Boredom. Weariness, ennui, listlessness, apathy, sluggishness… Lots of words used synonymously. But do they reflect the truth of our boredom, and where it comes from?
One thing we seem to agree on:
Nobody wants to feel bored.
In a world filled with stimulation, it’s probably easier than ever to turn round and feel what could be boredom. Compared to the never-ending feed of information and news and new gadgets and human interaction across 15 platforms… when things come to a standstill, ‘boredom’ seems to be what fills the void. But is that boredom generally, or just one kind of boredom?
The Scientific American says:
There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant — a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences.
The nature of our boredom varies, and without a clear source, it’s hard to know how to address it. Studies have come up with different types of boredom, all of which require a different kind of response, though inducing and measuring boredom continue to limit the universal applicability of research.
John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, came up with a series of statements about boredom:
Eastwood helped to develop the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale (MSBS), which features 29 statements about immediate feelings, such as: “I am stuck in a situation that I feel is irrelevant.”
That statement really stood out:
I am stuck in a situation that I feel is irrelevant.
To me, this statement generates the dreaded feeling of boredom faster and more painfully than any other.
There are lots of reasons we get bored, but from everything I have read on the subject, dealing with the gap between values and reality is a really key way to respond to the negativity surrounding what makes us bored.
Why do we get bored?
Many cite our modern culture, or over-the-top need for stimulation, as reasons we get bored. While I’m sure these are in many ways valid, the worst boredom I have experienced has come about when I have felt a disconnect between what I want to be doing or what I feel I should be doing, and what I am doing. In particular, when the tasks feel like a waste of time — a disconnect between what would be a “good” use of my time, and what I am having to do. What are the reasons this comes about?
Lack of perceived value
If the things we overwhelmingly have to do don’t align with what we really value, there’s usually a problem. Either frustration, perhaps anger or even sadness, as well as boredom. If too many of our tasks in a day relate to things we just don’t find value in, it’s easy to become unsettled.
However, I say ‘perceived’ here because sometimes this is more about not seeing value where there actually is some. So either it’s about better understanding what our values are and how we can get towards doing valuable actions more often, or it’s about reassessing the situation we are in, and seeing if there really isn’t value in it, or if we’ve merely overlooked some potential value. More on this below.
Repetition or Monotony
Performing the same tasks again and again — tasks that don’t engage us. But particularly if they are predictable and low value, and keep coming up again and again.
Without a little newness every so often, most of us start to get a little fidgety. Again, this depends on the overlap between us doing things we find important or good, versus tasks that are always there and don’t inspire anything much in us. Monotony is hard for us to deal with sometimes, though it varies person to person, but can be exacerbated by the low value we place on the activity.
Lack of autonomy
If we have no autonomy over what we are doing — say, we have to complete certain tasks again and again for a boss or a family member — we can also start to become alienated from that task. Because it’s not our choice, and choice is increasingly something that we have become aware of and that we desire.
Without autonomy over some actions, we start to feel controlled, hemmed in, or even disrespected, patronised, or looked down upon. We often need the kind of autonomy that would allow us to manage our own needs and our own tasks — without autonomy, it might be easier to see activities as low value, or undesired, as we haven’t had a hand in choosing them…
Lack of awareness
Without an understanding of our own feelings, we can end up saying, “I’m bored,” without even really realising if that’s the driving emotion. This is tricky, because building self-awareness takes time. It takes focused attention. And if we’re feeling bored, that tends to come with restlessness and an inability to focus in.
Boredom just feels like a huge shapeless thing — without dividing it down into contributing parts, it feels like a blob whose sides we cannot come in on. Without awareness, we might say ‘I’m bored’ without really understanding how or why or even if that is true.
I hate to use the word ‘personality’ here, but some of us are simply the kinds of people who want or need more stimulation than others. Those of us who do need to be continually challenged, inspired, renewed by activity, etc, tend to get bored more easily. There are conflicting views about whether intelligence makes you more prone to boredom, or less prone to boredom.
Regardless, whether we are ‘more prone’ or ‘less prone’, this is a kind of parallel point about awareness. What level of stimulation fo we as individuals actually need? This is something we can only really answer for ourselves.
The gap between potential and reality
When we feel as though our potential is being under-utilised, or that we could be doing something better suited to us, a gap opens up. Between what we are doing and what we feel we are capable of. Feeling as though we are making use of our skills, our interests and our talents is really rather important for many of us to feel fulfilled.
Not everyone has these demands in every aspect of their lives — plenty of us are happy to have our job be ‘whatever’, for instance, and then go home to pursue things we really care about. I’m not one of those people, unfortunately. However, even if we are able to work as one thing and find satisfaction outside work, it’s much easier to sustain this if we are aware of what we think we should be doing. Of what our potential really means.
