Ennui (pronounced on-wee) is a type of chronic boredom, which generally involves weariness, dissatisfaction, and apathy, as well as the tendency to feel that everything is uninteresting and unfulfilling. People can experience either a general sense of ennui in their life, or they can experience it in relation to a specific domain, such as their work, their studies, or their hobbies.
For example, someone could experience ennui when it comes to a hobby that they previously enjoyed, which might mean that they’re bored with it and feel as if there’s no point in doing it at all.
Ennui is a problematic mental state, so it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about ennui, and understand what you can do in order to overcome it successfully.
Examples of ennui
One monotonous day follows another
identically monotonous. The same things
will happen to us again and again —
the same moments come and go.
A month passes by, brings another month.
Easy to guess what lies ahead;
all of yesterday’s boredom.
And tomorrow ends up no longer like tomorrow.
— “Monotony” by C. P. Cavafy
A simple example of ennui is someone feeling utterly bored and dissatisfied with life, and as if nothing that they do is interesting or meaningful.
In addition, the following is an example of a description of ennui, provided by a scholar who is discussing what ennui is and how it affects people:
“In the state of ennui the world is emptied of its significance. Everything is seen as if filtered through a screen; what is filtered out and lost is precisely the element that gives meaning to existence. Music is no longer an aesthetic world of sound, but a series of notes. Instead of a painting, one sees only a conglomeration of meaningless colors on a canvas; a book becomes a series of words, one strung after the other. It is a sensation very similar to that of watching a television program with the sound turned off…
…we can tentatively define ennui as the state of emptiness that the soul feels when it is deprived of interest in action, life, and the world (be it this world or another), a condition that is the immediate consequence of the encounter with nothingness, and has as an immediate effect a disaffection with reality.”
— From “The Demon of Noontide: Ennui in Western Literature” By Reinhard Clifford Kuhn (2017)
Finally, the following are examples of ‘ennui’ being used in a sentence, in a way that could give you a further sense of what this term means:
- “They all felt overwhelming ennui as a result of having unlimited free time and nothing worthwhile to do with it.”
- “Though he was initially filled with idealism as he took up the job, years of monotony and an inability to change anything left him with nothing more than a powerful sense of ennui.”
- “The queen, having been able to indulge every impulse for years, slowly felt overcome by a deep sense of ennui, as nothing seemed to interest her anymore.”
How to tell if you have ennui
In general, you can tell that you have ennui if you’re always or almost always bored, either in general or in certain major parts of your life such as your job or your hobbies, and if you feel this boredom on a deep, existential level, in a way that is difficult to resolve.
However, if you’re still unsure whether you have ennui or not, then read through through the following list, which contains the patterns that are characteristic of ennui, and ask yourself how well they fit you:
- You feel disinterested toward most things, including toward those that you used to find interesting.
- You feel that your routine is dull and monotonous.
- You experience few or no highlights in your life as time passes.
- You lack enthusiasm or excitement.
- You derive no pleasure or joy from what you do, including when it comes to things that you used to find enjoyable.
- You feel that the things that you do aren’t meaningful or fulfilling.
- You feel dissatisfied with your life in general, or with certain major parts of your life, such as your work, your studies, or your hobbies.
- You don’t care how the future will turn out.
- You feel unmotivated and as if you have no drive to do anything.
- You feel physically or mentally exhausted (or both), and constantly lack energy.
The more of these describe patterns you, and the better they do so, the more likely it is that you’re suffering from ennui, and the more serious your ennui is.
However, keep in mind that you might be suffering from ennui even if not all of these patterns are characteristics of you. This is particularly likely if your ennui occurs in a specific domain, such as your work, but not in your life as a whole.
Furthermore, keep in mind that even if you only suffer from a small number of these issues, this can still have serious negative consequences in terms of how you feel and how you act.
Note: there are currently no formal, clinical criteria that are used to diagnose ennui, since there is no formal definition for the concept. As such, the criteria listed here are based on the main features that are generally used to characterize ennui, and should not be taken as formal scientific guidelines.
Ennui and depression
Though ennui and depression share many symptoms and can co-occur, these are two separate phenomena.
This means that it’s possible for someone to suffer from ennui but not depression, as in the case of someone who experiences existential boredom and a deep desire for change when it comes to their job, but who is not otherwise depressed. Similarly, this also means that it’s possible for someone to suffer from depression but not ennui, as in the case of someone who experiences deep chronic sadness and lack of energy, but not the existential boredom that characterizes ennui.
In addition, when considering these phenomena, it’s important to note that depression is well defined from a clinical perspective, and is therefore a commonly used medical term, whereas ennui isn’t, and shouldn’t be viewed as such.
