An ode to being bored

In Danish Philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s (1813–1855) seminal work Either-Or, Kierkegaard introduces a personality-type that he calls “the Aesthete.” The Aesthete is characterized by living in the now and constantly seeking pleasurable, easy-going experiences. The aesthetic approach to life is hedonistic, lust-based, founded on momentary desires, and hence the life of the Aesthete lacks continuity and stability: it is built up around short glittery moments that are not linked together, but rather disjointed like marbles in a box.

The Aesthete is governed by an extreme focus on excitement and pleasure, as s/he views boredom and triviality as the root to all evil. This pleasure-seeking venture leads to a life directed by questions like: What do I want to experience, enjoy, eat, purchase next?

However, even though the Aesthete might— on the surface—appear happy and fortunate, s/he is not an authentic person. The Aesthete is, according to Kierkegaard, always absent to the self and never present, despite his/her constant hunt for momentary here-and-now experiences. The content of life, the fullness of consciousness, and the essence of being is, so to speak, located outside oneself. Happiness is solely based on external stimuli.

If one is governed by the idea that pleasure requires novelty, like the Aesthete is, the enjoyment of consumption is per definition finite. The restlessness of late-modern society—in which innovation, newness, disruption, and changeability are buzz-words—resembles the restlessness of the aesthetician stage. The relief from boredom is only fleeting. The Aesthete is occupied with getting as many interesting, pleasurable experiences as possible: with feeling good or having a good time, again and again. If the Aesthete for example gives money to charity, it is because it makes her or him feel good. The Aesthete is always controlled and steered by pleasure. What do I feel like doing? What will make me feel better? These questions are the steering wheel in the life of the Aesthete—but actually they are also very applicable contemporary societal guiding principles. We are essentially often encouraged—by experience-focused self-help books and adverts—to live our lives in accordance with the Aesthete; to spoil ourselves and indulge in comfort-providing spa-, travel-, dining-, or consumer-experiences. To flee boredom by all means. To live here and now and to spend money on whatever takes our fancy, without thinking about tomorrow.

Our late-modern cultural assumptions on “the good life” sends us out into the world with the mantra, “If it feels good, it is good.” Even children are taught from an early age, due to the absurd number of daily hours they spend in front of tablets, smart-phones, computers, and game consoles, that you don’t have to make an effort to learn anything, and that you never have to be bored. You very quickly excel in a computer game, and if you don’t, you can just delete it and find another one that matches your abilities better and that gives you a more pleasurable “here and now” experience. Children are taught to constantly seek pleasure: to build up their daily routine around a pleasure hunt of “shiny” moments that are not unlike that of the Aesthete’s.

The aesthetician stage is characterized by a lack of over-individual standards. The Aesthete focuses solely on fulfilling experiences, pleasure, and personal well-being—not unlike the contemporary narcissistic need to exhibit every single step one takes, every fancy outfit one buys, and every healthy and/or delicious meal one consumes (and every nice cup of coffee one drinks, like me in the below photo) on social media. Actually, I am convinced that Kierkegaard would agree that the Aesthete loves social media. I couldn’t imagine a better and easier way to create a self-composed poetic distance to everything and everyone.

However, a pleasure-hunting experience-based life is not an authentically fulfilling life according to Kierkegaard. We need to make meaningful choices and to commit ourselves to something and someone in order to live authentically. Yet, in our post-factual, post-religious, post-common-ground reality, in which neither authorities nor experts nor gods nor communities are providing us with valid guidelines or normative standards and values, we tend to be led by our aesthetician need for entertainment or at least momentarily satisfying experiences, or by our need to fit in. The problem with that is that our experience-hunt is controlled by our quickly changeable preferences led by trends; and trends are volatile, unstable, and constantly shifting.

We must find an alternative to the authorities and gods that we have killed. An alternative that makes us able to differentiate right from wrong. An alternative that can create new stability in an unsettled, aesthetician world. I am not saying that the doctrine of religion or authoritarianism is the sole way of creating a standpoint on which one can build an authentic life. But nevertheless, a standpoint is crucial in order to form a nourishing, stable counterpoint to abrupt experience and pleasure-hunts.

Read much more about the enduring relevance of existential philosophy and the relation to sustainable living in my book Anti-trend.

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