As pandemic lockdowns swept the world, those who were stuck at home reported feeling increased levels of boredom. Our collective boredom was reflected in online kvetching and solace-seeking; the phrase “I’m so bored I wish I was hungry” became a meme, as did the idea that boredom can spur culinary exploration.
Experts say the sustenance parallel is apt: Boredom functions like pain or thirst, signaling us that something needs to change. But the theory that boredom spawns creativity turns out to have “pretty slim” evidence to support it, according to James Danckert, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist who co-authored “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.”
Though the direct experience may be dull, the scientific study of boredom is full of surprises. For starters, boredom isn’t the low-motivation state most of us see it as. Rather, being bored means wanting to connect and interact with someone or something, but finding no outlet for that activation energy. Seen this way, boredom’s dissatisfied, itchy feeling comes from having extra capacity, not too little.
Thus, the adage “only boring people get bored” couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, pretty much everyone experiences boredom. What differentiates us is how often and how intensely we perceive it, and to what end. Understanding boredom’s eccentricities reveals why some common attempts to deal with it backfire, while other coping strategies turn itch into opportunity.
The essential feeling, and origin, of boredom
We all know what boredom feels like, and yet, there’s disagreement over what boredom really is. Why do some people prefer to administer an electric shock to themselves, as one study demonstrated, rather than be unstimulated for 15 minutes? Why did 32% of participants in another say they cheated when asked to entertain themselves with their thoughts for that long? (They listened to music or checked their phones.)
At base, it’s about a search for personal meaning, said Lars Svendsen, Ph.D. author of “A Philosophy of Boredom.” He defined boredom as “ultimately about not caring for whatever is around you” and placed it among the seven deadly sins. “Sloth” is apparently a mistranslation: “When you read these descriptions of acedia, it’s patently clear that what these early Christian writers are writing about, it’s boredom. The things they have around them are deprived of all life, of all substance. They find nothing in them.” The literal meaning of acedia, derived from Greek, is something like “not caring,” which explains why “boring” is subjective. Watching ballet may be riveting for some, while it makes Svendsen yearn for an early demise.
“Sometimes people say boredom is about not having enough to do,” he said, “That is silly, because you can really work your butt off and be so bored.”
The “people” he’s talking about could very well be Danckert and his co-author John D. Eastwood, Ph.D. In “Out of My Skull,” they concluded, “[A] lack of engagement is more central to boredom than a lack of meaning.” Their case for that stance? “Just as we feel hungry when our body is malnourished, we feel emotional discomfort when our mind is undernourished.”
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And that comes to pass when our strengths lay untapped, such as when we’re assigned easy, redundant tasks. Yet too much information and stimulation can leave us overwhelmed and paralyzed. There’s a Goldilocks zone, “where the match between the challenge level and our own skill set is ‘just right’ to push our limits and lead us away from boredom.”
Sandi Mann, Ph.D. doesn’t seem to think much of this debate. “Regarding engagement versus meaning, I think they are both the same thing,” said the author of “The Science of Boredom: Why Boredom is Good.” “We are often more engaged with something that has meaning to us.”
Knowing what boredom is not could help pin things down. For starters, it’s not apathy. As Danckert and Eastwood put it, “When apathetic we do not care, but when bored we care deeply.” It’s not ennui. “Ennui might be a learned helplessness in response to boredom or failure to deal with boredom,” Danckert said, “but it’s not boredom.” And it’s not depression, though again, it’s related. Mann explained: “Remember, boredom is a search for neural stimulation. If we’re not searching for that stimulation anymore, then that’s probably more depression.”
The experts also seem to agree about smartphones. Since they bring the potential for meaning and connection to our fingertips, you might expect phones to be a boredom slayer. Instead, they instill a mindset that begets more boredom: “The belief that we are entitled to and capable of engendering a constantly changing, endlessly stimulating and compelling experience dooms us to continual struggles with boredom,” Danckert and Eastwood wrote.
Imagine you’re watching a typical couple sitting on the couch. When one person leaves for the bathroom, Svendsen said, “How many times out of 10 does the person who remains seated go for their phone immediately rather than endure those dreadful two and half minutes of nothingness?”
Who experiences boredom most?
So is boredom increasing as tech permeates our lives? The answer to that question remains unclear, but we do know a bit about who experiences it most often and most intensely.
Traditionally, psychology researchers divided boredom into “trait” boredom — specifically, those who are boredom prone — and “state” boredom, the temporary variety owing to one’s situation. More recent iterations of boredom theory use a “person-environment fit model,” which is a fancy way of saying it’s usually some of both. Still, some psychologists think boredom is more about what’s going on in your life than who you are, while others disagree.
In one study of nearly 4,000 adults, survey participants reported boredom only about 3% of the times they were asked, but over a 10-day period, 63% said they’d felt bored at least once. Though there’s no definitive proof that the difference is innate rather than socialized, men have consistently been shown to be more prone to boredom than women. (In the electric shock study, 67% of men gave themselves at least one shock, while only 25% of women did.) Research also suggests that those who are open to new experiences and lower in neuroticism tend to experience lower levels of boredom. Poor emotional awareness has also been linked to more boredom, and Danckert and Eastwood think that is likely because avoiding feelings often means avoiding experiences.