Nevertheless, understanding the concept of ennui can be beneficial, because it represents a different mental state than depression, as shown above. Accordingly, some people will feel that the concept of ennui better captures how they feel, which in turn can help them better understand and resolve this issue.
Ennui and boredom
“Boredom was not (is not) the same as ennui… Ennui implies a judgment of the universe; boredom, a response to the immediate”.
— From “Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind” by Patricia Meyer Spacks (1995)
The terms ‘ennui’ and ‘boredom’ are often used interchangeably. However, various distinctions have been drawn between these two terms, and in general, the main difference between boredom and ennui is that ‘boredom’ refers to a mental state that is short-tern and driven primarily by situational and environmental factors, while ‘ennui’ refers to a mental state that is chronic and driven primarily by dispositional (personality-based) factors.
Furthermore, ennui is often existential in nature, meaning that it involves strong internal doubts about one’s purpose and actions, either in general or when it comes to a specific but major domain in one’s life. Ennui is also generally viewed as a phenomenon that involves feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness, and that causes the person who experiences it to feel helpless and surrender tiredly to a state of indifference. Conversely, boredom is more active and irritable, more contained to a specific instance, and more likely to prompt the person experiencing it to take action in order to rid themself of it.
Accordingly, in some cases, ennui is referred to as habitual boredom or as chronic boredom, in contrast with situational boredom, though there are also cases where people refer to ennui as chronic ennui, either to draw attention to its chronic nature or to or draw a distinction between chronic and more temporary ennui. Furthermore, ennui is sometimes seen as containing existential boredom together with more conventional types of boredom.
Overall, there are two main phenomena that the term ‘ennui’ is used to refer to. The first is general chronic boredom, while the other is a more specific type of chronic boredom, that is deeper and more existential than regular boredom. The first phenomenon captures the meaning of ennui as it’s often used by people in practice, while the second phenomenon captures the meaning of ennui that is more unique to this term in particular.
From a practical perspective, this distinction isn’t crucial. Rather, you can simply view ennui as a chronic type of boredom, that is often characterized by behaviors that aren’t necessarily associated with regular boredom, such as a sense of emptiness.
Note: boredom itself is a relatively heterogeneous phenomenon, and various types of boredom exist beyond the ones described above. For example, one study on the topic discusses two additional types of boredom: apathetic boredom, where the bored individual is unconcerned with their environment, and agitated boredom, where the bored individual attempts to engage in meaningful activities, although their attempts to do so fail to satisfy them.
How to deal with ennui (and chronic boredom)
“Of all emotional states, it is ennui that we find most unbearable, and, despite our natural repugnance for hardship, the most laborious tasks cease to repel us as soon as they become necessary to draw us out of ennui.
Yet there are three principal qualities that give those objects which possess them the power to occupy us with intense sentiments. These three qualities are grandeur, novelty, and diversity.”
— From “Traité du beau” by Jean-Pierre de Crousaz (1715), as quoted in “Boredom and Bedroom: The Suppression of the Habitual” (Teyssot & Seavitt, 1996)
There are various techniques that you can use to overcome your ennui in particular, and your chronic boredom in general. Different techniques will work better in different situations, based on your specific circumstances. As such, when deciding how to handle your ennui, you should try to figure out what causes you to experience it in the first place, in order to find the best technique for you to use.
The following are the main techniques that you can use to overcome ennui and chronic boredom:
- Think about what you really want to do. This is a crucial first step, because it can help you understand why you experience ennui in the first place, and what you should be doing to alleviate it, both with regard to your life in general or with regard to the specific part of your life in which you experience ennui, such as your job. When doing this, you can benefit from the use of various techniques that help you properly assess your goals. For example, you can use self-distancing techniques, such as asking yourself “what do you want to spend my time on?” instead of “what do I want to spend my time on?”. Similarly, you can use the principle of memento mori, and ask yourself “what do I want to do with the limited time that I have?”.
- Talk to someone. Talking to someone about your ennui, and asking them for input, can help you get a better perspective regarding why you experience ennui, and give you ideas for things that you can do to resolve it. Furthermore, talking about this can be a positive experience in itself, which can make you feel better.
- Change your routine. Often, changing your routine can help break away the monotony that causes you to experience ennui. There are many ways in which you can change your routine, including, for example, working in a different environment than usual, or walking to destinations that you frequent through different paths than usual.
