Everyone feels bored at times. It is an emotional state associated with attention, perception, memory and creativity. However, chronic boredom can adversely affect our mental health and lead to stress, anxiety and depression.
What Is Boredom?
Boredom can be defined as an undesirable psychological and emotional state where a person experiences a lack of attention, interest or concentration in the current activity. Most of us tend to feel bored when there is a lack of activity or due to a lack of interest in the present environment. A 2019 study 1 explains “Boredom is an aversive emotional state.” It adds that this phenomenon is “characterized by proneness and susceptibility, which are associated with avoidance and approach behavioural dispositions, respectively.” Although there is no universally recognized definition of the phenomenon, it occurs when someone feels the current moment is dull, mundane or tedious. It can also be caused by various factors like having nothing or little to do, simple or unchallenging tasks, repetitiveness, low task identity, lack of novelty, and monotony. This emotional state shares a complex relationship with leisure-time experiences and is characterized by –
- Unpleasant feelings
- Unsatisfactorily low level of stimulation
- Low physiological arousal
- Lack of motivation
However, it is believed that this mental state is not the same as apathy or depression. It is an unpleasant state of mind that tends to result from a lack of stimulation and may lead to various behavioural, social and medical repercussions. The experts at Mind Help explain boredom as “a state of lethargy and weariness caused by disconnection and detachment with available environmental stimuli. It is characterized by a lack of interest which can cause feelings of depression.” Feeling bored is one of the most unwanted emotions experienced on a daily basis. Although boredom may be associated with feelings of lethargy, it can also be a result of being uninterested or unsatisfied with a task or having difficulty with focusing on an activity. A person can also feel bored when they are energetic yet do not have anything meaningful to invest their energy in.
Boredom In Children And Adults
Children tend to be bored more than adults as they are yet to learn how to manage their feelings. This state is widely observed in children & adolescents who are of school-going age and have short attention spans. They may enjoy a particular activity in one moment and may feel bored with it the very next moment. This may be caused by their inability to cope with their own thoughts and emotions. This emotional state may “systematically increase during adolescence,” and may lead to temperamentally disinhibited behavior and delinquency in adolescents, found a 2015 study 2. According to a 2016 study 3, “Adolescent boredom is associated with maladaptation and negative developmental outcomes.” The researchers found that around 20% of adolescents experience high levels of boredom.
Research 4 also shows that up to 87% of working adults can feel bored at work sometimes. For adults, the feeling enables them to express their ennui, dissatisfaction and frustration with being unchallenged in work and life. Feeling bored with work can be interpreted as feeling not being utilized according to one’s skills and potential. It is perhaps a signal of absence of intellectual stimulation which can eventually cause stress and depressive feelings. In fact, chronic boredom can hint at the presence of various underlying mental health issues like depression. People suffering from depression often complain about losing interest in activity they liked earlier and feeling bored. In such cases, it is best to consult a doctor or a mental health professional and seek treatment.
How Feeling Bored Affects Us
Most of us know what it feels like when we are bored. However, there is no scientific answer regarding what the phenomenon is. Moreover, as boredom can be influenced by both internal and external stimuli, it can be even harder to find a concrete answer. Generally, boredom is regarded as a state of discomfort or malaise marked by feelings of disinterest, weariness and emptiness. From a psychological perspective, the condition is considered as an unpleasant, temporary affective experience where a person feels a lack of high-quality interests or options to invest their attention in, along with trouble concentrating. It is related with the self-perception of attention and cognitive attentional processes. This is a response of the individual to being under-challenged or underutilized.
Boredom can be a strong, motivating force that can make a person engage in different types of positive and negative activities to relieve the discomfort and uneasiness. According to a 2019 study 5, this phenomenon results in “a seeking state” which inspires and motivates the individual “to explore new experiences, even if those experiences are hedonically negative. Specifically, as emotional responses fade, boredom motivates the pursuit of alternative experiences that differ from the experience that resulted in boredom.” In fact, being bored is associated with high risk taking behaviour as well according to a 2018 study 6. The researchers state that individuals with “high boredom proneness used technology more, engaged less in hobbies and activities such as sports, more frequently consumed strong drinks and binge drank, and were more at risk of Internet addiction” than non-bored individuals.
