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Wednesday, 08 March 2023
By Vivek Kaul


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The economics of boredom and individual happiness

On 31 March, I will complete 11 years of freelancing. And I am now bored, well and truly and thoroughly (and all the other adjectives I can’t think of right now because I am bored).

I quit my last job in a newspaper because writing gave me true pleasure in life, and the editors there had their idea of how I should write (basically in points and boxes), and I had my own; the twain didn’t meet. So, I quit.

In the last 11 years, I have written to my heart’s content. And now I am bored. Why? If I were to answer the question in terms of economics, the answer perhaps lies in what the economists call the law of diminishing marginal utility, that is, the amount of satisfaction we feel declines with every extra unit of a product we consume.

Of course, I produce writing, and others consume it. But if there were to be a production version of the law of diminishing marginal utility, my current mental state of ennui would be a great example of that. And this is how ladies and gentlemen, one makes oneself sound like an economist and makes something sound quite complicated.


As the Russian-American Nobel Prize-winning poet Joseph Brodsky, who was also a superb essayist, writes in an essay titled In Praise of Boredom, which is part of an essay collection titled On Grief and Reason: “Known under several aliases – anguish, ennui, tedium, doldrums, humdrum, the blahs, apathy, listlessness, stolidity, lethargy, languor, accidie, etc., – boredom is a complex phenomenon and by and large a product of repetition.”

And from the looks of it, the repetition of writing, even though I enjoy it as much as I do, seems to have caught up with me. The same applies to my other great interest in life, reading crime fiction. I first started reading crime fiction seriously in 2007 when a friend introduced me to the Swedish writing duo of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Sixteen years and many hundred books later, crime fiction has now started to bore me. In the last few weeks, I have started and stopped reading at least five such books.

Over and above repetition, the other big reason for boredom is the ease with which one can buy what one wants now. This is thanks to two things. One obviously is the fact that one earns more than what one did 20 years back. So, there is more purchasing power.

In the early to mid-1990s, something that gave me real happiness was when I had enough money in my pocket to be able to buy an audio music cassette. Given that my father did not believe in the idea of handing out a monthly allowance, perhaps assuming that I would waste it as soon as I got it, money was hard to come by. Hence, audio music cassettes were difficult to buy, meaning every time one had the money to buy cassettes, the happiness experienced was unparalleled.

Once, my mother’s sister bought a movie video cassette. It did not work. Thankfully, the shopkeeper agreed to exchange it for music cassettes. My happiness knew no bounds on that day.

The other reason behind the ease with which one can buy what one likes is the rise of e-commerce, in particular, Amazon. Things are available at the click of a few buttons. A month back, I had the pleasure of discovering Brodsky’s writing in a bookstore. I bought the book (the one I have quoted from) then and there.

Then I returned home and bought the two other essay collections of Brodsky that were available. In an earlier era, up until a decade and a half back, I would have looked for his books in every bookstore I went to and would have been extremely happy when I found one. The pleasure was in anticipation of a good thing happening. That’s gone now. Pleasure now is like bus do minute (just two minutes) away. It’s fleeting.

Here’s another great story. Anyone who grew up in the 1990s and attended a few college rock concerts would know of a song called Living Next Door To Alice. The song was written by Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman and was originally released by the Australian band New World in 1972. It was the version performed by the British band Smokie that became a worldwide hit.

In the 1990s, the version of the song performed across college rock concerts in India wasn’t the version sung by New World, nor was it the version sung by Smokie. The version being performed was an X-rated version by a Dutch band called Gompie, with the chorus, Who the F*^& is Alice?

Sometime in the late 1990s (I don’t remember which year), I had the money and desperately wanted the music cassette which had this song, so I could play it over and over again (Zoomers, please remember there was no YouTube back then). And my quest for this cassette finally ended late one afternoon in the sweltry heat of the Delhi summer at the underground Palika Bazar in what was then Connaught Place.

My excitement knew no bounds. And I hurried back in a DTC bus to my grandparents’ place (there was no Metro back then either) to be able to blast the song in full volume. And I did that for days at an end (Those were innocent days, people didn’t understand much). Of course, in its own way, this shows that one grew up in an environment of scarcity.

Or take the time in 2007 and 2008 that I spent putting together the ten books that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö wrote together, by buying them as I found them, one book at a time in bookstores across Mumbai. The irony here was that I found the first book in the series, the last.

