Emotional Depth, Ambivalence, and Affective Propulsion

Francisco Gallegos

Wake Forest University, NC, USA

Gallegos, Francisco. 2022. “Emotional Depth, Ambivalence, and Affective Propulsion.” Journal of Philosophy of Emotion 3, no. 2: 35-43.

Abstract: Unpleasant emotions can be strongly “propulsive,” spurring us to make changes to our situation, perspective, values, and commitments. These changes are often positive, even crucial to our pursuit of the good life. But under what conditions are unpleasant emotions strongly propulsive? I argue that the source of affective propulsion should not be located in the mere unpleasantness of a given emotion, but, rather, in the emotional context in which the emotion arises. Drawing on Martin Heidegger’s comparative analysis of “shallow” and “deep” boredom, I claim that the propulsive quality of an emotion arises not from its intrinsic properties but from the ambivalence generated when two affective states simultaneously influence our sense-making activity in opposing ways.

Keywords: mood, emotional depth, ambivalence, affective propulsion, Heidegger

Let the term “affective propulsion” refer to the change-inducing quality of an affective state. An emotion is strongly propulsive if it brings about a great deal of change in a person’s thoughts, perceptions, feelings, and actions—not merely while experiencing that emotion, but also afterward and in response to it. Unpleasant emotions can be strongly propulsive by spurring us to: (i) make positive changes to our situation, (ii) adaptively alter our perspective on our situation, and/or (iii) clarify our values and commitments. In these ways, unpleasant emotions can contribute positively to our lives, despite being unpleasant. In his book, Propelled: How Boredom, Frustration, and Anticipation Lead us to the Good Life, Andreas Elpidorou (2020) defends the value of boredom and frustration on just these grounds, writing that because these emotions are so effective in “[helping] us become unstuck when we become stuck” (68), boredom and frustration play an important and underappreciated role in our pursuit of the good life.

Yet as Elpidorou acknowledges, there are many cases in which boredom and frustration are not strongly propulsive but instead undermine a person’s motivation and ability to alter either their situation or their

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perspective. In such cases, we get stuck, even trapped, in boredom and frustration. This is puzzling. Why are boredom and frustration sometimes quite strongly propulsive and other times only weakly propulsive? Although Elpidorou’s text offers many relevant insights, it ultimately leaves open this important question.

To continue investigating the conditions of the possibility of affective propulsion, I turn to Heidegger’s discussion of boredom in his 1929-1930 lecture course, The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude (hereafter, FCM). In this text, Heidegger compares three kinds of boredom, each of which shares a similar structure but functions at a different level of “emotional depth.”[1] As we will see, Heidegger claims that the deepest kind of boredom, which we can call “deep boredom,” is devoid of the unpleasant tension and sense of impatience that is characteristic of “everyday boredom,” and as such, deep boredom is weakly propulsive.

Heidegger’s description of deep boredom raises an interesting question: What is it, exactly, that makes boredom unpleasant? Although we might assume that distress is simply inherent to boredom as such, Heidegger’s analysis suggests that both the unpleasantness of boredom and its propulsive quality are made possible by certain aspects of the emotional context in which an experience of boredom is located. In particular, I argue that Heidegger’s analysis gives us reason to think that an affective state that is relatively “deep” can diminish the propulsive quality of an emotion that would otherwise be strongly propulsive, particularly when those subsumed within the deeper affective state’s “interpretive framework.” This suggests that the propulsive quality of an emotion arises not from its intrinsic properties but from the ambivalence generated when two affective states simultaneously influence our sense-making activity in opposing ways.


In Heidegger’s central example of everyday boredom, he describes the experience of becoming bored while waiting for a train:

We are sitting…in the tasteless station of some lonely minor railway. It is four hours until the next train arrives. The district is uninspiring. We do have a book in our rucksack, though—shall we read? No. Or think through a problem, some question? We are unable to. We read the timetables or study the table giving the various distances from this station to other places we are not otherwise acquainted with at all. We look at the clock—only a quarter of an hour has gone by. Then we go out onto the local road. We walk up and down, just to have something to do. But it is no use. Then we count the trees along the road, look at our watch again—exactly five minutes since we last looked at it. Fed up with walking back and forth, we sit down on a stone, draw all kinds of figures in the sand, and in so doing catch ourselves looking at our watch again—half an hour—and so on. (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 93)

I will highlight two aspects of the experience of boredom in this case—first, the way boredom alters how we interpret the things we encounter, or how things “show up” to us when we are bored, and second, the unpleasantly impatient feeling that suffuses the experience—and then investigate the relationship between these two aspects.

