What constitutes time well spent? According to the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi it is when you achieve “flow — the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” Beyond that, time researchers I spoke to all agree that at a minimum one must feel in control of one’s time, rather than being controlled by it. The time perspectives scholar Nicolas Fieulaine told me, “The more you have control of your time, the less you are under time pressure.” One pitfall here is that we may think we’re in control when we’re not. Activities like binge-watching TV or scrolling through social media feeds provide immediate, temporary rewards that crowd out our future and past perspectives, much more so than with cognitively demanding activities like deep reading or socializing with others.
Csikszentmihalyi made the same point 25 years ago when he wrote that “TV watching, the single most often pursued leisure activity in the US today, leads to the flow condition very rarely […] One of the most ironic paradoxes of our time is this great availability of leisure that somehow fails to be translated into enjoyment.” A 2007 paper in the Journal of Economic Psychology notes that excessive TV viewing in developed societies correlates strongly with reports of low subjective well-being. In fact, numerous surveys have documented that people who watch a lot of TV don’t actually enjoy it any more than most other activities, including their job or housekeeping. The authors suggest that this clear rebuke to rational choice theory is because TV, with its ease of use and instant rewards, “lends itself to over-consumption.”
When I asked Csikszentmihalyi recently about newer forms of virtual entertainment technologies, he told me that early-stage research in the field linking increased anxiousness with frequent smartphone use is already enough for him “to believe that the connection might be real.” Are we simply punctuating boredom with new anxieties? Marc Wittmann, a researcher on temporal experience and the author of the new book Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time, says these may be two sides of the same coin. He told me in an email that:
When you don’t feel yourself, time flies by; when you do feel yourself (in the shopping queue, any waiting situation) time drags. That’s why people, even when they have to wait only for two minutes at Starbucks, check their smart phone. They want to get distracted from themselves and time. Boredom means “I am bored by my own existence, therefore I seek distraction from myself.”
By “feel yourself,” Wittmann means self-awareness or self-consciousness, which is to say feeling alone with oneself, and therefore not in control of one’s temporal circumstances — the opposite of “losing” oneself in a genuinely meaningful and rewarding experience.
Other than circadian rhythms and menstrual cycles, there is no biological clock to set the pace of lived experiences, so our sense of temporality is highly susceptible to external events and the media through which we encounter them. According to Wittmann, time is one element amid a fugue of neuro-processes through which consciousness emerges from the brain. Research has found that the brain has about a three-second tick to it, which constitutes our maximum cognizance of what we would call the present, after which it is then consigned to memory and the past.
In The Principles of Psychology, William James grappled with time’s abstractness: “[The] present is no knife-edge, but a saddle-back, with a certain breadth of its own on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions into time.” We tend to feel as though we are situated within a one-way stream of time — that as we know our past, so too do we anticipate our immediate future. In Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov echoes James’s imagery, but not his sureness for our place in time. Nabokov rejects the notion that we can really look at time as forward-moving, and notes that the past is only “so seductive” precisely because we cannot know the future. If we could, “Persons might then straddle the middle stretch of the seesaw when considering this or that object.” For him there is only memory, and the material objects that map its cloudy topography in our minds; the future is nonexistent, “a figure of speech, a specter of thought.”
Even that three-second present, too, must share the same nonexistence. Like beaming a light on a shadow, it seems impossible; we feel it right now, and yet “right now” it is already past. Most theoretical physicists would agree, and they’d take it further. Of course the future and the present don’t exist, they’d say, but neither does time itself, at least not as a property of the material universe.
Time, for practical purposes, is a linguistic construct whose true essence we must discern within human experience, be that our own or others’ shared through social intercourse. Or in other words, if we want to understand how time works, outside of the laboratory, we must tease it out of our own subjective psyches.
In fact, according to Wittmann in Felt Time, our subjectivity itself — central to what makes us human — emerges from the interplay of space and time in our minds, from the recognition of “oneself as something that persists through time and is embodied.” Boredom, then, is the emotion of an unstimulated subjectivity — it is the feeling of becoming “directly aware of the fact that one is trapped in time,” where “one experiences an uncomfortable proximity to oneself but does not know what to do with oneself.”
We’re all familiar with boredom’s opposite: “Time flies when you’re having fun.” And yet, paradoxically, time can also “fly” when we’re bored because, recalling Nabokov’s observation, there is only memory: the mind is not prone to file monotonous experiences into its storage banks, and so it is almost as if those events didn’t happen.
