Have you ever stared at the ceiling for what might seem like hours on end or not know what to do with yourself on a particularly dry Sunday?
It seems like you're clearly bored. We’ve all experienced it.
So what is boredom, really?
Boredom describes wanting to do something stimulating, satisfying, fulfilling or purposeful but not being able to do so. Boredom is a considerable bother. It can lead to behaviours that might lead to favourable (e.g. creativity) and unfavourable consequences (e.g. substance abuse).
In a preliminary study, researchers asked people to sit down in a laboratory and try to think of pleasurable things, but if they chose to, the participants could shock themselves with a tiny electric shock as a substitute instead (I repeat: only if they wanted to). Research found that 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose to shock themselves after a while, rather than just sit and think. When asked what made them do that, they said “it was really boring”.
Wow! This tells us that we would rather shock ourselves than be bored. It makes me think that we might not really be that different from everyone’s favourite fictional high functioning sociopath Sherlock Holmes who would rather fire a gun at his wall than be bored.
Boredom is an emotion just like happiness, sadness, anger etc. Many people think of emotions as things that get in the way of their functioning, but remember, we, as humans, are emotional beings who might not always be logical. Our emotions are important and give us valuable messages about our internal mental states, but that holds true only if we would listen and not be dismissive of them.
Our boredom is trying to send us a message, just like physical pain which serves the purpose of alerting us that there’s something off with our bodies that we need to tend to. Boredom is uncomfortable but it’s neither good nor bad; it’s merely a signal telling us that we are not meaningfully involved in our lives.
The ‘Meaning and Attentional Components’ (MAC) model of boredom tells us that we feel bored when we can’t pay attention to tasks that matter to us. Boredom is the consequence of a discrepancy between the cognitive demands of a task and the mental resources that we possess at that time or discrepancy between valued goals and tasks (or the lack of valued goals).
So now that we’ve understood what boredom is, what can we do about it?
Remind yourself of the meaning: Make the activity that feels boring matter to you. Remind yourself of the significance of that activity and what made you do it in the first place?
Try something new: If your boredom is coming from the lack of novelty or challenge because the activity you're engaged in is both familiar and easy, come up with a new challenge for yourself. Make the challenges difficult enough to keep you interested but not so hard that you find it frustrating.
- Boredom can be beneficial: You can use that boredom to your advantage. Boredom means that your brain is uncomfortable, that means it’s also trying to come with strategies to engage meaningfully. This means you can use this feeling and time to jolt your creativity and imagination. Being bored gives our imagination space to roam, play and grow. As Sherry Turkle says, “Boredom is your imagination calling to you.”
Westgate, E. C. (2020). Why Boredom Is Interesting. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 29(1), 33–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721419884309