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With regard to the first aspect of boredom, i.e., the way it functions as an interpretive framework, Heidegger’s description of everyday boredom nicely illustrates the analysis given elsewhere by Elpidorou regarding the peculiar way boredom reveals the world.

In a state of boredom, the world is revealed to oneself in a particular and indeed striking fashion . . . . The world appears not only to be uninteresting, but also distant, foreign, and often unyielding. Boredom contributes to a loss of value, significance, or meaning. The world of boredom is, in a sense, not our world: it is not the world that is in line with our projects and desires. Our current situation does not attract us; we do not feel compelled to engage with it. (Elpidorou 2014, 1247)

This aspect of boredom is what is primarily responsible for the sense in which boredom can be difficult to escape. As Heidegger’s example illustrates, when we experience the world from within the interpretive framework associated with boredom, our boredom can become atmospheric and corrosive. The quality of boringness seems to spread to every object or event we encounter, thus undermining the possibility of finding relief even in things that would otherwise be interesting and important to us.

However, according to Elpidorou, the second aspect of the experience of boredom, i.e., its unpleasantness, propels us to find a way out from under the cloud of boredom:

Crucially, however, boredom is not a state of equilibrium. We are not content in it. We feel restless and wish to be doing something else. We desire escape from boredom. In turn, while bored it is difficult for us to focus our attention on features of the present situation. Our mind wanders and alternative goals and situations suddenly become salient to us. If boredom is likened to an emotional trap, it is a trap that due to its own character fortunately “pushes” us to escape from it (Elpidorou 2014, 1247-48).

Again, Heidegger’s analysis of everyday boredom illustrates Elpidorou’s (2020, 59) claim that boredom “can get us out of our chair” precisely because it is “unpleasant, and it’s natural to seek escape from it.” In Heidegger’s example, boredom prompts the person waiting for the train to move around and do things that they otherwise may not have done, such as explore their environment and try out various activities that might interest them. Moreover, Heidegger (1995, 96-97) says that what makes boredom so propulsive in this case is the desire to escape the unpleasant sense that time is “dragging,” prompting us to do everything in our power to “fight against” the slowing of time, even “confronting” it directly with efforts to “pass the time.”

What, then, is the relationship between these two aspects of boredom? Is the unpleasantness of boredom generated somehow from the way that boredom functions as an interpretive framework? Or is the unpleasantness of boredom simply a primitive bodily feeling that has no particular relationship to the more conceptually rich interpretive processes that also happen to be activated when we are bored? These questions ask about why boredom is so unpleasant, and why we desire so badly to escape it when it arises. This inquiry may seem obtuse if we simply assume that boredom is inherently or necessarily unpleasant. But on reflection, it is not at all obvious why boredom is so unpleasant. After all, in Heidegger’s example, the person waiting for the train is not being threatened, betrayed, or violated—so why does boredom feel so painful that it becomes strongly propulsive?

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In my view, understanding these issues requires us to clarify the concept of “emotional depth” and its relationship to affective propulsion. To see why emotional depth is relevant here, consider Heidegger’s description of a case of “deep boredom” in FCM. In this case, deep boredom emerges suddenly and for no obvious reason as a person walks through the streets of a large city. When this occurs, a profound change takes place in the person’s experience, as an entire category of evaluative properties suddenly disappears from their experience—namely, those evaluative properties that depend on one’s sense of being a unique individual with distinctive commitments and concerns, for whom things matter in a personalized way. Because deep boredom completely eradicates one’s personally meaningful relationships to things in this way, Heidegger describes the experience with the impersonal phrase, “it is boring for one”:

It is boring for one. What is this ‘it’? The ‘it’ that we mean whenever we say that it is thundering and lightening, that it is raining. It—this is the title for whatever is indeterminate, unfamiliar. . . . It is boring for one. It—for one—not for me as me, not for you as you, not for us as us, but for one. Name, standing, vocation, role, age and fate as mine and yours disappear. . . here we become an undifferentiated no one. (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 135).

Thus, when we experience deep boredom, we can no longer make sense of how the things around us are relevant to the personally meaningful projects that normally allow us to become absorbedly engaged in activities. We become like tourists who are killing time in a foreign city before our flight back home—with no business in any of the shops, nowhere we need to go, no reason to do any particular thing rather than another, and so able to do nothing more than watch the lives of the people who live there unfold from a detached distance.

