People seek out novelty and excitement. We explore, discover, and create. At the same time, we all experience moments of boredom. Whether it’s during a long meeting, a tedious task, or a lazy afternoon, boredom can have negative effects on our mood or energy levels and leaves us feeling unfulfilled.
Frequently being bored is associated with mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, lower achievement at school or work, and worse social relationships. Boredom can even drive people to actions that are harmful for example substance abuse, reckless or antisocial behaviours, and breaking lockdown rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. Participants in an experiment even gave themselves electric shocks rather than just sitting in a room without anything else to do.
These varied experiences of being bored, and the diverse impacts it has, demonstrate that boredom is a complicated phenomenon. Boredom can also be a trait, with some people more prone to getting bored than others, or it can be a temporary state that comes and goes for everyone. In this post, we explore the science behind boredom and what research can tell us about how to overcome it.
What is boredom?
Boredom is a state of mind characterized by a lack of interest, motivation, and engagement with the world around us. When we’re bored, we may feel restless, irritable, and unfulfilled. We may also experience physical symptoms like fatigue, lethargy, and a lack of energy.
How to recognize when you’re bored
Recognizing when you’re bored is the first step in overcoming it. Some common signs of boredom include:
- Feeling disengaged or uninterested in what you’re doing
- Checking the clock frequently or counting down the minutes
- Daydreaming or zoning out
- Procrastinating or avoiding tasks
- Engaging in mindless activities like scrolling through social media
The psychology of boredom
Watching the clock can be a sign of boredom
Cats Coming / Pexels
Boredom has long been studied by psychologists, who have identified several explanations or causes of boredom. Some research has focused on a desire for new things or “novelty”. For example, when people see lots of negative images in a row, they choose a positive image next. This might not be surprising but seeing lots of positive images in a row can also lead to boredom, and then people want to see a negative image instead.
Another recent study also found that participants rated their mood as lower after doing repetitive tasks or having time to “rest” without anything to do. However, novelty does not seem to explain boredom completely as there are lots of new experiences people still find boring, and other experiences we have many times without ever getting bored of them.
Other research has considered attention as a key aspect of boredom as people often report they struggle to pay attention when bored or start daydreaming or mind-wandering. Problems with attention are particularly relevant to the impacts of boredom at work or school. However, it is difficult to test whether a lack of attention causes boredom or is one of the effects of boredom.
Getting the level of engagement “just right”
Building on research that examined novelty or attention, a new framework for understanding boredom suggests it occurs when there is a mismatch between how much we want to be mentally or “cognitively” engaged in a task and how engaged we actually are. For example, sometimes boredom feels like a need to do something more challenging but at other times we get bored if something is too demanding, such as a difficult lecture at university. The authors use the term Goldilocks to describe this idea of having a level of engagement that is “just right” and boredom as a signal that we are not achieving this optimum. The framework is also applied to explain why some people get bored more often than others. Someone could be prone to boredom if they have unrealistically high expectations about how engaging tasks will be, for example thinking everything they do will be fun and meaningful. People who desire a level of engagement that is either very high (“wants a challenge”) or very low (“takes the easy option”) are also more likely to be bored, as most day-to-day activities do not match these extremes.
Tips to overcome boredom
We sometimes find very complicated tasks boring, as well as getting bored when something is easy or repetative
Source: RF._. studio / Pexels
How can these scientific ideas about boredom help us minimize the negative experiences and impacts in everyday life? The Goldilocks framework suggests our expectations about how engaging a task will be are key for determining whether we might get bored. Being realistic and recognizing that some tasks are easy and repetitive whereas others are complex and demanding means we are more likely to accurately match our level of engagement to what is required.
Another important aspect of the framework is that “engaging” with an activity can mean different things depending on our specific goal at the time. A relaxing solo activity like reading a book could be highly engaging if your current goal is to unwind, but very boring if your goal is to interact with other people. This suggests being aware of our goals and choosing activities that match them could be a good strategy to reduce the chance of getting bored. Even when we have no choice about what activity we have to do, there might be a way to make it feel more meaningful.
Boredom is a natural part of the human experience but can cause low mood or lead to harmful behaviours. Decades of research have tried to understand boredom and suggested it is associated with wanting to do something new or reduced attention. A new framework suggests boredom is a signal that we are not at our optimal level of engagement. This approach highlights how useful this signal can be. By recognizing when we are bored and understanding the science behind boredom, we can use strategies to overcome it.
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