It’s very difficult to experience such highs, such pleasure and happiness, such euphoria, in this day and age. Now one can simply log on to Amazon and order the ten books all at one go because one has the money and the books are available all in one place.

So, I guess money, ease of availability and repetition eventually lead to boredom. As Erik Angner writes in How Economics Can Save the World – Simple Ideas to Solve Our Biggest Problems: “One possible explanation for the fact that people don’t become happier than they do is adaptation [emphasis in the original]. That’s basically the idea that you get used to things.” Adaptation also explains why “the marginal happiness of money is decreasing” or the fact that “people don’t become as much happier as you’d think when they get richer”.

Angner cites his example of buying books (totally in line with mine) as a great example of adaptation. As he writes: “Books are the worst… I can’t resist the urge to buy new books as soon as I come across them… But by the time they arrive… I have often forgotten that I ordered them…I put the book on top of a pile of other unread books and forget about it. As long as I can reach the top of the pile next to my bed, I’ll continue ordering books.”

My story is similarly bleak. I keep ordering books. In the last ten days, I have ordered nine books from Amazon (physical and Kindle) and picked up a few books from a bookstore. I keep ordering books up until they start piling up on my bed.

Thankfully, I gave away a lot of my books last September, so I still have some space for this cycle to complete itself. But like in Angner’s case, many of these books are simply getting stashed up, with no time to read them.

So, like people buy new homes, phones, laptops, diamonds, clothes, bags, shoes, video games and watches, depending on what they can afford, I used to buy and read books to get rid of my boredom. But now that adds to my boredom, pushing me to buy more books. And this keeps capitalism going.

In fact, adaptation might also be an explanation for what economists refer to as Easterlin’s paradox or the fact that money can’t buy you happiness beyond a point. The paradox is named after an economist called Richard A. Easterlin, who, as Angner writes, noted that “within a society, at a given point in time, the rich were decidedly happier than the poor”.

Nonetheless, “when a society became richer over time, even in periods of explosive economic growth, the happiness score of that society as a whole barely budged – or at least didn’t rise as much as one might have expected.” So, my and Angner’s story at an individual level plays out at a societal level as well, once there are enough people like us.

The question is, what’s the way out? As far as Brodsky is concerned, he recommends trying to stay passionate. “Passion, above all, is a remedy against boredom,” he writes.

He also recommends detective novels. As he writes: “You might also try detective novels or action movies – something that leaves you where you haven’t been verbally/visually/mentally before – something sustained, if only for a couple of hours.”

He further suggests avoiding TV, especially the flipping of channels. The modern-day version of this is mindlessly scrolling Instagram reels and YouTube shorts, something I am really addicted to these days.

As far as economists are concerned, they recommend pleasure over comfort. Now, dear reader, you might ask, what is really the difference between these two words? As Angner writes: “Pleasure is possibly a fleeting, enjoyable feeling that we pursue for its own sake. Comfort, by contrast, is a matter of avoiding pain, unpleasantness, and discomfort.”

Or, to put it simply, buy experiences, not things. “Pleasures are always enjoyable. Comforts may be enjoyable for a while, but often not for long.”

The comfort you get from buying that rather expensive mobile phone will only be fleeting. Instead, take holidays using that same money. The pleasure of that will last longer simply because experiences help build memories that we can fall back upon. This is a great example of the law of diminishing maringal utility. The rate of diminishment, for the lack of a better term, is higher in case of comfort than it is in case of pleasure.

In a simple way, this means that one needs to have interests and hobbies over and above what one does for a living. This will help build experiences and memories. At least, that’s the logic in theory.

But then this provides no solutions for people like us, whose interests and what they do to make a living are intermingled. What happens, then? Where economists fail, poets come in.

As Brodsky puts it: “Yet should those remedies fail, let it in, ‘fling your soul upon the growing gloom’. Try to embrace, or let yourself be embraced by boredom and anguish, which anyhow are larger than you…Try to endure it as long as you can, and then some more… This awful bear hug is no mistake… Remember all along that there is no embrace in this world that won’t finally unclasp.”

In other words, there’s very little hope. And given that, let me just go ahead and buy that book of interviews featuring Brodsky, which I have been eyeing for the past few days.


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Written by Vivek Kaul. Edited by Saikat Chatterjee. Produced by Nirmalya Dutta. Send in your feedback to

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