Boredom is a common aspect of human life. Varied and even contradictory understandings about it abound. As Jon Kabat-Zinn said, “When you pay attention to boredom it becomes incredibly interesting.” It is, if nothing else, a complex phenomenon.
Questions about boredom multiply: Is it a feeling or emotion? A mood instead? Or perhaps neither? Why is boredom a common experience for some individuals while being rarely present for others? Is chronic boredom in some way related to mental illness, such as depression, or a personality disorder, such as borderline or narcissistic personality disorder? Or is boredom related to high levels of other personality traits, such as thrill seeking or neuroticism?
And, when all is said and done, what can be done about boredom, especially in its severe and chronic forms? How can we help people whose lives are lived in the shadow of chronic boredom? Would they even be interested or motivated enough to want to change? Do learnable mindsets or skills exist that can help a person overcome chronic boredom? Or, to step back, is boredom a normal and, perhaps even, a necessary part of every life with nothing to pathologize?
And, of course, boredom in its complexity could be all these things: a normal aspect of life experienced at times by nearly everyone and, also among some individuals, present to an abnormal degree, a degree that interferes with living a happy and meaningful life.
Today, I begin an exploration of boredom. I’m interested in it because I’m interested in human nature and, more specifically, because many of my patients over the years either complained of chronic boredom or acted as if they were chronically bored while denying that they were. So, an additional series of questions arises: How can one be bored and not realize it? Could it be that some people experience boredom but call it something else? Or are they missing the word or concept of their experience of (what others call) boredom?
And, last – to end my series of questions on a hopeful note – can boredom be a catalyst for good, for sparking (or forcing) creativity in response to it? If so, is this good outcome inevitable and open to everyone or is it, instead, uncommon and only open to some?
I begin my exploration by considering common definitions of boredom, what they have in common and the ways they differ. The first definition is from a general dictionary; the latter definitions are from specific psychological sources.
Definitions of Boredom
“Boredom is the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.” – Merriam Webster
“[Boredom is] a state of weariness or ennui resulting from a lack of engagement with stimuli in the environment. It is generally considered to be one of the least desirable conditions of daily life and is often identified by individuals as a cause of feeling depressed. It can be seen as the opposite of interest and surprise.” – American Psychological Association Dictionary of Psychology
“[Boredom is] an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” – Cynthia D. Fisher, 1993
“All theories suggest that the central defining feature of boredom is the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in stimulating and satisfying activity.” – Fahlman et al, 2013
“[Boredom is] an affective indicator of unsuccessful engagement in valued goal-congruent activity.” – Westgate and Wilson, 2018
What Can We Make of Boredom?
Many definitions, as seen above, refer to boredom as an affective state, one that is “unpleasant” and “aversive.” If a person is in a state of disengagement and inattentiveness, as occurs in boredom, but experiences this state as “relaxing,” “calm,” or as “kicking back,” then this would not be considered a case of boredom. Boredom is nearly universally self-reported as being a negative emotional state. In fact, when participating in monotonous laboratory studies and given the option, participants have been found to voluntarily self-administer electric shocks as a way to disrupt their boredom.
Since it is unpleasant and aversive, boredom is a state a person is likely motivated to avoid or escape from but, for whatever reason, has difficulty doing so. The bored person is wanting something that remains unavailable to them and, if nothing else, that ‘something’ is to be free of the feeling of ‘restlessness’ or ‘arousal’ that is frequently a part of boredom.
Boredom is aversive but many people remain stuck in it. One cause of this ‘stuckness’ may be a lack of motivation to work towards a goal, either because there is no goal or because the goal that comes to mind is not stimulating or significant enough; there is no thing, person, or situation that is desired, that captures the attention, and that can drive behavior. Another cause of this ‘stuckness’ may be a lack of physical or attentional energy, a state of anergia that challenges forward movement, even if a desired goal happened to be available to that person. It seems fair to guess that boredom is often due to a combined lack of desire and motivation on the one hand, and physical energy and attentional focus on the other. The person is likely stuck because they both desire nothing and don’t have the energy and focus to pursue something even if there were such a thing. And because of this, boredom – this aversive, unpleasant affective state – continues.
