The psychology of boredom
In adulthood, boredom can signal a lack of meaning in your life. But we show you how that frustrating feeling can be used to spark creativity and act as a catalyst for growth and change.
Who has had this experience? Wandering into the kitchen, starting to do the dishes, leaving them and wandering into the lounge, flicking through the TV channels without finding anything engaging, sighing, thinking about what to do, then discounting everything that pops into your mind because you don’t feel like it and flopping onto the couch. You are bored. So what?
Most of us dismiss boredom as unimportant, but boredom has a critical message for us, which says we’re perceiving the current situation as devoid of meaning. Many psychologists would argue that addressing boredom is a skill we can learn.
Research into boredom is fairly new compared to other ‘negative’ emotions, possibly due to the fact that it is seen to be a low-arousal state that is not particularly disruptive (as opposed to say anger problems that have more substantial individual and societal consequences).
ARE YOU PRONE TO BOREDOM?
Researchers have broken the concept up into state boredom, a transient emotion with which many of us can identify, and trait boredom, known as boredom proneness – a personality characteristic.
According to a 2010 study published in the journal Learning and Individual Differences, state boredom has many components including an unpleasant feeling; thinking changes (lack of interest, decreased concentration, time seems to slow down); body changes (tiredness takes over); facial changes (you look bored and your body language tends to slouch); and behavioural changes (you become motivated to change the activity, or leave the situation that is boring you).
However, if you’re often prone to boredom you might agree with statements like: “It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy” and “It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people”.
WHAT DOES BOREDOM MEAN?
These statements come from the boredom proneness scale developed in 1986. This may not sound important, but boredom-prone people tend to feature highly in statistics for serious mental health problems: depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, as well as showing more hostility, anger, and poor social skills than those not boredom prone.
Boredom’s central message that situations we find boring need more meaning has been found across different areas: work, relationships and life.
Boredom has been studied in the workplace and was originally thought to be caused by monotonous tasks. However, a 2009 study from the International Journal of Management Reviews found that while regular monotony is associated with boredom, there are other elements that also contribute to how the tasks in a job are interpreted.
Work may not be seen as boring, for example, if the social environment at work is one where individuals can talk to one another about the job, maybe using humour to deflect some of the more difficult aspects.
Similarly, if work can have some personal meaning or meet the larger goals of the person, it is also less likely to be perceived negatively. So it’s not solely the external situation that impacts feeling bored, but the thoughts, values and meaning made from it, too.
A study in November 2010 reported in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that when people are bored in relationships, they tend to focus on a lack of novelty and stimulation in their environment rather than blame their partner for being boring. It is not just repeating the same routine that contributes to boredom, but rather when the quality of time spent together reduces, and there is less meaning in the relationship, people are more likely to get bored.
In the study mentioned above, people reported trying to find new and stimulating things to do together. Various evidence shows that this is an effective strategy to inject life into relationships again, particularly if you choose high-energy activities. Talking to their partner was also a well-used and effective strategy.
People who were in long-term relationships tended to turn their attention towards self-focused pleasurable activities so they weren’t just relying on their partner to improve the relationship. This too has empirical support from relationship researchers, who argue that expanding the self is likely to benefit the relationship.
If you are bored with life in general you could be said to have existential boredom. A study reported in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 2009 investigated whether a lack of life meaning causes boredom and concluded that there indeed seemed to be a relationship between the two, but the evidence so far is insufficient to find that one causes another.
The authors of the study point out that because boredom is often seen as trivial it does not get the attention that anxiety and depression do, and yet it can have a considerable impact on people’s quality of life, and is thus worthy of intervention.
THE UPSIDE OF BOREDOM
The benefits of boredom have received far less printing space in psychological literature than the disadvantages. However, there is some thought that learning and creativity are born out of boredom. From this perspective, boredom can be taken as a prompt to get you refocused on what matters. Distraction from boredom is less likely to satisfy our inner cravings than spending time figuring out how to sort things out and create new ideas. So what practical hints can we take from the messages of boredom?
It can be worth taking the perspective of a scientist or detective, approaching each situation with curiosity, as if you were from another planet. What do you notice about the situation? Dr Alex Lickerman, an author on the magazine Psychology Today, suggests asking yourself three questions:
1. How can my current circumstances help me develop myself?
2. How can my current circumstances help me contribute to the happiness of someone else?
3. How would the wisest person on earth look at my current circumstances and what would he/she do?
The final suggestion comes from The Miracle of Mindfulness (Beacon Press, 1999) by Thich Nhat Hanh. The idea is to place the word ‘meditation’ after the activity you find boring, and focus only on the activity. Doing the dishes then becomes ‘doing the dishes meditation’ where you will notice the textures of the dishes and the temperature of the water, as well as the movements of your body. In other words, you transform boredom into something meaningful.