I, as many other college freshmen do, had no idea what I wanted to study upon entering the university. However, most students come in with at least a general understanding of their desired direction of study, and, in a way, I did. I was going to be:
a) A high school social studies teacher
b) A chemist
c) A hobo
But, as my parents, teachers, grandparents, librarians, and any other adult that showed interest in my future plans, pointed out; my world was very limited. It was OK and in fact good that I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be because the occupations that I was directly exposed to were toxicology, chemistry, and education. All of these career paths and subjects (except toxicology because ew biology) seemed like exciting, interesting, and realistic futures. I could picture myself in the lab, making new chemicals that would change the world! Or in a classroom, teaching eager students about the importance of our country’s history and the struggles that went into making it what it is today! Now, obviously I recognized that both of my future scenarios were not truly realistic. Very few chemists make it into the history books and even fewer students show interest in reading those history books. So why was I plaguing myself with false hopes and wishful thinking? We need a future to look forward to. Motivation in school and social activities is only possible if we believe that we are moving towards something worthwhile. If I, as a high school student, were between years of failed experiments or frustration with apathetic students, why would I try? I would take my college fund, fly to Hawaii and live lavishly until it ran out. After a few weeks, I would most likely become c) A hobo.
Generally though, in society being a hobo is frowned upon and so I had to find my motivation. Which was more interesting to me?
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
My decision process ultimately began in freshman Honors General Chemistry I. I opened my textbook to Chapter 1: Matter, Measurement, and Problem Solving, and began reading. But I had covered this material twice before, and was bored by it twice before. So I closed my textbook and proceeded to watch Netflix. This process continued through chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I chalked this up to the fact that I had taken AP chemistry in high school and so I already knew, and generally understood, all the material covered. Then began the more difficult discussions on Schrodinger’s equation, and I was totally lost. But I didn’t care. I could not bring myself to be interested in the wave particle duality of light or the energy of a photon. The particle in a box was a concept I did not choose to explore.
At week 1, interest was at its maximum level, 100. But as the weeks went on interest inthe subject decreased at a relatively linear rate until week six, the first exam. It is recommended that when examining the data at hand, this point be ignored. The data continues to show a linear-ish decrease with small plateaus at points of easy material. At week 1, chemistry was considered a possible major, at weeks 7, 8, 9, and 10, a minor, and during all following weeks, all hope was lost.
How much time did you spend clicking randomly, making shapes, or blobs, with cat faces? My personal record is probably five minutes. I find this website incredibly pointless, mind numbing, and at times, painful. Yes, painful. Yet I’ve been on it enough that when an example of a meaningless website is called upon, Meowmania is the first that comes to mind. The purpose that Meowmania serves for me is that of a snap back into a productive, motivated mindset. How does it snap me back into this preferred state?
J.M. Barbalet’s essay, Boredom and Social Meaning, outlines how boredom can serve as social motivation. He treats boredom as a form of anxiety, calling it “the emotional feeling of anxiety that an activity or situation holds no significance” and “an imperative towards meaning.” Barbalet goes on to further define boredom by distinguishing it from ennui and depression: classifying ennui, as “a languid surrender to emptiness” while boredom is an “active discomfort…irritability and restlessness.” Boredom therefore, according to Barbalet, is aggressive and antagonizing. Using this generally unpopular distinction, Barbalet continues his analysis of social and occupational boredom by arguing that not all repetitive tasks are “boring,” an idea that clashes with the contemporary view of these activities. Barbalet makes an interesting and convincing argument though. He maintains that, because boredom is anxiety about meaninglessness, tasks that have an end or purpose cannot be boring.
Would Barbalet then consider Meowmania boring? Try pondering his views on the aggression of boredom while spending at least two minutes on the site. How many cats are there? How many different meows? Does each cat have the same meow? There are no limits to the discoveries you can make on Meowmania. Do you become anxious and irritated? Do you start to think about all the other things you could be doing?
Would this form of “boredom” even fall under Barbalet’s definition? I gave you a task—ponder—and so the time spent is goal oriented. Yet, the anxiety and irritation with those 18 cats and 8 meows (yes I counted) reappears after a very short period of time. This website leads me to question Barbalet’s conclusions about purpose and boredom. Meowmania, I am sure, and forgive me for jumping to conclusions, was created as not only a distraction for the site’s creator but also as a distraction for the visitors. I know of very few people who would come back from school/work and think, Gee, I could really use some Meowmania right now.
So people use it as a distraction when they lose focus on the task at hand. I use it as a distraction when I lose focus on the task at hand. I welcome the boredom it brings, for about 2 seconds. Then the agitation kicks in, and I realize all that I should be doing that does not involve making cat’s faces appear on my screen at the click of my mouse. I realize the meaninglessness of the webpage and the pointlessness of my time wasted. Barbelet does not account for welcomed boredom. He goes into great detail on the effects of boredom, and the lengths that people will go to avoid the aggressive irritation it causes but does not give way to the idea of distraction.
How would Barbalet feel about Llama Font? I personally find Llama Font more entertaining than Meowmania. It’s designed not only around adorable animals in letter shaped poses, but also around the weird things you can come up with to spell in Llamas. This website gives the user more room for creativity. What would you say in Llama? Here’s what Barbalet would say:
Why would Barbalet consider this boring? Because it is not completely mindless as Meowmania is. Instead of assuming the thousand mile stare and letting your finger twitch to make meowing cats randomly appear on your screen, an automated activity that involves no thought and therefore allows you to “space out” and day dream, you have to think about something to write in llama. Llama Font is therefore a semi-automated task. It is involved just enough that you cannot distract yourself with independent thought and so, when no funny saying to write in llamas comes to mind, you become frustrated, agitated, anxious, and irritated and go back to the originally boring task at hand.