- Try new things. You can help yourself break out of ennui by actively pursuing new experiences and accepting interesting opportunities when they’re offered to you. For example, this can involve trying out new hobbies or meeting new people. Remember that this is about trying new things as much as possible, so try to say “yes” to worthwhile things that you might normally say “no” to, even if you’re not sure whether you’ll like them or not. In this regard, a useful concept to be aware of is carpe diem, which is a Latin phrase that means “seize the day”. This concept encourages people to focus on the present, appreciate the value of every moment in life, and avoid postponing things unnecessarily, because every life eventually comes to an end. Accordingly, you can use it as a reminder to step out of your comfort zone and do things that you want to do, but keep postponing for no good reason.
- Go out of your way to interact with people. Interacting with people, through whichever medium you prefer, can be valuable in itself when it comes to making life feel more interesting, and can also lead you to new experiences that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Note that you can either try to interact with new people, or to have more frequent and meaningful interactions with people that you already know.
- Eliminate unnecessary things that promote your ennui. For example, if you keep binging TV shows because it’s the easiest course of action, and this increases your ennui, then find a way to cancel your access to those shows in order to push yourself to do something else with your time instead. This won’t be possible with regard to everything, such as your job, but there are generally at least some areas of life where it can be done.
- Make things that you have to do feel more exciting. For example, you can challenge yourself to complete otherwise boring tasks, such as cleaning the house, under a time limit and while listening to energizing music. This is particularly valuable when it comes to things that you can’t avoid, and that would otherwise increase your ennui.
- Adopt a mindfulness-based mindset. Mindfulness involves paying attention to the present moment as you’re experiencing it, and accepting it, together with any thoughts and emotions, without judgment. Trying to be more mindful as you pass through your day can help you avoid ennui in some cases, such as when it helps trivial actions feel more fulfilling than they would otherwise.
- Engage in journaling. This generally involves writing about your experiences so that you’re more aware of the little things that happen in your everyday life, and so that you have a good opportunity to reflect on your thoughts, emotions, and experiences. When doing this, try to focus primarily on the positive aspects of your life, and feel gratitude toward them.
- Rest and recharge. In some cases, you need to give yourself the proper opportunity to rest and recharge, both physically and mentally. This is particularly important if you feel that your ennui is occurring as a result of exhaustion or burnout.
Watch out for the dangers of ennui
Ennui can be inherently detrimental, since it represents a highly negative state of mind, which is why it should be avoided.
However, beyond this issue, ennui is also associated with various dangers, that are important to be aware of. For example, ennui can cause people to engage in dangerous, sensation-seeking behaviors, in an effort to alleviate their boredom. As such, if you suffer from ennui, you should keep this in mind, and be wary of situations where your thoughts or actions are driven by ennui, in a dangerous manner.
Furthermore, a notable problem with ennui is that some of the behaviors or states of mind that ennui leads to, such as inaction, fatigue, and isolation, are the very things that can cause a person to experience ennui more strongly.
Accordingly, ennui can lead to a negative, self-perpetuating downward cycle, where your ennui causes you to sink lower and lower, by driving you to a place where it feeds itself. It’s important to recognize cases where this is something that you experience, because it’s a warning sign that ennui is becoming a critical problem for you, and that you must find a way to address it.
Finally, note that ennui can occur as a result of or together with some associated conditions, such as depression.
It’s important to be aware of this possibility and recognize the fact that it might be an issue for you, so you can properly address those conditions where necessary. In addition, note that if these associated conditions are serious, as in the case, for example, of clinical depression, you should consider getting professional help, to increase your chances of overcoming them successfully.
Concepts related to ennui
There are many concepts, coming from a wide range of origins, that describe states of mind that are associated with ennui:
- Tedium, which is the state of being bored or weary as a result of finding something tedious, meaning that it’s dull, slow, repetitive, or monotonous.
- Anhedonia, which is a state characterized primarily by the inability to feel pleasure, particularly when it comes to normally pleasurable activities.
- Lassitude, which is a state of weariness that is characterized by a lack of physical or mental energy.
- Doldrums, which is a state of lacking energy or of being in low spirits.
- Languor, which is a state of weariness of the body or mind, or a state of inactivity, though it can sometimes have the positive connotation of feeling pleasantly relaxed.
- Acedia, which is a state of lacking mental energy and showing apathy in terms of having no interest in anything.
- Melancholy, which is a state of great sadness or depression, and especially one that is thoughtful or introspective in its nature.
- Weltschmerz, which is a feeling of depression that is directed at the state of the world, especially as it compares to its ideal version.
- Frustration, which is is the state of feeling annoyed or upset, often as a result of failing to achieve something.
- Angst, which is a state involving deep anxiety, dread, or unhappiness, either in general or in regard to something specific, such as one’s personal problems or the state of the world.
