Boredom: A non-boring complete guide to this state or feeling
It’s becoming that point in the summer when school has been out for a couple weeks, you’ve binge-watched all of the TV shows you had planned for the summer, and now you’re starting to feel bored out of your mind, right? However, what is boredom and how does it play into psychology? How does it affect depression, creativity, and ADHD? What are treatments and tips to overcome it?
What is boredom?
Due to the lack of universal definition for boredom, research on the subject can be complicated. In positive psychology, it’s defined as a response to a slight challenge in which the person has more than enough skill. Mark Leary, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, defines boredom as “an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes”.
Cynthia Fished, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, thinks of it in terms of “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” Boredom is proven to be the second most suppressed emotion after anger.
“To be a bore”, a well-used expression in English used since the 1760s, means “to be tiresome or dull”. The word “boredom” itself means to be in the “state of being bored”. The root word and noun “bore” means to be a “thing which causes annoyance or ennui”. The noun comes from the verb “to bore” which came from Germanic roots and means “to move forward slowly, as a hole-boring tool does”. Essentially, its etymology came from the idea of drilling a hole in something.
The psychology of boredom
In psychology, boredom proneness is the tendency to experience all types of boredom- which there are three and all involve problems of attention and engagement. The first type is when we are prevented from engaging in an activity that we wanted to do. The second when we are forced to do an activity we didn’t want to do. The tired is when we are unable to maintain focus or engagement for no apparent reason. These types are assessed by the boredom proneness scale.
Research found that being prone to feeling bored is linked to depression and the symptoms of depression. It also found that being chronically bored is associated with attention failure. It has also been linked to problems socially, physically, and psychologically.
Causes of boredom
Everyone experiences boredom in a different way. Most often, it is due to:
- Lack of a variety of recreational interests. Just sitting in the office doesn’t really do it for our brains, which have been scientifically proven to have been designed for the environments in which we evolved- rapid, dangerous environments where we hunted for food
- Too much repetition of an activity
- Lack of choice over daily activities
- Loss of interest. One study shows that activities at school that are predictable are likely to lead to a student feeling bored.
- Inadequate rest or inadequate nutrition
- Fear of making a mistake
- Low levels of mental stimulation and understanding too well. If things are too simple, transparent, or easily understood, they can also seem boring.
- Lack of understanding. If one isn’t mentally connected to the activity they are doing, how could they have enjoyed doing it?
- Depression. Boredom is actually a symptom of clinical depression.
- A form of learned helplessness
- Drug abuse. Boredom has been found to be related to drug abuse among teens
- Pathological gambling. Another study theorized that pathological gambling stems from gamblers need for stimulation and avoidance of depressive and bored feelings.
Types of boredom
- Apathetic boredom (negative) is like reactant in the sense that it’s unpleasant, but people who feel apathetic don’t feel like getting out of their state of feeling bored- typically they experience a feeling of depression or helplessness. In the study that found the four original types of boredom, 36% of the high school students studied were found to experience apathetic boredom.
- Reactant boredom (negative) is unpleasant and when someone feels strongly about escaping their boring situation and avoid those who put them in it (like bosses, lecturers, and teachers). People show signs of aggression and feeling restless. Typically, people in reactant boredom think about “better things they could be doing”.
- Searching boredom is a more negative feeling that has some feelings of restlessness and a search for anything to do in order to get out of the feeling bored mindset. People who feel searching boredom tend to look for extra work, hobbies, and activities to do.
- Calibrating boredom (positive) is an emotional state that is a bit more unpleasant. It’s characterized by not knowing what to do, wandering thoughts, and being open to doing activities that have nothing to do with what the person is doing now. I.e. sitting on the couch eating potato chips and being open to going to the pool.
- Indifferent boredom (positive) is when a person is withdrawn but calm from their reality. Synonyms can include “cheerful fatigue” and “relaxation”.
One can measure their level of boredom on a two-dimensional scale from 1 (positive) to 5 (negative) in terms of emotion, and 1 (calm) to 5 (fidgety) in terms of degree of arousal. Write down two numbers that are a simplified fraction such as 2/1 (indifferent), 3/2 (calibrating), 3/3 (searching), 4/4 (reactant), and 4/1 (apathetic). Other scores fall between the different types of boredom.