Boredom Rating Scales
Several boredom questionnaires exist and can help us further identify boredom’s features. First, boredom is often divided into a state and a trait of boredom. A rating scale that measures a state of boredom is measuring the current state of a person in boredom whereas a rating scale that measures the trait of boredom is measuring a person’s proneness to states of boredom. State scales include the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale (MSBS) which, in its original longer form, yielded 5 factors: disengagement (from the current environment), high arousal (including agitation), inattention (feeling distracted or unfocused), low arousal (feeling down), and time perception (the feeling that time is passing slowly). Of interest is that boredom here included features of both high arousal and low arousal. This seems to reflect the experience of boredom in that it is often characterized by low energy and focus and, at the same time, a high sense of aversiveness that the person wishes to escape from and, failing to do so, can lead to restless and agitation. So, this raises the question of whether this increased arousal, restlessness, and agitation are a core aspect of boredom or a consequence of an inability to escape from boredom. I tend to consider boredom more broadly, as inclusive of the feeling of ‘stuckness,’ of the inability to escape from boredom, as a core aspect of the phenomenon of boredom.
Next, let’s consider trait scales, which include the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS). The BPS, with its 28 items, yields between 2 and 5 factors. The two most stable factors are ‘internal stimulation’ and ‘external stimulation,’ that is, the degree to which the subject can generate internal interest and can perceive variety in and be stimulated by the environment.
The Context of Boredom
So far, we’ve focused on the individual but, of course, every person is living within their lifeworld and lifeworlds can be more or less inherently interesting. For example, the job one has can affect the level and frequency of boredom. Doing repetitive assembly work in a factory or stocking shelves in a store is likely more inherently conducive to boredom than work that is varied and challenging, that requires thought, problem-solving, and the development of new skills. And, further, there is the matter of the fit between an individual and their lifeworld. Some people have a greater need for variety and challenge than others. Tasks that one person can regard as interesting and challenging another may experience as risky and likely to lead to failure and shame. Tasks that one person may regard as boring, another may regard as safe, well-paced, and comfortable.
There remains much more to consider about boredom. I’d like to ask you to attend to your patients and their experiences with boredom. It might even be worthwhile to explicitly ask patients about their experience of boredom. For example, a proneness to boredom may negatively affect a patient’s recovery from a substance use disorder or increase susceptibility to depression, risk-taking behaviors, and non-suicidal self-injury. As I’ll discuss next time, because boredom is aversive and can feel inescapable, it can lead to maladaptive coping strategies in an attempt to break out of or distract from the pervasive sense of boredom. I would love to hear from you about your experiences with boredom and treating patients for whom boredom is a problem.
Fahlman SA, Mercer-Lynn KB, Flora DB, Eastwood JD. Development and validation of the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale. Assessment. 2013 Feb; 20(1): 68–85.Fisher, C.D. (1993).
Boredom at work: A neglected concept. Human Relations. 46 (3): 395–417.
Masland, Sara R., Tanya V. Shah, and Lois W. Choi-Kain. “Boredom in borderline personality disorder: A lost criterion reconsidered.” Psychopathology 53.5-6 (2020): 239-253.
Nederkoorn, C., Vancleef, L., Wilkenhöner, A., Claes, L., & Havermans, R. C. (2016). Self-inflicted pain out of boredom. Psychiatry Research, 237, 127-132.
Westgate EC, Wilson TD. Boring thoughts and bored minds: the MAC model of boredom and cognitive engagement. Psychol Rev. 2018 Oct; 125(5): 689–713
“Tedium is not the disease of being bored because there’s nothing to do, but the more serious disease of feeling that there’s nothing worth doing. This means that the more there is to do, the more tedium one will feel.” ― Fernando Pessoa
“Live to the point of tears.” ― Albert Camus
“The life of the creative person is lead, directed and controlled by boredom. Avoiding boredom is one of our most important purposes.” ― Susan Sontag
“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.” ― Samuel Beckett
“Boredom is the root of all evil – the despairing refusal to be oneself.” ― Soren Kierkegaard
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