredom

Lars Svendsen discusses passion and boredom with students as part of the Questioning Passion lecture series

Lars Svendsen

Maria Rachal

Boredom can be just the state of mind necessary to make an important life change, said Lars Svendsen, a “Questioning Passion” series speaker visiting Washington and Lee from Norway last week.

“I was bored with everything,” said Svendsen, a philosopher, author, and professor, prior to publishing his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, in 2005.

Thursday evening in Stackhouse Theatre, Svendsen revisited his now more than 10-year-old study of boredom in the fourth of six talks in W&L’s year-long “Questioning Passion” lecture series, which began in September 2015.

Svendsen said that boredom is an indicator that we lack some meaning in our lives. It does not necessarily suggest a total loss of caring, but a shift in personal orientation or perspective towards entities that once seemed more valuable.

The lecture, titled “Boredom and Meaning in Life,” explored the true causes for feeling bored, the distinctions between boredom and other states of mind like depression and apathy, and the idea that boredom can sometimes be a necessary stage of life in order to encourage self-reflection.

Svendsen distinguished between different types of boredom which human beings experience: situative, repetitive, and existential. He described situative boredom as the feeling experienced when waiting for something or listening to a lecture, repetitive boredom as the feeling that arises from monotony in our various activities, and existential boredom as a feeling of neutrality towards the world and emptiness in the soul.

“While situative boredom contains a longing for something that is desired, existential boredom contains a desire for any desire at all,” Svendsen said.

Professor of Religion Jeff Kosky, Professor of Economics Timothy Diette and Professor of Sociology Jonathan Eastwood are among the faculty instrumental in organizing the colloquium.

“The series as a whole is about passion or ‘the passions.’  But what about those times when someone doesn’t feel any passion?  Do those moments reveal anything important to us?  Do they have any value?” Eastwood said. “We invited Professor Svendsen in hopes he might shed light on such questions and I thought he did so very well.”

Svendsen is a professor of philosophy at the University of Bergen in Bergen, Norway, and the author of 12 books published in over 20 languages.

“It was very refreshing having a speaker whose ideas were so profound yet so applicable for the audience,” said Melina Knabe, ‘17, who attended the talk and also had the opportunity to join Svendsen for lunch as a Questioning Passion seminar participant. “I think his message was especially important in a college setting where so many people are looking for meaning.”

Svendsen discussed the elements which make up meaning in human life, thereby giving individuals the tools to search for appropriate meaning in their own lives and minimizing chances for boredom.

“If you have very high expectations, the likelihood of disappointment is all the greater,” Svendsen said. “There is no ultimate meaning; nothing in itself is sufficient.”

While he does not advocate cynicism, Svendsen said we must draw meaning from many aspects of our lives – jobs, love, friendships, hobbies – without putting too much pressure on one single source of meaning, in order to achieve a sense of fulfillment.

Svendsen concluded with the idea that personal freedom is the quality which sets humans apart from other animals as having a capacity to search for meaning.

“In essence, personal freedom here is not the absence of all burdens, but instead the freedom to devote ourselves fully to what means the most to us, to the things in life that we hold the most dear,” he said.

Kosky was pleased by the message Svendsen delivered.

“In overstimulated times of constant connectivity and endlessly absorbing entertainments, we could benefit from a chance to disconnect, unplug, and fall out of the web that holds us,” he said. “Boredom offers this opportunity. We might take a chance and see what comes up if we learn to sit in it.”