In the 1930s, a professor of psychology at City College of New York, Joseph Barmack, ran a series of experiments on the psychophysiology of boredom. He wanted to understand how factory workers dealt with the monotony of their labor, and how to prevent the listlessness or fatigue that came along with it.
He brought some college students to the Applied Psychology Laboratory at Columbia University to do a boring task, while measuring variables like blood pressure and attention. Oh, and he also gave them amphetamines.
He found that the drugs decreased the “unfavorable attitude” that people normally felt when doing something incredibly boring. In another experiment, he discovered that money also helped.
Barmack is part of a legacy of humans who have mused about boredom for thousands of years, noting the unpleasantness of the emotion, and what—if anything—there is to be done about it.
The Roman philosopher Seneca captured the restless, fussy, feeling of boredom as far back as the first century CE, writing, “How long the same things? Surely I will yawn, I will sleep, I will eat, I will be thirsty, I will be cold, I will be hot. Is there no end?”
If you turn to literature or philosophy, you can find, alternatively, boredom considered a personal, moral, or societal failing. In the essay “On the Vanity of Existence,” philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that boredom “hovers over every secure life like a bird of prey,” and that boredom proved that life was meaningless since it was “nothing other than the sensation of the emptiness of existence.”
Today, in 2020, in the midst of a pandemic, many people have forged a new relationship with boredom. “This has been the year of boredom,” said Josefa Ros Velasco, a postdoctoral researcher studying boredom in elderly people at the Department of Philosophy and Society at the Complutense University of Madrid, and who recently set up the first International Society of Boredom Studies.
If you’re not facing the pandemic head-on as an essential or healthcare worker, you’ve been asked to stay at home, reduce travel, and restrict seeing families and friends for holidays. Even though the first doses of the vaccine have been administered, for many of us, boredom will be a necessary part of protecting public health well into 2021.
Yet James Danckert, a professor at the University of Waterloo in cognitive neuroscience, thinks that we’ve trivialized just how powerful boredom can be, dismissing it as something children whine about to their parents. In a recent preprint, Danckert and his colleagues found that people who are prone to boredom break the rules of social distancing more often. Previous research has also found that prolonged boredom is associated with pretty bad outcomes, like depression, anxiety, gambling, dropping out of school, or risk-taking and impulsive behavior.
During the pandemic, there’s been a push to rebrand boredom as a state that unleashes creativity and productivity, as writers and editors became aware that people were facing more boredom, and wanted to showcase its positive qualities. In just a few examples, one Guardian article titled, “Why It’s Good to Be Bored,” described this year as a “boom time for boredom.” “How Boredom Can Spark Creativity,” the BBC wrote in May. “Boredom might spark creativity because a restless mind hungers for stimulation,” wrote Wired. The Harvard Business Review espoused “The Creative Benefits of Boredom.”
Is boredom good—a spark that ignites the creative spirit? Or bad, a pressure that we can break from, and violate public health guidelines, endangering our communities?
The latest research understands boredom as a signal that what you’re currently doing isn’t meaningful to you and doesn’t grasp your attention—it’s a neutral signal. Boredom doesn’t directly cause good or bad things to happen, though there are certain personality traits or environments that might make a person more prone to boredom, and to riskier responses to boredom.
Understanding boredom as a benign signal can better help us to resist the urges to run from feeling it. We might best know how to be bored once we understand what boredom really is.
Danckert and his colleagues’ recent paper on social distancing behaviors called for boredom to be looked at seriously as a motivator of actions—in this case, actions that can threaten public health.
As Kendra Pierre-Louis wrote recently in Elemental, people more prone to boredom spent less time in social isolation, were more likely to have hosted social gatherings, and more likely to have had more social contact than recommended. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, a survey similarly found that people reported boredom to be the biggest disincentive for complying with quarantine regulations.
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The recent paper notes that this was the case, “even though those same boredom prone individuals were also more likely to become ill with COVID-19 or to know someone who had! The urge to act, when driven by boredom, seems to be so powerful that people are even willing to act against their own self-interest and the interests of others.”