Levels of boredom change over the course of the human lifespan. Because boredom strikes the “underchallenged and unaroused,” and because boredom has also been tied to a lack of agency and a feeling of being entrapped, it makes sense that it plagues adolescents and the elderly most. Teenagers have increased cognitive capacity, a relative wealth of free time, and desire to explore, but they’re constrained by parental and institutional rules. “Under these circumstances,” wrote a different set of scholars, “the sense of having a direct and immediate impact that derives from knocking over someone’s mailbox is at least a bit easier to comprehend.”
Boredom levels rise in the mid-teen years, and then start to drop off in the late teens to early twenties. In middle age, boredom levels are quite low, as, in Danckert and Eastwood’s words, a “set of responsibilities descends on us . . . With careers, spouses, children, and mortgages there may simply be less opportunity to feel bored in our middle decades.” Boredom continues to decline into our 50s, but beyond the 60s, with new physical constraints, retirement, and losses of opportunity, “boredom levels started to gradually rise again, particularly in women.” I can’t help thinking of my own grandmother and how losing her driver’s license put an end to post office trips, volunteer work, and pretty much all social engagement.
This variation over time, Danckert and Eastwood conclude, suggests that boredom is ultimately more about our circumstances than our personalities.
Is boredom to be avoided?
Think back to a time when, in a brief moment of solitude, you found yourself reaching for your phone. “If you are constantly reaching for all those stimuli,” Svendsen said, then paused. “I mean, I’m not condemning it on moral grounds. I’m just saying you are living your life as a junkie, always going for the next fix. Of course, you can do that, but it’s probably not a brilliant recipe for the good life.”
Indeed, being bored can lead to lapses in judgment, inability to engage in goal-directed planning, poor risk assessment, procrastination, trouble focusing, agitation, and losing control of our emotions. Being chronically bored has been tied to a laundry list of additional bad outcomes including loneliness, eating disorders, anxiety, depression, anger, hostility, and poor school and work performance. We saw rising levels of pretty much all of these starting in the spring of 2020. And guess who violated quarantine regulations more frequently during the COVID-19 pandemic? The boredom-prone, just as they did during the SARS outbreak of 2003.
Professor Danckert told me we all probably get the boredom signal with similar frequency. How deeply we feel it and how much boredom affects us largely owe to how we respond to it.
There are three choices, really, and the first is just to suffer. You can lurk in an uncomfortable limbo state, feeling at loose ends. The other two options both involve taking action. The “maladaptive” response to boredom includes impulsive behavior, risk-taking, and misuse of drugs and alcohol. These folks are finding a sense of purpose; it’s just not one society considers ideal. Others can be so adept at responding to the signal in quick, prosocial ways that they barely even register feeling bored. Experts say that’s easier for individuals who already have high levels of self-control, but it’s a skill that can be developed.
Since psychologists tend to focus on pathology, Danckert said, maladaptive responses like avoidance and aggression get loads of study, but research on positive responses is less plentiful. Still, we know that certain feelings are “in some way incompatible with boredom,” including connection, curiosity, interest, relaxation, control, and “flow” (that “in the zone” feeling of complete absorption where you lose track of time and place).
The most obvious boredom coping mechanisms are self-motivating tactics that spur you toward productivity. For example, you can keep handy a list of little tasks for when boredom strikes — like, say, reorganizing a kitchen drawer. But some common self-control strategies, like rewarding oneself with a handful of M&Ms for every page of homework completed, don’t work as well as others to alleviate boredom, research suggests.
The more effective type of self-motivation enhances autonomy. If work feels like a slog, think about what new task or role would be most energizing and rewarding. Svendsen, the philosopher, went so far as to say, “You can see boredom as a voice of conscience.” As things lose significance to you, he said, “you will be thrown back upon yourself” in a man-in-the-mirror sort of way, forced to face the questions, “What do I care about? Do I care about what I should care about?” When you figure that out and then deploy your skills and talents to their optimal capacity, right in that Goldilocks zone, you lose yourself. For some, that type of flow can be found during a run or other physical activity. For others, a cognitive challenge is the ticket. Sometimes it’s one, and other times the other. And sometimes it’s using a scalpel to perform a “c-section” on an orange, like one med student did at the outset of the pandemic.
In a study published in 2000, socializing effectively warded off boredom for college students. Deep learning is another “antidote to boredom,” Dr. Mann said, saking as it does our needs for curiosity, meaning, and flow. Reading for enjoyment has also been found to ward off the pitfalls of monotony. Or you can be like David Morgan, the Brit who leaned into his traffic cone fascination, acquiring a cone from about two-thirds of all styles ever made.
Notice what’s not included in this list? So-called “situation-irrelevant activities,” like turning to Netflix. People who are bored don’t need to be entertained; they need to be engaged, Danckert said. “There is nothing wrong with watching TV, but it’s a really, really temporary solution,” Svendsen agreed.
Anyone who has engaged in a cycle of rumination — where thoughts run on a loop in your head, getting more intense, convincing, and dramatic with each iteration — knows it’s neither fun nor fruitful. So you would assume thinking about how bored you are would be a big no-no. And yet, “the more we fear and attempt to flee from boredom, the more distressing it becomes,” Danckert and Eastwood wrote, while “accepting a boring situation gives us what we need to be free of it — the chance to identify our desires and goals.” At least one pandemic-era study suggests they’re right.
“What you should do is not just escape from boredom,” Svendsen said, “but rather do something slightly insane: embrace it. Let boredom hit you.”