Barbalet, in my opinion, does a superb job of describing the feelings that come with boredom in a very satisfying “so THAT’S what I’m feeling kind of way.” I believe though that he does not understand the necessity of boredom as a motivator and a snap that is sought out. His discussion, I’ll admit, is one of social boredom only but he generalizes when describing boredom as an emotion that people try to avoid. I believe that people, at least college students stuck writing papers, studying for tests, or putting together their ideas into a project, subconsciously seek out agitating meaninglessness as a reminder of their purpose.
The Safe Guard and the Threat
One of the most commonly asked questions directed at little kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I was personally annoyed by this question when I was younger. I really did not care. I was 5+ and I was just starting elementary school. What was a career? But I went along with it. I was going to be a:
5 years old: Obligatory ballerina
6, 7, 8, 9, and 10 years old: Author
11, 12, 13, and 14: Scientist
15+: *What the heck am I doing with my life?*
And people would smile at me and nod and tell me I would be a great ballerina, author, scientist, etc. and I would smile and feel proud of myself because I really truly believed that I would become a ballerina, just as many kids really truly believe that they will become what they want to become, when in reality, they will not. Their interest will change or the world will pull them into its sad, alarm-clock-esque reality. Why am I being a little-kid’s-dreams-crushing evil pessimist? A study in done in 2012 lists the top 10 occupations in the United States as:
- Retail sales person
- Combined food preparation and serving worker, including fast food
- Office clerks, general
- Registered nurses
- Waiter and waitress
- Customer service representative
- Laborer and freight, stock, and material mover, hand
- Janitor and cleaner, except maids and housekeeping cleaners
- Secretaries and administrative assistant, except legal, medical, and executive.
Now compare this list to Forbes’s list of most common kid’s dreams jobs (and their respective salaries). The lists look a little bit different.
Now though, as college student that has been sucked into reality and is now looking for a realistic future to dream about, I understand why adults almost obsessively ask children what they want to be when they grow up. First of all, their hope is adorable, and second, their belief that their futures are going to be constantly exciting and fun and intriguing is refreshing and a constant source of awe. My generation is one that is constantly reminded of the fact that we must be successful in everything we do in order to have a happy, picturesque life. If we do not get into this school or get an A++++ on this test, then our futures are:
c) A hobo.
Little kids refuse to accept a boring, repetitive future as even an option. In this way the idea of boredom is a safe guard against hopelessness while the boring reality of most peoples’ situation is a threat of hopelessness.
How Do You Feel About Boredom?
“What’s boredom to you?”
“Did that help?”
In 2012 a young woman about to enter college was sitting in a basement, drinking a coke and chatting with her friends. A tradition among her group of friends, as it is among most people these days, was to make a wish at 11:11. So, when 11:11 rolled around the girl and her friends all closed their eyes and thought of their wishes. The young woman was the last to open her eyes. Though she didn’t show it, she was terrified of leaving.
“Guys, it’s our last summer together, maybe we should do something to commemorate it? To mark it as something special?” she said after opening her eyes
“Yeah” in unison voices.
“I know! Let’s get tattoos,” one of the girls said.
And so, they got tattoos. The young woman ultimately decided to get “11:11, make a wish” tattooed on her inner forearm.
One year later, the girls were back in the basement, laughing and sharing stories about their first year in college. Gossiping about terrible roommates, whispering about hookups, and sharing stories about hazy nights spent out too late. The young woman though sat quietly, smiling and nodding when cued. When 11:11 rolled around the young woman meekly pulled her sweatshirt sleeve down to cover her arm. All the girls closed their eyes and made their wishes.
Except, she did not make a wish. Recently, she had been losing faith in wishes. The tradition was silly, borderline stupid. Why should she wish for something the probably wouldn’t happen?
She hadn’t told her friends that she had failed two of her classes, that she couldn’t focus on the material and that she just couldn’t find her drive. School bored her. Most nights it bored her to the point of tears. Boredom was no longer a distraction, a motivation, or a reminder of purpose. Boredom was a life.
So What is My Major?
I’m not majoring in chemistry. So I’m majoring in history to become a high school social studies teacher right? No. My world, as my parents, teachers, grandparents, librarians, and any other adult that showed interest in my future plans, pointed out, has and is expanding. This semester I have done research, taken new and interesting classes and have come to find that the most important tool I have in discovering what I want to and who I want to be is boredom. Yes reader, boredom.
Boredom is one emotional predisposition that stays with us throughout our entire lives but has an evolving purpose. It begins as a subconscious warning, a threat that tells us to be hopeful and excited about what’s to come. Then, as we are introduced to the reality, it serves as a sought after distraction and reminder of the importance of seemingly painful tasks. Boredom is extraordinarily dangerous though when it is succumbed to. When one accepts and sinks into an apathetic routine, boredom becomes ones life and suddenly one’s life is meaningless. Boredom is therefore a consistent force in one’s life but is dangerously and constantly a necessary evil.
So what is my major? I do not know. And that is still O.K. I will continue to be bored and distracted and enlightened by Meowmania, Llama Font, and stupid YouTube videos. I will sign up for classes that I do not know and I will be bored by classes I do. I will continue to be frustrated by essays, projects, and tests I might fail because I know that all of this is part of the process. Boredom, anxiety, irritation, and frustration are all part of the process.
 J.M. Barbalet, “Boredom and social meaning,” The British Journal of Sociology 50, no. 4 (2003): 631 – 646
 Derek Thompson, “The 10 Most Common (and 10 Least Common) Jobs in America Today,” The Atlantic, April 1, 2013