This isn’t the first strike against boredom’s reputation. People who are “boredom prone” may reach for less constructive coping strategies, like alcohol, drugs, or excessive use of technology, like video games or social media.
Does this mean that boredom is bad? Not really. John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist and an associate professor of clinical psychology at York University, said that it’s good that we have the capacity for boredom.
He pointed to the philosopher Andreas Elpidorou, who has written about how we can compare boredom to physical pain: it doesn’t feel very nice, but it protects us from damaging our bodies. Pain is an alert signal. What you do in response to pain is up to you: You could continue doing the thing that’s causing you pain, or find different ways to make the pain go away.
Boredom is an emotional call to action, said Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, an experimental social psychologist at the University of Exeter. In his and his colleague’s research, they’ve explored boredom as a cue that tells you that your current actions aren’t meaningful to you at that moment.
“This is obviously an unpleasant experience,” van Tilburg said. “So in response, we look for alternative behaviors, that gives you a sense of significance in what you’re doing.”
In one study, they found that those who reported their lives were more meaningful as a result of their religious beliefs experienced less boredom. “We saw this as an indication that having a sense of meaning in life prevents people from getting bored,” van Tilburg said.
Erin Westgate, a social psychologist and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida, has proposed an explanation for boredom called the meaning-and-attentional-components (MAC) model of boredom—which combines van Tilburg’s theories about meaning with the idea that boredom is also caused by a difficult in paying attention.
“Put simply,” she wrote, “we get bored when we are not able to pay attention or cannot find meaning in what we are doing… it is not enough to be able to pay attention, and it is not enough to find meaning. Both are necessary; a deficit in either one is sufficient to cause boredom.”
Framed this way, the emotions of boredom are psychologically functional, van Tilburg said. Boredom motivates action to change your circumstance to something that has more meaning or is more captivating. This is a relatively new way to think about boredom, according to Ros Velasco. “Simply put, the appraisal of boredom has changed over the years from philosophy to theology, from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages, as a punishment, a vice, or a capital sin,” she said.
A bored person desperately wants to do something, but doesn’t want to do anything in particular.
In the Middle Ages, boredom, called acedia, could be considered a vice by theologians because “boredom represented the neglect of religious duties,” Ros Velasco explained. Later in the 19th and 20th centuries, boredom was considered the product of industrialization or capitalism, an ailment of the upper class, or the ennui of a depressed literary type.
van Tilburg said that by instead recognizing the psychological value of boredom, it may help people to find some sense in their behavior, and perhaps be more tolerant to enduring the unpleasant momentary experience.
We’ve been told that you’ll only get bored if you’re a dull person yourself. As Zelda Fitzgerald wrote, “She refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring.”
But Eastwood said boredom isn’t always a result of being dull, or even an absence of things to do. This might be a familiar sensation if, while at home surrounded by books, movies, Netflix, cooking projects, or the internet—you’ve still found yourself itching for something to do, and no activity sticks.
Providing a bored person a list of all of the things they could be doing, to not be bored, “is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore,” Eastwood said. “The bored person knows there are things to do. That’s not the problem. The problem is that they don’t want to do the things that are available.”
Another key way to understand your boredom is to consider how Leo Tolstoy described the sensation: “the desire for desires.” Eastwood and Danckert have called this the “desire bind.” It’s when a bored person desperately wants to do something, but doesn’t want to do anything in particular. “It’s a desiring problem,” Eastwood said.
If your environment is limited, it’s easier to experience the desire bind, Eastwood said. It’s harder to want to do the things that are available, if there are fewer things. The absence of activities isn’t irrelevant, but it’s not the only reason a person will get bored.
There are also some personality characteristics that lead some people to struggle more with boredom than others. In the 1930s, the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote a chapter about boredom in The Conquest of Happiness. He argued that boredom wasn’t becoming more prevalent in modern society, but that people were becoming more afraid of boredom. Because people were scared of the feeling, it was becoming more of a menace.