Meaningless events may seem excruciating at the time, but they then lose a sense of duration after they’ve passed. According to the social psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd, in The Time Paradox, “In general, the more cognitive processing you do within a given period, the more time you judge to have passed.” Most people have probably logged creeping hours in waiting rooms and at the DMV, and yet few of us will have any real recollection of those times, save that they seem to have happened and are now, mercifully, fleeting recollections. Wittmann told me that “[t]he more that is stored in memory, the longer time lasts subjectively — in retrospect.” He describes this phenomenon as the “classic holiday effect”:
The first few days at a new and exotic location stretch considerably. That is, because we experience so many novel and exciting and emotional events, memory load increases; time stretches. Then as the days of our vacation (staying at the same place) pass by, time passes more quickly. What was initially novel becomes an everyday experience; the same events experienced every day are no longer stored in memory with any particularity (the same beach, the same bars, the same streets …) and looking back, time passes more quickly again.
Wittmann’s research also demonstrates that time seems to speed up with age because as we grow older, our lives become more routine and less original. If we think of time as only our memory of past events, and if those events have subjective durations such that two events of equal length can seem ephemeral and eternal, respectively, then we see that meaningfully spent lives are, for all intents and purposes, longer lives, too. As a then 56-year-old Anthony Burgess wrote in The New Yorker, in 1973, “As for myself, all I can say is that I am growing old, my sight is blurring, my teeth always need attention […] I am more and more frequently bored.” Burgess laments industrial and postindustrial societies’ ever-increasing demand for “routine work, work with no zest or creativity. The things we eat, clothes we wear, places where we live become increasingly standardized […] Life ticks along for most of us like a Woolworth’s alarm clock.”
“It is no surprise that clocks become rich representational symbols of boredom and the tedium of time passing,” Peter Toohey writes in Boredom: A Lively History, his examination of boredom as a theme in art and literature across cultures and time. No surprise, indeed: Checking one’s watch has long been the quintessential bored mannerism; now, staring at screens — perhaps while waiting in the line at Starbucks — defends against the monotony of the information age.
Screens, and particularly video and social media, are technological successors to mechanical clockwork, with a similar hold over how we experience time. Where early clocks helped to commoditize labor hours, technologies since then have been instrumental in commoditizing our free time. Particularly, they do so by creating unconscious habits with far-reaching implications, given what we’ve come to know about the psychology and neuroscience of time.
During the Industrial Revolution, clocks of various kinds were produced in abundance, migrating from their previous station in bell towers, where they called churchgoers to prayer, to the burgeoning railroad industry, and then to factory walls. Clocks helped to quantify labor time and demarcate work and leisure for the lower and middle classes. But they also redefined work itself, which came to be seen less as a measure of the number or quality of goods a worker produced, and more as the raw time that a worker put in. Workers thus became what the sociologist Daniel Bell called “clock-watchers,” waiting for each day to end. Or, as the band Loverboy put it in 1981, everybody since then has been “working for the weekend.”
Theodor Adorno, in The Culture Industry, posited that even when we are away from work, the same market forces — acquisitiveness, efficiency, profit — define our experience. For Adorno, leisure is labor’s necessary and self-interested dispensation; it is the temporal space we guard jealously, but ultimately the space that must be monetized to justify otherwise extravagant or pointless goods and services under production — and the jobs they sustain. As Adorno describes it, when there is even a seed of “longing in people themselves” for a certain fun, enjoyable, or otherwise pleasurable activity, that longing becomes immediately “functionalized, extended and reproduced by business.” Adorno’s example of camping, where the urge to sleep out under the stars led to big box stores full of superfluous equipment, seems dated now; but, when he argues that “production regulates consumption in the process of mental life, just as it does in that of material life,” it is easy to recognize the same tendency in popular forms of entertainment today.
With respect to our free time, what better explains the way so many of us, myself included, expend our leisure? Consider the explosion of video media production that all online platforms are now feverishly pursuing, or Facebook’s own debut of Facebook Live videos. It’s more than anyone could possibly watch, all formally homogeneous, and all immediately forgotten after viewing — but, as Ken Doctor pointed out recently at Nieman Lab, “It’s not primarily that customers are demanding more video. It’s that video ad rates continue to hold up far better than for ads placed alongside all those tiresome words. If the advertisers demand more video inventory, then the content side must produce more video.” The same production-driving-consumption trend is also evident in countless new-but-not-really variations of social networking or traditional text messaging. Was there really a consumer demand for Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, WhatsApp, Vine, LinkedIn, Tumblr, and more, or were these produced as attempts to incept consumption and capture users’ free time?