Heidegger argues that the indifference of deep boredom cannot be explained in terms of the contents of mental states. Deep boredom does not involve an evaluation of each particular object we encounter as being boring; after all, such an evaluation would require an implicit comparison to the possibility of something not being personally indifferent to us, whereas deep boredom entirely removes this sort of possibility from our experiential world. As Heidegger puts it: “This indifference of things and of ourselves with them is not the result of a sum total of evaluations; rather each and every thing at once becomes indifferent . . . Entities have—as we say—become indifferent as a whole” (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 138). In deep boredom, he continues,

[W]e are not merely relieved of our everyday personality, somehow distant or alien to it, but simultaneously also elevated beyond the particular situation. . . . The whole situation and we ourselves as this individual subject are thereby indifferent, indeed this boredom does not even let it get to the point where such things are of any particular worth to us. Instead it makes everything of equally great and equally little worth. (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 138).

Crucially, then, Heidegger claims that deep boredom does not feel boring, because we cannot miss or yearn for what is no longer even intelligible to us. In contrast to the everyday mood of boredom, where time seems to grate and grind against us as it drags along, prompting us to do something to escape from it, in deep boredom all of this painful dissonance is absent. As Heidegger puts it, “in this ‘it is boring for one,’ we no longer attain this

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evasion in the face of boredom. Passing the time is missing in this boredom,” and indeed, not merely missing but “no longer permitted by us at all” (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 135-36). By making an entire class of meaning unintelligible to us, we experience “a free-floating, unimpeded boredom” (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 111).

Deep boredom is thus less painful than everyday boredom, precisely because it is also more “overpowering”; by the time it takes hold of us, it has affected the very structure of our world, a dimension “over which the individual person, the public individual subject, no longer has any power” (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 136). As such, deep boredom is weakly propulsive to the extreme. Indeed, it is a totalizing world unto itself, one in which we can encounter, and even imagine, nothing dissonant or discontinuous with the boredom that pervades it and so can find no motivation to do anything to escape from it.[2]

Elpidorou (2020, 46) briefly discusses Heidegger’s description of deep boredom, saying that it reflects “a form of boredom that bears remarkable resemblance to boredom proneness.” In making this comparison, however, Elpidorou obscures the nature of emotional depth and its relationship to affective propulsion. Boredom proneness is defined as a condition in which one is, and is disposed to be, frequently bored in a wide array of situations (Elpidorou 2020, 44). But frequency is not identical to depth. In theory, at least, it would be possible to experience a single episode of deep boredom. Indeed, Heidegger claims that deep boredom can “irrupt . . . out of the blue” (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 135) and “can take hold of us in an instant like a flash of lightning” (Heidegger [1962] 1995, 148).

The concept of emotional depth has been discussed by a number of philosophers (e.g., Cataldi 1993, Monteleone 2018, and Mendonça 2019). However, the account I find most compelling, and which best fits the cases of boredom described by Heidegger, is offered by Matthew Ratcliffe (2010) in the context of his efforts to shed light on the experience of psychiatric conditions such as major depression. As Ratcliffe notes, it is common for people suffering from major depression to use the language of emotional depth to describe their experiences, often describing themselves as experiencing a “deep” or even “bottomless” sense of sadness, despair, guilt, and shame. Ratcliffe argues we can understand emotional depth as follows:

Deeper emotions shape the kinds of significance we are receptive to. They are pre-intentional, by which I mean that they determine what kinds of intentional state it is possible to have. A deep emotion could be presupposed by the possibility of a given type of intentional emotion or, alternatively, render it impossible. (Ratcliffe 2010, 604)

For example, Ratcliffe says, major depression often leads to the inability to find happiness in anything, not in the sense of “no longer being happy about p, q and r, but of gradually losing the sense that anything in the world might offer happiness” (Ratcliffe 2010, 609). The comparison between normal guilt and deep guilt is instructive: “When you feel guilty about something, you can still contemplate feeling otherwise, and you do not feel guilty about plenty of other things. But, in the case of deep guilt, no alternatives to guilt present themselves” (Ratcliffe 2010, 614).

Ratcliffe’s phenomenological account of emotional depth thus centers on the way deep emotions function as an interpretive framework and thereby alter what is intelligible to a person. For example, he argues, “deep guilt is a shape that constrains the scope of all possible experience. Everything is experienced through the guilt, and the

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kinds of emotion that are incompatible with guilt are no longer possible” (Ratcliffe 2010, 613). Ratcliffe emphasizes that the kind of “impossibility” that is involved here should be understood in terms of a change in what sorts of states are intelligible: “a token deep emotion rules out a type of shallow emotion. And it does so by rendering it unintelligible rather than simply by conflicting with it” (Ratcliffe 2010, 605).