People sometimes use ‘ennui’ synonymously with some of these terms, such as ‘tedium’ and ‘lassitude’, as well as with other terms, such as ‘listlessness’, ‘restlessness’, and most notably ‘boredom’.
Note: other terms from various languages, such as Langweile and spleen, are also sometimes discussed in conjunction with the concept ‘ennui’ and its history.
The etymology of ennui
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘ennui’ in English is derived from the French word ‘ennui’, which means ‘boredom’. The word ‘ennui’ in French is itself derived from ‘enui’ in Old French, which means ‘suffering’ or ‘annoyance’. This word, in turn, comes from ‘in odio’ in Latin (which later developed into ‘inodio’), which means ‘hatred, ‘dislike’, or ‘annoyance’, and which comes from the phrase ‘est mihi in odio’, which means ‘it is to me hateful’.
From an etymological perspective, a related English word is ‘annoy’, which comes from the French word ‘ennuyer’, which means ‘to annoy’ or ‘to bore’. The word ‘ennuyer’ in French itself comes from the Old French word ‘enuier’, which has a similar meaning. This word, in turn, comes from ‘inodiare’, which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is a Late Latin word meaning ‘to make loathsome’.
In addition, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearances of the term ‘ennui’ in English writing, using the same sense in which it is used today, appeared in a 1758 text by Philip Dormer Stanhope, which was published in 1932 in “The letters of Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl of Chesterfield”, where it’s stated that:
“In less than a month, the man, used to business, found that living like a gentleman was dying of ennui.”
However, as the Oxford English Dictionary shows, the term ‘ennui’ was also used English writing earlier than that, though these earlier uses are not viewed as fully naturalized uses of the term, meaning that the term was not considered to be a part of the English language at that stage.
Specifically, the term ‘ennui’ appeared in this manner in a 1732 text by George Berkeley, titled “Alciphron; or, The minute philosopher”, where the author states that:
“They shou’d prefer doing any thing to the ennui of their own conversation.”
Furthermore, it was also found even earlier than that, in a 1667 text by John Evelyn, which was published in the “Diary and correspondence of John Evelyn” in 1857, where the author states that:
“We have hardly any words that do..fully express the French naivete, ennui, bizarre, etc.”
In addition, note that while ‘ennui’ is generally used to refer to a certain feeling, it can also be used in other, similar senses.
Specifically, ‘ennui’ can be used in a personified sense, with the earliest recorded case of this, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, being a text by Catherine Macaulay Graham, titled “Letters on education: with observations on religious and metaphysical subjects” and published in 1790, where the author writes that:
“It would entirely subdue the dæmon Ennui.”
Furthermore, ‘ennui’ can also be used in a concrete sense, where it generally refers to a cause of ennui, with the earliest recorded case of this being the 1849 text “Shirley”, by Charlotte Brontë titled, who wrote that:
“Every stitch she put in was an ennui.”
Finally, ‘ennui’ can also be used as a transitive verb, with the earliest recorded case of this being a text by Sydney Smith, written circa 1805 and published on 1850, titled “Elementary sketches of moral philosophy”, where the author writes that:
“They [animals] rejoice, play, are ennuied as we are.”
In terms of pronunciation, the Oxford English Dictionary notes that “so far as frequency of use is concerned, the word might be regarded as fully naturalized; but the pronunciation has not been anglicized, there being in fact no English analogy which could serve as a guide”.
Note: though there is a consensus regarding the general etymology of the word ‘ennui’, there are disagreements regarding some minor aspects of its history. For example, unlike the Oxford English Dictionary, the Merriam Webster dictionary lists ‘1732’ as the year where the term was first used in English.
Summary and conclusions
- Ennui (pronounced on-wee) is a type of chronic boredom, which generally involves weariness, dissatisfaction, and apathy, as well as the tendency to feel that everything is uninteresting and unfulfilling.
- People can experience either a general sense of ennui in their life, or they can experience it in relation to a specific domain, such as their work, their studies, or their hobbies.
- Signs that you’re suffering from ennui include being bored, feeling that your routine is dull and monotonous, lacking enthusiasm or excitement, feeling that what you do isn’t meaningful or fulfilling, feeling dissatisfied, not caring about the future, feeling unmotivated, and being physically or mentally exhausted (or both).
- To overcome ennui, you can use various techniques, such as talking to someone and asking for their input, changing your routine, trying new things, eliminating unnecessary things that promote your ennui, making things that you have to do feel more exciting, and making sure that you have a proper opportunity to rest and recharge.
- Different techniques for dealing with ennui will work better in different situations, so you should try to first figure out what bothers you about your particular circumstances, in order to find the best technique for you to use.