Feeling bored is a universal phenomenon that is not only experienced by humans but animals 7 alike. As boredom is a common experience, how we respond and react to the feeling and how long we spend being bored is a crucial determining factor for how it will affect us.
Being Bored Vs Ennui
It should be noted that boredom and ennui are related yet different conditions. The French term Ennui is existential in nature and is caused by unfulfilled aspirations. Ennui is a form of chronic boredom and involves feelings of dissatisfaction and listlessness. It is often a result of lack of excitement or occupation and involves apathy, dissatisfaction, weariness and being unfulfilled and uninterested with everything.
As ennui is an existential perception of futility of life, this mental state involves internal doubts about the purpose & actions of the self, either in major aspects of life or in general. It is a combination of boredom, tiredness and depression which is experienced by most people on a regular basis. While boredom refers to a state of feeling bored, ennui is a strong feeling of listlessness or melancholia arising from boredom.
Boredom in the workplace is known as boreout syndrome. It is a common malaise and is considered to be a mental health condition and may lead to physical illness as well. A 2014 study 8 found that work-related boredom is recognizably distinct from bored behaviour, even though these are closely related. “Work-related boredom was positively related to depressive complaints, distress, and counterproductive work behaviour, and these associations were fully mediated by bored behaviour,” state the researchers. The experts at MindJournal define boreout as “the result of prolonged boredom, under-stimulation and unchallenging tasks that cause severe dissatisfaction.” Boreout may be caused by various reasons such as –
- Lack of purposeful work
- Lack of intellectual challenge
- Lack of opportunity for progression
- Lack of qualitative or quantitative workload
- Mental underload
- Constant lack of satisfaction
Moreover, if there is a mismatch between the job description and the actual work, then it could also lead to boreout. The theory was discovered by Swiss business consultants Peter Werder and Philippe Rothlin in their 2007 book Diagnose Boreout. Unlike burnout, which is caused by chronic work stress, boreout syndrome is primarily caused by lack of meaningful tasks, instead of job stress, in the workplace. It is a complex, widespread, yet largely unknown, phenomenon that can have certain negative effects on the sufferer. Although some people may think appearing busy at work rather than actually being busy is a great idea, it may lead to various adverse outcomes such as –
- Serious psychological problems
- Low self-esteem
- Lack of confidence
- Severe anxiety
- Chronic fatigue and lethargy
- Lack of commitment to work
- Feelings of guilt and shame
- Feelings of uselessness
- Poor sense of self-worth
- Chronic boredom
- Alcohol or drug abuse
This can even result in absenteeism, resignation from work and depression. Boreout can also have certain physical health risks like dizziness, headaches, stomach problems, memory problems, tinnitus, vulnerability to infection and insomnia. This condition can also act as a trigger for epilepsy due to exhaustion or stress, ulcers, shingles, tremors and severe sleep disorders. It may also result in personality issues, self-injury 9 and suicidal ideation 10 in extreme cases.
Read More About Depression Here
Brain Structure Of Boredom
Everyone feels bored, but some individuals are prone to chronic boredom which can be unhealthy for our overall well being. Although this phenomenon does not result in any difference in brain hardwiring, reacting negatively to this state of mind can seriously affect our emotional and psychological health. It has been observed that individual preferences and differences regarding our need for novelty and excitement can be a significant factor. Moreover, men tend to experience this condition more than women. Men are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviors, prefer dangerous ways to entertain themselves and find their environments non-stimulating.
However, researchers have observed a certain pattern of brain activity in people who are prone to boredom and high-risk behavior. While experiencing excitement, happiness and novelty, the neurotransmitter dopamine tends to trigger the response in the human brain. Scientists believe that people who experience chronic boredom and are high-risk prone tend to have lower levels of the chemical messenger dopamine. This simply means that these individuals require a heightened sense of novelty for their brains to be stimulated. Although researchers are yet to identify the region of the brain responsible for regulating boredom, people with damage in the frontal cortex tend to be more prone to boredom and risk-taking desires. Moreover, the frontal cortex may also be associated with the phenomenon as it manages our perception of time and the feeling of time passing slower when someone is bored.