Ratcliffe’s conception of emotional depth captures the phenomenology of major depression, which is described as “hopeless” not merely because of what emotions one can and cannot feel, but because one can no longer even make sense of the possibility of being happy again in the future. And in the case of deep boredom described by Heidegger, Ratcliffe’s approach clarifies the way that deep boredom brings about a systematic change in one’s experiential world, operating at a “pre-intentional” level by altering in advance what objects are available to encounter, rather than merely altering how one reacts to objects. With this conception of emotional depth in hand, let us now return to the question of what makes boredom so unpleasant, and what accounts for its propulsive quality.


In my view, the above analysis gives us reason to think that affective propulsion is a function of emotional depth. The deeper an emotion—i.e., the more totalizing an emotion is as an interpretive frame—the less propulsive it will be. Why might this be the case? The answer, I suggest, is that the deeper an emotion is, the less ambivalence a person will be able to experience. In other words, deeper emotions undermine one’s ability to experience contrast, tension, and dissonance between the interpretive frames associated with various emotional states.

According to the view I am proposing, boredom will be most unpleasant, and most strongly propulsive, when it is relatively shallow and so does not totally dominate the way we make sense of the things we encounter. What makes such “shallow” or “normal” boredom unpleasant is the dissonance between the interpretive framework associated with our boredom and the other frameworks through which we are simultaneously experiencing the things and situations we are encountering. These other frameworks may be associated with other affective states that we are currently experiencing. In Heidegger’s example of being bored at the train station, for instance, boredom seems to compete with the person’s concurrent interest in the book they brought along, as well as with their curiosity about the various items in their vicinity. In such moments, I suggest, things show up as somehow both personally meaningful and personally meaningless. This is uncomfortable because it is disorienting. An interpretive frame is a practical orientation in which some small part of the vast and chaotic world is carved off as being what is at stake, here and now, thereby enabling us to direct our finite resources in an adaptive manner. When we simultaneously adopt multiple interpretive frames that pull us in opposing directions, this gives rise to the experience of toggling back and forth between practical orientations, or else persisting in a kind of incoherent double-vision. Insofar as we have a need and desire to be coherent agents who are well-oriented toward an ordered world, we will be strongly motivated to resolve such dissonance between interpretive frameworks. It is for this reason that relatively shallow boredom is often so strongly propulsive.

As boredom deepens, it has more sweeping effects on the way we make sense of things, and as a result, we experience fewer moments of contrast, tension, and dissonance between interpretive frameworks. Thus, the experience of boredom that operates at an “intermediate” depth is marked by several kinds of emotional

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disconnection.[3] For example, we may find that certain objects are “emotionally inaccessible” to us, in the sense that although we can perceptually register their evaluative properties, these qualities cannot seem to “reach” us, and we remain emotionally numb to them. Likewise, while we may form judgments such as “this is important to me,” such judgments fail to have any “normative grip,” and so they remain merely intellectual and do little to alter our emotional state. In such cases, boredom does not entirely eradicate the class of personally meaningful objects from our experiential world, but those objects that show up as personally meaningful will tend to be interpreted as being “out of place” or “too little, too late,” and more generally, as present but irrelevant to how things matter overall, here and now. Thus, in comparison with “shallow” boredom, boredom that operates at an intermediate depth will give rise to less interpretive dissonance, and what dissonance does arise will be less practically disorienting. And as we have seen, when boredom becomes maximally deep, one experiences no interpretive dissonance whatsoever, and although the absence of personally meaningful relationships to things leaves one with no practical orientation to speak of, the result is an experience of floating and being untethered rather than disoriented.

To summarize, I have argued that boredom is not inherently propulsive, but, rather, the propulsive quality of boredom is made possible by the emotional context in which an experience of boredom is located. In particular, boredom will be most propulsive in an emotional context that is marked by ambivalence, and especially by the disorienting dissonance between the interpretive frameworks of two incongruent affective states that are operating simultaneously.

