The Human Condition:

Boredom – May 1, 2022

Grinning dog

I was making my dog’s breakfast the other morning—and yes, she eats twice a day, morning and evening, same meal—and noted that after all these years, she’s still excited about it. She noses the bag of kibble and jumps up on her hind legs as I take out the can of soft food to put on top of the kibble. Always the same eagerness to get what is exactly the same meal she has been eating, morning and evening, for the past seven years. Maybe it’s hunger pangs, but she gets fed regularly enough that she shouldn’t be bothered by them. It’s just that, with the same meal twice a day, you think she would get bored with it, become picky, sometimes turn her nose up.

And she’s still excited to go out for her walks every day, the same dancing and tail wagging, the same pulling on the leash. We walk four, sometimes five, times each day, almost always the same route, always the same smells from other dogs in the condo complex. The excitement may have something to do with relief of her biological processes, but she doesn’t always let go as soon as she reaches open ground. So it’s not just urgency of bladder and bowel. She is actually excited to be seeing the wide world, again, and again, and again.

Why doesn’t a dog get bored with its existence? How does it keep enthusiasm for the same routine, day in and day out, that would drive a human being to distraction? I think the answer is that the dog has no—or very limited—imagination. It cannot think of something different that it would like to do. In its existential being, a dog is experiencing everything—short of pain and maltreatment—as the way things should be, the good life, oh boy!

My belief is that dogs and other animals have brains, sensations, understanding, and emotions not unlike us humans. What they lack is an essential sense of self. They do not have the capacity to see themselves in what they do and feel.1 They can certainly register a pain such as hunger, or a pleasure like the effects of being talked to and stroked. They feel loss when separated from their pack members—in this case, me when I leave the apartment—or other social structure. But they don’t have the introspection to place themselves in an existential situation (“Now I am alone”) or the imagination to create an alternate reality which they might emotionally inhabit (“I wish my master, guardian, pack leader were here to comfort me”).

To become bored with your current existence requires that you have the introspection to perceive it as something separate from your immediate feelings and the imagination to create an alternate existence, however fanciful, that you might actually occupy—or simply think is possible.

To be bored with your breakfast, you have to imagine eating something else that you’d like better. To be bored with your daily walk, you have to imagine someplace else you’d like to go. All this raises the interesting question of whether the dog would become bored with her breakfast if I fed her a varied diet, sometimes kibble and canned soft food—although I do vary the labeled flavors and consistencies of both when I shop for her—sometimes a bowl of my own daily oatmeal with milk, or a cut-up steak, or anything else that would not harm her? And note that bits of human food fed by hand or licked out of a used bowl have great “status” with dogs, indicating that they are being treated more like one of the family. So then, would she yawn and turn away from the kibble and soft food, knowing that she might—in her early morning imagination—get something better?

Would she become bored with the same walk around the property and around the block if sometimes we stepped out of the door to drive to the park, sometimes went to the woods or the beach, where there were new and exciting smells? Dogs love to find a dead seagull because of, you know, the opportunity to roll in it.

I don’t know, but I doubt it. I occasionally give her hand-fed bits of nuts, potato chips, and popcorn, or let her lick my cereal bowl. So she has altered foods in her memory, but she’s still excited by the old kibble-and-canned. And she knows about going to the park and still pulls on her leash to walk out back among the familiar smells.

Dogs do still get bored. When I am at my computer, the dog settles down on a cushion under the desk. When I have to go out, she retreats to the bed or to a sunny patch just inside the window. And there she sleeps or at least shuts her eyes and pretends to sleep. I know that I am boring the dog because she is not getting enough stimulating company to do anything else but sleep. But there again, she doesn’t fret, pace, and grumble about my not paying enough attention to her. She doesn’t come out from under the desk or out of the bedrooms until her biological clock says it’s time for the afternoon walk and feed. And if I get up from work for something, she often—but not always—follows me to see if there’s something interesting to do. But I doubt she has much idea about what that might be.

A dog’s life might look to a human like an extended prison stay, with the same slop served morning and evening, limited bathroom breaks, and not much to do for the rest of the day until the warden says it’s time for exercise. But the dog seems happy enough and leaps at the chance.

1. This apparently is not true for all animals. Dolphins, certain whales, perhaps most primates, and possibly elephants appear to have a sense of themselves. They can recognize themselves in a mirror, whereas a dog or cat on encountering a mirror—if it notices the reflective capability at all—will think it’s seeing another dog or cat and react accordingly. But put a mirror in a dolphin’s pool, then strap a funny hat on the dolphin’s head, and it will immediately go to the mirror to see what you have done. It knows that what it is seeing in the mirror relates to itself, and so it has a self-image and perception of itself as a separate and distinct being.