According to a 1998 research paper published in the Advances in the Study of Behavior, brain function may get impaired due to the lack of or too little (new) input for a long period of time. The paper states “Studies of sensory deprivation suggest that this is so. It may be that the existence of the feeling of boredom, with its concomitant behavior abnormalities, provides sufficient neural activity to maintain the brain in a low input situation.” When the phenomenon continues to an extent where insufficient input leads to a higher risk of neural system damage, then it “may have stronger and stronger effects on the individual, which, although more and more unpleasant, are more likely to prevent the damage.”
The Positive Side Of Being Bored
This emotional state is associated with feelings of discomfort, frustration, lack of focus and productivity, it is often seen in a negative manner. However, being bored is found to be associated with creativity. One 2014 study 11 revealed that boredom can lead to certain positive outcomes, such as an increase in creativity. The study states “boring activities resulted in increased creativity and that boring reading activities lead to more creativity in some circumstances (such as convergent tasks) than boring written activities.”
Another 2013 study 12 established the close relationship with boredom and increased creativity, despite the popular belief that both notions are complete opposites. Surveys show that participants claim an increased level of creativity is one of the subjective positive outcomes of this emotional state. However, there are many other positive outcomes associated with being bored apart from being more creative. It encourages a person to pursue alternative goals by increasing their autonomic arousal. “By motivating desire for change from the current state, boredom increases opportunities to attain social, cognitive, emotional and experiential stimulation that could have been missed,” adds the study. Boredom is also associated with other positive behaviours like prosocial behaviour, reflection and challenge-seeking behaviour.
Consequences Of Being Bored
Some people are more likely to develop boredom proneness 13 which can affect their educational involvement, career planning, lifestyle, emotional autonomy, relationships and interdependence. Moreover, boredom in the workplace can affect a person’s performance and lead to reduced productivity and unnecessary outcomes, according to a 2016 study 14. They may feel underemployed or overworked and feel stressed, disillusioned or distracted. Bored employees are also less likely to focus on their tasks or engage with it. Research 15 shows that being bored over a prolonged period of time can lead to aggression and has been found to “increase levels of violence and be detrimental to health,” when left unaddressed. In extreme cases, individuals who feel constantly bored may suffer from underlying mental health conditions like depression.
It is common for people with depression to lose interest in activities that were pleasurable earlier, lack focus and attention and feel chronic boredom. Moreover, it may also result in dementia as well. A 1996 study 16 states that mental stimulation, generated internally or externally, “ensures the flow of blood, oxygen and nutrients to the brain… Without this stimulation, neuron shrinkage and atrophy eventually may lead to depression and senile dementia.” Research 17 has found that boredom is significantly related with depression, hopelessness, loneliness,and amotivational orientation. It is also negatively associated with life satisfaction. Chronic boredom may also be associated with some other mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, somatization, interpersonal sensitivity, hostility and anxiety 18, found another study 19. According to a 2003 study 20, being bored can lead to the following in people suffering from psychotic disorders –
- Post-psychotic mood disturbances
- Increase in risk-taking and substance abuse behaviours
- Worsening of symptoms like hallucinations and paranoia
- Alterations in distractibility and cognitive effectiveness
- A hypohedonic state of uninterest
Evidence 21 also shows that boredom proneness is “associated with reduced cognitive function.” Further research 22 shows that chronic boredom can also lead to alcohol and substance abuse in adolescents, along with pathological gambling. Studies have also found that bored individuals, especially adolescents 23, are also highly prone and at high risk of high school dropout 24, internet addiction 25 and internet activities, binge drinking 26, drug abuse, compulsive gambling and HIV risk behaviors 27. Moreover, another 2015 study 28 found that chronic boredom is closely linked with loneliness. According to a 2018 study 29, this phenomenon is also associated with the following negative outcomes and reactions as well.