By way of conclusion, let us briefly consider one possible implication of the view of affective propulsion I have offered as it relates to the emotional state of frustration. Elpidorou makes a compelling case that, like boredom, frustration is often strongly propulsive, and that the propulsive quality of frustration is valuable insofar as it can greatly accelerate a person’s attempts to extricate themselves from an unsatisfactory situation. A similar point is raised in a different context by Sara Ahmed (2017, ch. 8), who argues that members of oppressed social groups sometimes need to “snap,” in a sudden explosion of frustration, in order to make difficult but necessary changes to their situation.[4] Ahmed’s analysis suggests that such snapping occurs when painful injustices pile up until a person finally cannot take it any longer. However, if my analysis is correct, the depth of the frustration will play a crucial role in this story. If a person’s frustration deepens, it can come to function as an interpretive framework through which they make sense of everything they encounter, becoming a corrosive atmosphere of bitterness and resentment that makes everything seem ugly, unjust, pathetic, or petty. Such a mood can persist, and contrary to Elpidorou’s (2014, 1247-48) assurance that such an unpleasant affective state will not be “a state of equilibrium” because we are “not content in it,” the bitter and resentful outlook of deep frustration can become a new normal, familiar and habitual, if not entirely comfortable. My analysis suggests that in this case, suffering and witnessing additional injustices may be entirely expected as par for the course, and by thus failing to produce any dissonance or practical disorientation, the frustration such injustices elicit would fail to be strongly propulsive. Surprisingly, then, what would be needed to “snap” out of deep frustration, and snap into action, would be an encounter with something that is so profoundly hopeful, beautiful, or righteous, that it could give rise to an interpretive framework able to generate the ambivalence that is key to affective propulsion.

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[1] Heidegger (1995) calls these three kinds of boredom “becoming bored by something” (Gelangweiltwerden von etwas), “being bored with something” (Sichlangweilen bei etwas), and “profound boredom” (tiefe Langweile). I focus here on the first and third kinds, which I will refer to as “everyday boredom” and “deep boredom,” respectively.

[2] Other examples of deep emotional states can be found in Heidegger’s Being and Time. Read Gallegos 2017 for an argument that Heidegger’s (1962: sec. 29-30) discussion of “fear” should be understood as an analysis of “deep fear,” an emotional attunement that enables us to make sense of things as being threatening. Likewise, what Heidegger calls “anxiety” in this text also seems to function as a deep affective attunement that mediates our basic capacities to respond to a certain class of meaningful objects. In this way, anxiety refers to our basic capacity to be receptive to our responsibility to become authentic individuals. When anxiety emerges for the first time, and we are individuated from das Man, we experience an entirely new dimension of our world, as we suddenly become aware of the way the things we encounter relate to this class of meanings. For a related discussion of guilt along these lines, read Kukla 2002.

[3] For discussion of emotional disconnection and its relationship with mood, read Gallegos 2017.

[4] Along these lines, Ahmed (2017) writes: “Sometimes we have to struggle to snap bonds, including familial bonds, those that are damaging or at least compromising of a possibility that you are not ready to give up” (188). She continues: “Snapping at someone can also snap a bond to someone. Snapping might matter because a bond can be what gets in the way of living a life, perhaps living a feminist life” (193).

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  • Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • Cataldi, Sue. 1993. Emotion, Depth, and Flesh: A Study of Sensitive Space: Reflections on Merleau-Ponty's Philosophy of Embodiment. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

  • Elpidorou, Andreas. 2014. “The Bright Side of Boredom.” Frontiers in Psychology 5: 1245-1250. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01245.

  • _____. 2020. Propelled: How Boredom, Frustration, and Anticipation Lead Us to the Good Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

  • Heidegger, Martin. (1962) 1995. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York, NY: Harper and Row.

  • _____. 1995. The Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics: World, Finitude, Solitude. Translated by William McNeill and Nicholas Walker. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

  • Gallegos, Francisco. 2017. “Moods are Not Colored Lenses: Perceptualism and the Phenomenology of Moods.” Philosophia 45, no. 4: 1497-1513. DOI: 10.1007/s11406-017-9820-5

  • Kukla, Rebecca. 2002. “The Ontology and Temporality of Conscience.” Continental Philosophy Review 35, no. 1: 1-34.

  • Mendonça, Dina. 2019. “What a Difference Depth Makes.” Revista de Filosofia Aurora 31, no. 54: 671-694. DOI: 10.7213/1980-5934.31.054.DS01.

  • Monteleone, John M. 2018. “Emotional Depth.” The Philosophical Quarterly 68, no. 2: 779-800. DOI: 10.1093/pq/pqy014.

  • Ratcliffe, Matthew. 2010. “Depression, Guilt and Emotional Depth.” Inquiry 53, no. 6: 602-626. DOI: 10.1080/0020174x.2010.526324.

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