This still holds true, Eastwood said. When we fear an uncomfortable sensation, we’re more likely to lurch from it to a problematic behavior. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard is often quoted as writing that boredom is the root of all evil. But Eastwood thinks that what Kierkegaard meant was that it is evil because we can’t tolerate it. “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone,” wrote the philosopher Blaise Pascal.
People who are boredom prone tend to ruminate more, or let these negative thoughts about boredom run frantically on a hamster wheel inside their heads. When they first start to feel bored, they think about how bored they are, how they hate it, and they can’t escape from those thoughts.
Perfectionists may also feel more boredom. This is because they’re trying to find the “best” or “right” thing to do—the perfect activity or solution to their boredom. “It’s like paralysis by analysis,” Eastwood said. “This regulatory style leads to more boredom as opposed to people that say, ‘I’m going to try this,’ and they just jump in and get on with it.”
People’s underlying motivations behind their behaviors could influence boredom too. Eastwood said that—simplifying massively—there are two kinds of people: those motivated to maximize pleasure and those that are motivated to minimize pain.
People who are motivated to minimize pain are always coming up with reasons that doing an activity may harm them in some way, or make them physically or psychologically uncomfortable. People who want to maximize pleasure are constantly looking for opportunities for pleasure, and not concerned with any potential adjacent pain.
If you’re extreme on either of these traits, you’re more likely to experience boredom, Eastwood said. “For the maximizing pleasure folks, the world is just not going to be pleasurable or exciting enough,” he said. Mundane tasks that have to be done—laundry, taxes, dishes, social distancing—will be unbearably boring in the place of all of the pleasurable things they could be doing instead. For people seeking to minimize pain, they avoid so many potentially uncomfortable encounters, they end up in an activity-starved environment.
But boredom is not always explained solely by individual personality differences. Westgate was the lead author of an often-cited study that showed some people would rather electrically shock themselves than simply sit in a room and think. If boredom motivates action, Westgate said, whether you reach for positive or negative behaviors in the face of boredom also has to do with the environment you’re in. In her experiment, the only option they had to act was to shock themselves.
It’s led her to think a bit more about the environments we find ourselves in, when we’re called to action by boredom. In unpublished data from Westgate’s lab, they looked at regional boredom using Google search as a proxy for looking at how bored people are in different US states.
They found that states that were low in meaning making opportunities and social ecological diversity were more likely to be bored. Those same states were more likely to have elevated rates of alcohol and drug use, including drug related mortality.
“You can’t make causal claims about this yet,” Westgate said. “But it’s suggestive that it’s not always something that’s rooted in the individual. In America especially, we have this approach where you must be strong, withstand bad feelings, and not give in to my boredom. That does a disservice to recognizing that boredom is going to be easier to resist if you’re in an environment that facilitates good choices and has good options.”
If how we respond to boredom can be a reflection of who we are and what environments we are in, it’s particularly interesting to observe the desire to optimize our boredom, or to intentionally cultivate it in order to tap into creativity and productivity. On the website “A Life of Productivity,” one writer did just that. He explained how for one month, he deliberately made himself bored for an hour each day, with the goal of letting his mind wander “to fascinating (and surprisingly productive) places.” The journalist Manoush Zomorodi wrote a book in 2017 about how boredom could be the missing tool to becoming your best self; it was called Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self.
“Over the decades,the trend was to explain boredom as a bad thing because of the bad reactions to get rid of it,” Ros Velasco said. “Now, everybody is writing about ‘the benefits of boredom’ because it supposedly makes us more creative.”
“It seems that we all want to believe that,” said Danckert.
Nourishing creative practices may provide you with positive tools to fight boredom with, Danckert explained. If you enjoy art, writing, or music, and make time for those hobbies, they’ll be available to you when you are bored. But he said there’s nothing inherent about boredom that triggers creativity, despite some studies that suggest people are drawn to more creative solutions when they don’t have anything to do.
“People can equate having nothing to do as equaling boredom. To me, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what boredom is.”