- Low arousal, such as depressed feelings, dissatisfaction and resignation
- High arousal, such as stress, frustration and aggression
- Discomfort and distress
- Attention problems
- Counterproductive behaviour
- Poor performance
- Reduced motivation and effort
- Withdrawal from work
- Work injuries
- Unhealthy eating
- Property damage
- Political extremism
Boredom can also be a determining factor in unhealthy emotional eating or binge eating leading to various physical health problems like obesity, found one 2018 study 30. However, boredom coping skills training along with rehabilitation strategies and social skills training can help sufferers, suggest the researchers.
Symptoms Of Boredom
This state of mind can manifest in a number of ways and may often begin in a subtle manner which can make it harder to identify during the initial stages. However, in general, a person may feel empty inside and experience a gripping sense of frustration. It can also affect their concentration and focus leading to a shorter attention span. Here are some of the most common emotional and psychological experiences that a person may feel when bored:
- Apathy or lack of interest in surroundings and activities
- Fatigued and listlessness
- Jittery, nervous or anxious
- Stressed out
- Inability to feel excited or thrilled
- Lack of motivation
- Inability to relax and rest
- Feeling a lack of control
Long periods of boredom can affect someone’s ability to function in daily life and may lead to depression, especially if the person has anxiety. When depression is associated with boredom, the following symptoms should be taken into account:
- Self-criticism and blaming self for feeling bored
- Avoiding socialization or engaging in social withdrawal
- Avoiding opportunities to feel engaged and active
If the above mentioned symptoms are present along with boredom, then the person should seek medical help immediately to get treatment.
Causes Of Feeling Bored
Commonly, a person may feel bored when they experience an unengaging, uninteresting or boring situation. However, individual factors and personality traits may also cause boredom proneness in some people. A 2014 study found that the situation, the individual and the interaction between the situation & the individual tends to cause this aversive emotional state. Moreover, cognitive factors, like inattention, hyperactivity & impulsivity, along with emotional and environmental factors also influence the onset of this condition, according to research 31.
Anyone can experience the symptoms of boredom at times. However, some individuals can experience chronic boredom that can affect their physical, emotional and mental well being, if left unaddressed. Moreover, children and adolescents are more prone to feeling bored, than adults. A 2018 study explains “scientific studies attest to the fact that adolescents appear to be more easily bored than virtually any other age group.” This is because they typically lack freedom of choice and are yet to understand themselves fully. A lack of focus in life can cause this emotional state as well. Here are some of the most common reasons that cause persistent boredom in a person:
- Poor attention
- Tedium and monotony
- Little or no interest in the activity
- Strong need for new experiences constantly
- Lack of control and autonomy
- Lack of self-awareness
- Inability to express self
- Impaired perception of time
- Lack of mental stimulation
- Lack of rest and relaxation
- Afraid of failure or making mistakes
- Lack of inner resources for self-amusement
- Lack of diversity in daily life
- Lack of connection and close relationships
- Having an unhealthy lifestyle
It has also been observed that a person can feel constantly bored when they lack purpose and meaning in career, relationships and life. A 2016 study states “The emotion of boredom is distinct from other negative affective states, as it is characterized by feeling unchallenged and perceptions of meaninglessness.”
Read More About Causes Of Boredom Here
Diagnosis Of Boredom
As feeling bored is not a psychiatric disorder, there is no specific test to diagnose this aversive emotional state. However, chronic boredom may indicate underlying depression. Whether in adults or children, if boredom begins to affect a person’s performance at school or work, impair their daily functioning and negatively impact the quality of life, then it is best to consult a doctor or a mental health professional. A doctor may conduct certain lab tests to determine if the symptoms are caused by any underlying mental health conditions and to rule out other factors. Once other factors have been ruled out, the doctor may diagnose the patient for boredom proneness using the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS). A study 32 explains “BPS takes boredom proneness to be the tendency to experience boredom in a wide range of situations.” This will help the doctor to devise an effective and helpful treatment plan.
Treatment Of Boredom
As boredom is an emotional state, there is no particular medical treatment available for it. However, when someone is experiencing chronic boredom, then it is crucial to seek professional help as it may be a sign of some underlying psychiatric condition such as depression. When feelings of being bored are associated with sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, withdrawal and self-blame, then it can indicate major depression. In such cases, seeking treatment is important as one can overcome depression with psychotherapy and medications.