Chronic boredom is feeling bored constantly. While there is no specific-scientific found cause for why some people are more prone to feeling bored than others, it has been found that chronic boredom happens more often with males and is associated with drug use and brain damage which suggests that chronic boredom arises from a hormonal or mechanical mechanism within the brain.
It’s been found that chronic boredom can lead to death. No wonder people say, “I’m so bored I could die.” In the 1980s, over 7,500 civil servants in London between 35 and 55 were asked if they felt bored at work in the last month. In 2009, the same people were tracked down. It was found that those who reported being bored at work were 2.5 times more likely to die to a heart problem than those who hadn’t reported that they were bored. 2.5 times more likely maybe doesn’t’ seem like much, but put this into perspective: People who suffer from obesity, high blood sugar, high blood pressure (all at once) are only twice as likely to have a heart attack and just a mere three times more likely to die earlier than people who don’t suffer from those diseases. According to the American Heart Association, a smoker is 2-4 times more likely to develop coronary heart disease than a non-smoker. Boredom is a real killer.
How boredom affects the body
Boredom has been associated with higher rates of obesity. One study done in 2012 interviewed 102 British office workers and found that 25% of them feel chronically bored. Not coincidentally, they ate higher amounts of chocolate and drank higher amounts of alcohol than those who didn’t report chronic boredom.
Being bored and having a lower pain tolerance have also been linked. According to a study done in Australia in 2012 that studied 315 workers who complained of back pain, those who felt stuck in a negative work environment were more likely to have consistent back pain six months later. This study isn’t to be confused with the well-known fact that back pain is connected with sitting in a chair for long periods of time because this study found that unhappy feelings at work, while being bored, also led to physical pain.
How boredom affects the brain
When we get bored, we begin to search for something to stimulate us that we can’t find around us. We begin to find that stimulation by letting our minds wander and going somewhere else in our heads. Once we begin to daydream, and our minds wander, we begin to think beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This allows different neurological connections to take place- for example, creativity. Even when we are consciously doing this, such as copying numbers from a phone book, we are using the executive attention network part of the brain which inhibits our attention and controls what we pay attention to.
It’s the executive attention network that allows us to relate to the here and now. However, when our minds wander, they put themselves into default mode network which is essentially the brain at rest because it’s not trying to work on a goal-oriented, external task. Even in default mode, our brains are still using about 95% of the energy we use when our brain is engaged in focused thinking. Our default mode network comes from the medial temporal lobe, the posterior cingulate cortex, and the medial prefrontal cortex. These parts of the brain turn off when we begin to do attention-focusing tasks. However, they remain active in the sense that they still work on the theory of mind (our ability to imagine what others are feeling and thinking), self-referential processing (making a logical and reasonable sense of self), and autobiographical memory (our personal registry of our life experiences).
A team of researchers found that ⅔ of men and ¼ of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sitting alone for 15 minutes with their thoughts. Along the same lines, another team of researchers asked participants to watch sad, boring, or neutral movies. While watching the movie, they could self-administer electric shocks. It was discovered that the bored participants shocked themselves not only more than those who watched the sad or neutral movies, but they also shocked themselves harder. These findings mean that a good number of people would rather shock themselves than let their brain relax and run its course.
Boredom and depression
Feeling bored itself doesn’t lead to depression, but it doesn’t help it, either. However, considering that depression is a feeling of helplessness and being down in the dumps, depression, and boredom can be rather connected. Research shows that although there are similarities, boredom, depression, and apathy are all distinct phenomenon. There is, however, a strong connection between traumatic brain injuries (TBI), boredom, and co-morbid depression.
The type of boredom that happens during a depression is known as existential boredom and is known for its inability to find anything interesting. It’s thought that existential boredom can lead to depression because those who don’t find much interesting don’t find life interesting- a direct symptom of depression.
Boredom and creativity
Boredom gets bad press as a negative, pointless emotion. But in reality, being bored isn’t all that bad. Steve Jobs, the man who helped create Apple in his garage, was a huge believer in the occasional boredom because it sparks creativity. It helps make people keen and willing to participate in activities that they find more meaningful than those that they have at hand. Even when we space out, our minds don’t just switch off.
Boredom can create daydreaming and contemplating thoughts- both which spur creativity. One study gave participants enough time to complete word association and problem-solving exercises. Once all of the obvious answers were done and used, people gave more and more inventive and thought-provoking answers in order to ward off the boredom. On the same note, another study took these findings and asked their participants to complete a creative challenge (for example, coming up with a list of alternative uses for a simple household item). One group did a boring activity before doing the creative task while the other group went right to the creative task. Those who participated in the boring activity first has more productive and creative answers.