Today’s burgeoning video and social media — most of them generally owned by one of a few Silicon Valley giants — is usually hailed with “Golden Age” rhetoric, and it is undeniable that many technologies have introduced unprecedented convenience and luxury, even to the middle and lower classes, while in some cases lowering the barriers for democratic necessities like free assembly and expression. Complaining about abundance has little to recommend itself. But as these new technologies continue to colonize our leisure time just as clocks did with work, we should consider their risks as well as their benefits in light of how we process meaningful experiences.
Consumer technology designers aim to create habitual, even addictive, products to win out in the zero-sum competition for human attention. But the habitual behaviors being inculcated in us do not necessarily optimize temporal experience. In most cases they do quite the opposite, and more resemble Adorno’s own ridiculing description of hobbies as “preoccupations with which I had become mindlessly infatuated merely in order to kill the time.” In Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, a manual for digital age technologists, entrepreneur Nir Eyal is not coy about what drives profits: “Companies increasingly find that their economic value is a function of the strength of the habits they create […] Companies that form strong user habits enjoy several benefits to their bottom line.”
Eyal, who is no critic of the digital consumer goods and services industry, says companies like Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter, Apple, and even acclaimed television series like Breaking Bad, are successful because when we engage with them, “Our actions have been engineered […] A habit is at work when users feel a tad bored and instantly open Twitter. They feel a pang of loneliness and before rational thought occurs, they are scrolling through their Facebook feeds.” According to Eyal, the express goal of consumer technologies today, using “hooks” that “[burrow] into our minds (and often our wallets),” is to render leisure-time users into clockwork automatons.
Eyal means well. He draws a distinction between habits and unhealthy addictions, and he often mentions the importance of moral deliberation in designing any product. But when he says that he wants to show “innovators how to build products to help people do the things they already want to do but, for lack of a solution, don’t do,” it’s hard to miss the crude Pavlovianism behind the Silicon Valley giants’ success. Consumer technologies today, reversing William Faulkner’s famous description of an heirloom watch as “a mausoleum of all hope and desire,” are sold as homunculi to satisfy every human impulse. But, as we’ve come to learn, there are fundamental differences between killing time and bringing it to life; and as Midas learned, there are dangers to seamless wish fulfillment.
In “The End of Solitude,” an indispensible information age essay published by The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2009, William Deresiewicz describes his own experience being introduced to that earlier but still dominant consumer technology, television. According to Deresiewicz, television ushered in a “great age of boredom […] precisely because television was designed to palliate that feeling.” TV’s easy, superficial escapism left chronic users unequipped to deal with its absence to the point that it becomes “fearsome, its prospect intolerable.” Eyal even acknowledges this underlying danger by analogizing the most successful consumer technologies to painkillers as opposed to vitamins, an important distinction to start-up investors. Needless to say, we rarely read headlines about an epidemic in vitamin addiction.
Video and social media today are designed to provide entertainment so as to monetize leisure and, according to the designers’ own unwitting testimony, apparently, to alleviate anxieties they’re alternately exacerbating. Whether or not these free-time fillers render meaningful temporal experiences is entirely incidental. They have, it must be said, revolutionized the war against boredom. In the process, they have also parceled time out into concrete blocks. From the “30-second ad spot” during the Super Bowl to “time on site,” an increasingly popular key performance indicator on the web, unitized time allows for consumer habits to be routinized and predicted for efficient and remunerative data collection.
With our ineradicable terror of boredom and an indoctrinated, clockwork response to it, we are becoming the 21st century’s clock-watchers, killing our free time while we wait to go back to work in an endless cycle bereft of the novel experiences needed to create duration in our memory. We are using our free time to effectively shorten our lives. But this is not a self-help screed — the marketplace for “life hacks,” work-life balance tips, meditation apps, and other swindles is saturated enough. Anyone can trump up a sociological crisis when they have a solution to sell. Consider it, instead, a call for an older aesthetic in your pursuit of happiness. Do what you want with your free time. Just be sure you’re the one tapping the screen.
 Toohey, for his part, does not believe that “boredom was invented in the eighteenth century.” In his book, he argues that it can be seen in artistic renditions from antiquity as well. He notes that, “More leisure provides more opportunity to become bored — that’s if leisure time is not well occupied.”
Stuart Whatley is an editor and writer in New York.
Correction: The quote attributed to Anthony Burgess was originally dated June 2012 and has been corrected. Burgess, who died in 1993, wrote his essay in 1973. The author regrets the error.