As I watch our house cat, Lizzie, spend her days doing nothing but staring into space, I wonder, is she happy? I've read that cats sleep and doze a lot--80% of their lives--and spend the rest of their lives grooming themselves, eating, and playing. Each night as I prepare for a movie or TV show, Lizzie demands my attention: I become her playmate since she lives a solitary life, never seeing another cat (except for an occasional visitor to her screened-porch enclave). I worry that she should have a companion, that she is restless and bored.
And yet, I tell myself that boredom is the fear of running out of things to do, and cats are born, it seems, to do absolutely nothing; so how can they be bored? They live in a timeless present, without knowledge of a future (no worries), with no apparent capacity to analyze the past or to experience nostalgia. As such they are fortunate. Restlessness is something else.
In a recent essay on boredom (human) in Commentary, Joseph Epstein mentions that even animals know boredom, though they can't complain about it. Recent pieces on the internet tell me that many studies of the behavior of animals reveal that we have much to learn about their emotional states: birds can be optimistic or pessimistic, it seems, and baboons, among other primates, undergo grief. Most of us have seen unhappy animals: restless, agitated, frightened, etc.
The two recent books that Epstein discusses--one by Peter Toohey, another by Lars Svendsen--don't help much with cats since these authors focus on human behavior. They seem to agree that part of being human includes the capacity for boredom. And that boredom is less common in simpler cultures.
We in the West, with our many gadgets and sources of information and entertainment, are more likely to be bored than the pygmies or remote tribes in Borneo. In fact, the more stimulation, the more likely the boredom.
Just yesterday, the teenage boy I tutor wrote me an e-mail saying he was having a boring summer--despite his music, video games, reading, e-mail, Facebook, telephone, upcoming travel, family outings, friends, household tasks, family dog, fencing and violin lessons.
In all the studies I've seen of boredom, I always look for the connection between boredom and depression, if there is one. Epstein says that ennui, apathy, depression,
acedia, and melancholy are all aspects of boredom. Chronic boredom can bring about agitation, depression and anger, but boredom and depression are not the same.
"Boredom is chiefly an emotion of the secondary kind, like shame, guilt, envy, embarrassment...Depression is a mental illness, and much more serious."
That comes as a relief when I feel restless and bored now and then as the long, hot summer stretches again before me or as I worry about Lizzie's moods and hope she does not blame me for not entertaining her more often.
Boredom may be indefinable and a bit mysterious, but it's perfectly normal for people to be bored now and then. I can stop worrying about the boredom of cats. And I can ignore the ever-more-sophisticated distractions from boredom dreamed up by Steve Jobs and others who, says Epstein, allow people to live in a world of nearly full-time communication and entertainment with no time out for thought.
But it's a relief to know, amid all this change, that there will always be bored teenagers in the summertime.