What’s so bad about feeling bored?
Boredom, as stated above, isn’t necessarily the same as depression. But it does affect our mental health and our behaviour in various ways.
In the Scientific American:
In studies of binge-eating, for example, boredom is one of the most frequent triggers, along with feelings of depression and anxiety. In a study of distractibility using a driving simulator, people prone to boredom typically drove at higher speeds than other participants, took longer to respond to unexpected hazards and drifted more frequently over the centre line.
So there are at least a few repercussions from boredom that aren’t exactly good. Physical, mental and emotional consequences of boredom point to the fact that we don’t like to feel this way for good reason.
However, we do also overstate the problem bored poses for us. Sometimes, feeling bored can be a good thing — it tell us something useful, after all. It reminds us what we don’t enjoy.
While it is an opportunity to reassess and reflect, the reality of feeling boredom isn’t great. It’s a useful signal that something needs to change, but that doesn’t mean we are suddenly rebranding boredom — it’s still not great to go through. Without applying rose-tinted glasses, we can see boredom for what it is:
Boredom tells us something about our behaviour, our emotions, our values or our expectations.
If something is amiss, that’s our signal to embrace change.
Am I more likely to get bored?
According to this interesting piece from The Guardian, there are a few kinds of people who are thought to be ‘more susceptible’ to feeling bored. This includes ‘frustrated dreamers’, ‘thrill seekers’ and those who have experienced trauma. On the latter of these:
People who have suffered extreme trauma are more likely to report boredom…they shut down emotionally and find it harder to work out what they need. They may be left with free-floating desire, without knowing what to pin it on. This lack of emotional awareness is known as alexithymia and can affect anyone.
In this BBC article, it’s simplified further, to only two types of people — those who have “a naturally impulsive mindset” and are “constantly looking for new experiences” or those who are almost the opposite, for whom “the world is a fearful place, and so they shut themselves away and try not to step outside their comfort zone”. In essence, the way we break down susceptibility to boredom is complex, there is no uniform answer, and a lot of people will fall under these various types who are supposedly ‘more susceptible’.
The best we can do is to know ourselves. When do you get bored? What is the context? What emotions accompany these moments? How do you respond? There are plenty of ways to investigate this for yourself.
Dealing with boredom
So, you’re bored. What do you do about it?
Keep track, and set a reminder
When you’re bored, try to notice that is what you think you feel. Awareness is the start of being able to accurately track and respond to the kind of boredom you are experiencing. Write down the following, as close to the time that you notice the feeling as possible:
- Where are you right now?
- What are you literally doing right now?
- What do you feel? List emotions, even if you’re not sure what else other than ‘bored’
- Give each of them a percentage out of 100% — how strongly do you feel that emotion?
- What are your thoughts?
- Give each of them a percentage out of 100% — how strongly do you believe them to be true, right now?
If you get into this habit for a little while, it’s much easier to look at what is going on behind the boredom. Mine for instance tends to come with these thoughts:
“I am not doing anything useful”
“There must be something wrong with me”
“I can’t seem to get started”
“Nobody values what I do”
“I don’t value what I do”
“People don’t like me”
“I am worthless”
And so on. Quite a negative picture, but if you’re in the depths of the kind of restless, painful boredom that comes from what feels particularly like irrelevant actions, these are the kinds of follow-on thoughts that fuel the discomfort and dissatisfaction. This in turn keeps us feeling bored, or like change is too hard.
How to Keep a Journal for Better Mental Health
A guide from 20 years (and counting) of journaling and therapeutic writing…
Keep a note of the emotions and in which situations they arise, for at least a few weeks. Once you do, take a look back over it all. What were the common situations? What were the common accompanying emotions? Steps 4 and 6 are really important — the strength of your belief in thoughts or emotions indicates whether there is doubt. This leads me to the next stage…
Determine the cause of the missing percentage
If you think a thought like “I am worthless” or even “My job is worthless”, determine what makes up the missing percentage. If you believe this thought is 90% at the time of writing it down, for instance, what makes up that 10%? Where does your doubt in it come from?
You can either think generally about what constitutes that ten percent, or you can write down two categories: Evidence For (the thought being true) and Evidence Against.
Chances are, you have done some valuable things. Whether it is in the context that is currently boring you, or more generally. So the thought “My job is worthless” might have some cracks to chip away at. For instance, there might be something you achieved, even if small — you made someone smile, or you sent an important email, or you had a positive conversation. Anything at all can go here. This forms the basis of your Evidence Against, or what makes up you 10% of doubt.