Coping Strategies For Boredom
Although there is no specific treatment for boredom, there are certain helpful preventive & coping strategies that can help someone overcome this emotional state. Some of the most common and effective self-help and coping strategies may include:
1. Engaging in new and different activities
One of the simplest and easiest strategies to overcome boredom is to focus one’s attention on doing new activities that stimulates and interests their mind and focus. To stay engaged and interested, a bored person can learn a new skill, pursue their passions and hobbies, socialize and spend time with loved ones, think about a new career path, exercise regularly or become a member at a community group.
2. Pursue New Goals
According to a 2013 study, boredom plays a crucial role in human goal pursuit. “Boredom is a discrete functional emotion, and serves to encourage people to seek new goals and experiences. Boredom provides a valuable adaptive function by signaling it is time to pursue a new goal,” states the study. Hence, an effective way to overcome feelings of being bored is to have new and challenging goals in life. This can help a person to stay engaged, stimulate their mind and focus on tasks that they value and have meaning to them. Journaling can help some understand their goals and what has meaning in their life.
3. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness refers to the practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. Usually, this is done by focusing on the process of breathing – inhaling and exhaling – and being aware of the present moment as it unfolds, without getting attached to it or judging it. Mindfulness can not only help with attention difficulties, it can also improve focus and concentration. Mindfulness meditation can help to train one’s attention to become aware of all experiences, positive, negative & neutral, including boredom. A 2011 study 33 states “The elements of mindfulness, namely awareness and nonjudgmental acceptance of one’s moment-to-moment experience, are regarded as potentially effective antidotes against common forms of psychological distress – rumination, anxiety, worry, fear, anger, and so on.”
4. Avoid boreout and burnout
One should avoid doing too much work or too little work. Anyone feeling bored persistently due to a lack of work or workload should learn to manage cognitive demands. Not only should they try to find creative ways to make their work more interesting and challenging, they should also try not to overwhelm themselves with excessive stimulation. If someone is suffering from boreout, then pursuing an additional qualification or learning a new skill can help them expand their career prospects and make work more challenging & interesting. In case of burnout, the person should learn to take on one task at a time, instead of multitasking. Moreover, the person should also learn how to identify stressors.
Here are some additional preventive and coping techniques that you can use when feeling bored on a regular basis:
- Integrate different repetitive activities and tasks and do them together
- Enjoy life and do more pleasurable things, like watching movies, eating your favourite food etc
- Engage in creative expressions, such as writing, playing a musical instrument, gardening, drawing or colouring etc.
- Build a healthy lifestyle such as exercising, doing yoga and following a healthy diet
- Make time to relax, get enough rest and practice good sleep hygiene
- Take a break from your daily routine that makes you feel bored and go for a vacation
- Change your surroundings by thinking about new, innovative ways to make your environment, such as your workspace, better
- Be more emotionally expressive around trusted loved ones
- Frequently interact with friends and family and make new friends
- Have a go-to list of new activities that you may try when feeling bored
- Create a special area or a safe refuge where you may rest, ruminate and introspect while embracing, instead of battling, boredom
Read More About Burnout Here
Seek Support When Bored
Boredom is a common human experience that most of us often go through. However, chronic boredom can be a cause for concern. Learning self-help and coping strategies can help someone overcome this aversive mental and emotional pattern. But as feeling bored frequently can often hint at an underlying psychiatric disorder, it is crucial to seek support from loved ones and get medical attention, especially if boredom is affecting daily functioning and quality of life. A mental health professional can help you cope with boredom and find new passion and purpose in life.
Boredom At A Glance
- Boredom is an undesirable psychological and emotional state where a person experiences a lack of attention, interest, or concentration in the current activity.
- Boredom can be a strong, motivating force that can make a person engage in different types of positive and negative activities to relieve discomfort.
- Prolonged boredom, under-stimulation, and unchallenging tasks can cause severe dissatisfaction.
- Boredom is also associated with other positive behaviors like prosocial behavior, reflection, and challenge-seeking behavior.
- In the case of chronic boredom, seeking professional help is crucial as it may be a sign of some underlying psychiatric conditions, such as depression.
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