As Margaret Talbot wrote in The New Yorker about one boredom and creativity study, people bored in a lab experiment “were more likely to excel at a standard task psychologists use to assess creativity—coming up with as many uses as possible for a pair of plastic cups. Pretty weak tea, in other words.”
Eastwood said that while there can be advantages to boredom, boredom is not a state to want to linger in, or seek out. “It’s a thing to work through,” he said. “It’s like a liminal state.”
Our desire to wield boredom for productivity and creativity could be seen as further proof that we’re incredibly uncomfortable with just sitting with a difficult emotion. If you can only be bored if it leads to something positive—you may struggle with moments of boredom that don’t serve that function for you.
“We have, as a society, at least in North America, pushed ourselves to say that productivity is king, and that’s massively changed our relationship to time,” Danckert said. “We think about ‘time as money,’ rather than time as something that should be lived through and sat with.”
Because of this mindset, we are used to having very little free time, Ros Velasco said, and when we were bored, we have turned to entertainment like social media, television, or the internet. These are successful remedies for boredom in normal circumstances, but perhaps not anymore. Now, these kinds of entertainment may be failing us.
“The problem is that we have spent so much time without having to worry about our boredom, about what we really like to do, what really fills us as individuals, that now we don’t know what to do when Facebook or Instagram reveals [itself as] boring,” Ros Velasco said.
It’s healthy to have moments when we are disengaged from frenetic activity; big stretches of time with nothing to do, and when we are unplugged from stimulation. “But it’s good to do those things, and not become bored,” Eastwood said. “People can equate having nothing to do as equaling boredom. To me, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what boredom is.”
Danckert said he wouldn’t suggest that anyone dedicate time to being bored. Still, that doesn’t mean we should be afraid of boredom.
“I think we can cultivate better responses to boredom,” Danckert said. “I don’t think we can expect that cultivating boredom will make us creative. We have to foster and focus on creative activities independently of whether or not we get bored or not.”
Danckert often sees lists online that try to solve the problem of boredom for you, like a top ten list: “What to do when you’re bored.” But he said the cures for boredom are incredibly personal since they rely on your individual interests, personalities, and environment.
Still, he can make the following general suggestions: First, calm down; try not to stoke the restlessness and agitation, because it can give more power to the negative thoughts swirling around in your mind. Mindfulness could be a tool to wield against boredom—to help be less judgmental and panicked when boredom hits.
Ros Velasco said that if you’re feeling more bored than usual, be patient with yourself. Take it as an opportunity to learn about yourself, and reinvent your habits. Consider your home environment, and surround yourself with fun and creative options of activities that you make time for—even when you’re not bored. This might create more opportunities for you to respond to your boredom adaptively when it strikes.
During a pandemic, if you’re following strict social distancing guidelines, this all still may not be enough. You may still get bored. Eastwood and Danckert said that in these cases, being bored could at the very least offer some time to reflect on what matters most.
If we think of boredom as a signal, in part, that what you’re doing doesn’t hold meaning to you, it could be an insightful way to get to know yourself. Then, when it’s safe to do so, we can “move back into the world armed with a better understanding of who we are, what we care about,” Eastwood said.
For another internal exercise, van Tilburg and his colleagues have found that nostalgic memories can provide an antidote to boredom for some people. Reflect on your past, and the moments and people that you value. “Those memories made people feel their lives were very meaningful, van Tilburg said. “It did seem to address boredom in that moment.”
While boredom may provide an accessroad to re-examine your values, or be the bridge to carving out time for creative pursuits, hold onto the fact that feeling bored is neither cause for alarm, nor a necessary ingredient to produce your next novel.
“To talk in terms of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ responds to a process of moralization through history,” Ros Velasco said. “Boredom simply is. Boredom is going to happen since it is one tool we have to reevaluate ourselves and the context thanks to its reactive component. What we have to do is to learn to live with it, to deal with it, not to promote it naively or avoid it at all costs, but to listen to it.”
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