This gives us a bit better view on whether there is any actual value in what we are doing. Once we reassert the balance, it’s a much less biased way of then re-examining the situation. With all our evidence for why the situation is worthless versus why is isn’t laid out in front of us, we can then think about our values more broadly…
Determine your values
What do you actually want? This is such a huge question, but really vital.
I have written quite a bit about values:
Are You Living A Life Based on What You Really Value?
Overcoming Blocks By Reasserting Your Values
In this piece, I talk about starting with a ‘beginner’s mind’, and thinking back to your childhood, amongst other techniques, for discovering what it is that really excites you in life. This still could mean using your journal to note the good times — the things that make you really happy, or that feel really positive.
The way into that reflection may vary (see the above article for more on this!). But in the end, you need to offer yourself the time to reflect on this issue. Determining what it is that you want to be doing goes a long way towards determining how much of your supposed boredom comes from genuinely not doing what you value, versus not really being sure of what you value, versus not seeing the value in what you are doing.
With clarity on what forms the basis of your values, what activities are associated with those values, you can get a better idea of what you really want to be doing, and therefore where the gap between desire and reality is actually coming from.
Set yourself the challenges
The important thing about dealing with boredom is not simply trying to fill space with passive activities, if the boredom is chronic. Eastwood describes boredom as akin to ‘quicksand’ — the more you thrash around from thing to thing, the worse it is. We sink into boredom even further.
This is where mindfulness often comes in, and it is a good way to recognise the details and interest offered by the benign or mundane. In Mindful Magazine, this is pitched as follows:
Mindfulness offers an antidote. Not to the experience that we usually label as boredom, but to our categorization of it as a bad thing, and our hurried attempts to be rid of it. Mindfulness invites us to see boredom not as something to reject, but rather to know, understand, and even embrace.
While I do think utilising mindfulness is a great tool, it is limited to noticing what is going on. Which is really important for keeping you present. But once you’ve done that, what next?
If you’ve noticed a gap opening up between values and reality, chances are merely noticing the reality better or with more detail, will only offer partial or temporary relief.
To me, this is where the need for action sits. Fairygodboss has this fairly good suggestion:
If your boredom at work is related to feeling unchallenged by your projects or manager, set yourself your own 30-day challenge. It can be something as minor as being a better networker in the office, or it can be a bigger challenge such as taking on a volunteer project that nobody wants to tackle.
This is in the context of work but applies elsewhere too. If you’re noticing a lack or a disconnect, it is time to set some personal challenges. But not aimlessly or randomly. These should respond to the kind of noticing and journaling that has gone into the process of becoming aware of your activity gap.
For instance, if you have noticed that you really value helping your community, but your day mostly centres around crunching numbers on a company’s behalf to make them profitable, how can you integrate even a small act of service into your day to day life? Profitability is a kind of service, some might argue, but if you want to go out and talk to people in your community and serve them directly, it’s about finding clear ways to do that. I don’t believe that spinning your reality into a quasi-value really helps much long term.
In my case, I value creativity very highly. However, most of my day requires me to write for others, not myself (and do a lot of admin, that has very little creativity involved). This means that I have to be somewhat vigilant about ensuring that some time is allocated day by day towards pursuing my own creative enjoyment. 15 minutes alone gets me much of the way towards feeling happier — and less bored.
Cultivating a Creative Writing Practice for Better Mental Health
How creativity can form the conduit to better mental health…
Start small, make your goals actionable, and quantifiable. Set a check-in date: your experiments should be something you document and take seriously. Experimenting with your time and how you feel best spending it will be the big step towards easing the kind of boredom that starts to feel chronic and unmanageable.
Use the opportunity
Boredom, at the end of the day, is a warning sign. Something is amiss, so here’s your chance to dig into it and make a change. In the words of Philosophy Professor, Andreas Elpidorou at the University of Louisville:
“In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”
And Dr Esther Priyadharshini, agrees: boredom is an opportunity to mull things over:
“We can’t avoid boredom — it’s an inevitable human emotion. We have to accept it as legitimate and find ways it can be harnessed. We all need downtime, away from the constant bombardment of stimulation. There’s no need to be in a frenzy of activity at all times.”
By recognising this opportunity, however, we can use boredom as our chance to grow or make changes, and slow down from everyday busyness. If we are all just moving constantly, doing duties constantly, and unthinkingly, we can fall into the traps of living through distraction, rather than through our values. Boredom can be a good way to give us a quiet moment to reflect, or it can offer us a signal that we spend too much time doing things we don’t actually care about.
Next time you feel the words “I’m bored” bubbling up inside you, take a moment. Where is this coming from? What’s going on in that moment? With a combination of mindful attention, of setting goals and reflecting on your real values, boredom isn’t a thing to fear. It’s an opportunity to move in the right direction.