Boredom and ADHD
Boredom isn’t a symptom of ADHD but rather a result of it. Being bored and being interested, cheerful, and energized are complete opposites. People with ADHD are always looking for things that are new and stimulating because when a person is interested in something, the executive functions, essentially the management system (mainly the frontal lobes), of the brain begin to work and the brain begins to work in a positive way. According to growing amounts of research, this need for new and stimulating things in the ADHD brain is due to the genetic and chemical makeup within the brain.
For example, reading Shakespeare in a high school English class is something most, if not all, Americans have had to go through. While for many of us it may seem dull, almost painful, and probably disengaging, we knew that we had to know the material for the test so we sat there and tried to engage in class. Those who have ADHD lack that kind of control over their engagement. This is because the parts of their brain that help them not become bored, stay focused and pay attention are under-aroused. The chemicals in their brain don’t fire the same way as the chemicals in their peers’ brains. Those brain chemicals, which are what make activities satisfying, also will make someone who suffers from ADHD feel less encouraged to stay focused on the task at hand because those chemicals aren’t firing as much in their brain.
Boredom and intelligence
People who have high IQ levels get bored easily. A US-based study found that because more intelligent people get bored more easily, they engage in thought more often. The counter-finding is that people who are more active may need to be more physical in order to stimulate their minds with external activities. This study was done by the Florida Gulf Coast University and started over 30 years ago. Using the Need for Cognition questionnaire, the researchers found 30 “thinkers” and 30 “non-thinkers”. Over the following week, all 60 participants wore a device on their wrist that constantly tracked their activity levels and movements. Results show that the group of “thinkers” was way less active during the week compared to the “non-thinkers” group. However, during the weekend, there was no difference between the two groups- a phenomenon that researchers couldn’t explain.
Another way to think of it is that people with high intelligence tend to be able to concentrate on something for hours at a time. When they don’t find anything to work on, nothing to stimulate their brain, they easily fall into a state of being bored.
Benefits of boredom
- Creativity is sparked.
- Autobiological planning happens. When the mind wanders, people are more likely to think about the future.
- It can lead us to do selfless acts. When we are bored, we lack activities which trigger us to go elsewhere to find activities. Irish researchers found that being bored actually heightened peoples prosocial behaviors like giving blood and donating to charity.
- It helps you know that something is missing or wrong. It acts as a regulatory state that helps us not remain trapped in unfulfilling situations. It’s both a warning and a “pusher” that motivates us.
- It can make you more productive by stimulating the parts of the brain responsible for thought-freeing activity and thought-controlling activity. This increases the daydreaming, mind-wandering behavior which helps us succeed at a task making us more productive.
Disadvantages of boredom
- Being bored has been linked to bad driving.
- If you are chronically bored, you probably lack curiosity and curiosity is something that helps our brains stay young. Curiosity has been shown to prevent degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
- Boredom has been linked to binge drinking (especially in adolescents)
- Mindless eating. Many people gain weight due to simply feeling bored. Khloe Kardashian was once quoted as saying, “I was a mindless eater. I ate for comfort, but I also ate out of boredom and habit.”
- Boredom has been linked to risky sex.
Tips to prevent and overcome boredom
- Take note of when you feel bored. The time of day, what you were doing, where you were, etc. This way you can be aware of what triggers your boredom.
- Exercise The release of hormones such as serotonin, adrenaline, dopamine, and norepinephrine are all hormones that contribute to the famous “runner’s high”. Having these hormones in your system will prevent you from feeling boredom in the same way, if at all.
- Take large tasks and make them small by breaking them down and give yourself little rewards each time you finish a small task.
- Spend more time with people (or animals if you aren’t a people person).
- Put a spin of chores, or any other daily activity, by adding a unique twist or element. For example, time yourself to see how fast you can do the dishes.
- Take up a hobby or try something new.
- Create a list of activities when you feel boredom starting to strike. Websites like Pinterest or just googling activities to do when bored all have any suggestions to combat that bored state.
- Be productive. Some people aren’t made for a life of leisure- they prefer to work than to relax. If you can’t relax well and are bored doing so, go ahead and be productive!
Let us know what you think in the comments below!
Anna is a freelance writer who is passionate about translation, psychology, and how the world works.