Boredom is an intense feeling of listlessness, frustration and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of interest, attention, challenge and stimuli. Understanding what exactly causes this emotional state can help us overcome it and experience joy and excitement.
An Aversive Emotional State
Boredom is an unpleasant feeling created by a conflict between a lack of interest or inability to be interested in mental activity and an intense need for it. It can be defined as an aversive emotional state of desire to engage in stimulating & satisfying activity, but an inability to do so due to issues with attention. A 2014 study 1 on the phenomenon explains “boredom is an aversive state that is characterized by feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness, and weariness.”
When bored, we do not feel content with our present situation which leads to feelings of listlessness, weariness & mental fatigue. It is a state where an individual craves mental engagement and activity but they tend to be unaware of what exactly they need. This state is primarily dominated by awareness, attention and stimuli.
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Why We Feel Bored?
The first step towards dealing with being bored is to understand the precise causes that lead to this state. Boredom can be caused by a variety of different determining factors, such as internal and external influences. Although a boring situation can make someone feel bored, a person may also be prone to feeling this way even though there are enough stimuli in the environment. According to a 2014 study 2, “Some theories emphasize the role of the situation, some emphasize the role of the person, and some emphasize the interaction between situation and person in causing boredom.” However, it is believed that behavioural inhibition and interaction can also be contributing factors. Research 3 also shows that cognitive, emotional, motivational and environmental factors can also cause this condition. Cognitive factors like executive dysfunction, impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention should be specially considered, according to the study.
Evidence indicates that this aversive state is also related to ‘life meaning’. Researchers 4 have found that a lack of meaning in life can not only cause boredom, but it can also predict changes in boredom over time. “Existential theory and previous qualitative research have suggested that a lack of life meaning and purpose causes boredom, as well as other types of negative affect such as depression or anxiety,” explain the researchers. This notion is validated by another 2016 study 5 which found that the emotion of boredom is different from negative emotions as this affective state is marked by “feeling unchallenged and perceptions of meaninglessness.” Moreover, one 2012 study 6 points out that boredom can occur when a person is –
- Unable to effectively engage attention with internal & external stimuli (thoughts, emotions, environment etc) necessary for involving in a satisfying activity
- Aware that they are unable to engage interest & attention and thus failing to partake in the satisfying activity
- Attributing the reason of their boredom to the environment or lack of external stimuli
What Causes Boredom?
There are different factors that lead to the onset of this aversive mental and emotional state resulting in weariness and frustration. Here are some of the most common primary factors that may cause boredom in an individual:
1. Attention problems
Issues with attention is perhaps the most common cause of boredom. We can feel bored when the environment or an activity fails to capture or hold out attention for long. Attention affects our interest which also influences our concentration as well. Individuals suffering from chronic attention issues are more likely to experience boredom. According to a 2012 study 7, high boredom-prone individuals (HBP) tend to have poor sustained attention and show symptoms of depression and Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The study reveals that boredom proneness and attention share a complex relationship. It states “Apathetic boredom proneness was associated with attention lapses, whereas agitated boredom proneness was associated with decreased sensitivity to errors of sustained attention, and increased symptoms of adult ADHD.”
Monotony, dullness and dreariness are one of the primary reasons for this emotional state. It is a form of mental fatigue that may be a result of repetition, lack of challenge and lack of interest in the environment or activity, such as waiting at a train station or airport. Any task which is repetitive and predictable in nature can appear boring to an individual. Research 8 shows that boredom and monotony can even act as stressors producing certain detrimental effects. The researchers state “Boredom and monotony are generally conceded to be negative factors that can have adverse effects on morale, performance, and quality of work.”
3. Desire for new experiences
Some individuals seek novelty more than others. People who are constantly looking for variety, excitement and new experiences are more likely to feel bored as they find normal, daily life to be mundane and slow. Sensation and thrill seekers, like adventure sports enthusiasts, or even extroverts need external stimulation constantly, leading to boredom. This can also lead to risk-taking behaviors as an attempt to find relief. A recent 2020 study 9 reveals that novelty is intricately connected to pleasure through certain experiences such as creativity, mindfulness and flow. It states “Novelty is related to emotional arousal through the alleviation of boredom and hedonic and eudemonic well-being.”
4. Lack of control
Freedom, autonomy and control can also be important determining factors and may lead to feelings of boredom in someone. Lack of control and autonomy can lead to feelings of entrapment which can make a person feel bored with their situation. As they are unable to implement their will, they feel restricted or stuck. Perhaps, this is why children and adolescents are more prone to boredom as they lack control. Authors of a 2018 research paper 10 state “a lack of autonomy or the experience of constraint has been identified has one of the causes of boredom.”
5. Restricted flow
When we have a flow in completing a task or when we are “in the zone”, we can be completely invested and involved in it. When a task offers a challenge and is matched to a person’s skills and abilities, a state of flow can offer an immersive experience and a sense of accomplishment on completion. A 2011 study 11 describes flow as a uniquely positive experience and state that inspires individuals to accomplish challenging activities and tasks “at a high level.” However, when a task or environment is vague, unchallenging and lacks or offers too little stimulation, it can appear boring. The researchers explain that flow “occurs when a person is completely absorbed in a task or situation and is characterized by entering a ‘channel’ where task demands and skills are equivalent so that one is not below this channel in a state of boredom or above this channel where the challenges of the task overcome one’s skill set.” Moreover, a lack of clear feedback and goals can also be contributing factors as well.
6. Lack of self-awareness
Individuals who lack emotional awareness are more likely to experience chronic boredom. These people are generally unable to identify the emotional state of being bored and find it difficult to express what they are actually feeling. They are also unable to understand what they need or wish to engage in. This inability to identify emotions and not knowing what may make them feel satisfied can make the person increasingly prone to boredom. One 2005 study 12 established that there is a noticeable association between boredom and lapses of conscious awareness & attention.
7. Distorted perception of time
Boredom-prone individuals tend to find that time passess slower than usual when they feel bored or are unable to engage in a task as they have an impaired perception of time. One study 13 explains that “depressed affect produces a subjective slowing of time but does not alter the perception of objective passage of chronometric time.” Researchers believe that our psychological sense of time is crucial for our functioning and survival as it provides information to our executive system that regulates and monitors behavior. “When information processing load is below an optimal level for a specific Individual a feeling of boredom is raised. Boredom is accompanied by a slowing of the felt pace of the flow of time,” explains a 2014 study 14.
8. Other factors
Apart from the ones mentioned above, there may be some other factors that can cause someone to experience boredom, such as:
- Lack of coping skills or inner resources for self-amusement
- Absence or low levels of mental stimulation
- Lack of choice or options in daily activities
- Absence of diversity in recreational interests
- Lack of rest and relaxation
- Following an unhealthy diet and lifestyle
- Not having clearly defined goals
- Lack of self-development over a long period of time
- Not expressing oneself creatively enough
- Poor self-image
- Fear of failure
- Not pursuing goals and dreams in life
- Lack of connection with like-minded people
- Burnout or working excessively
A child or an adolescent may experience the mental and emotional state of boredom during an activity due to the reasons mentioned below:
- Poor attention
- Little or no interest
- Constant repetition of the task
- Vague and unclear instructions
- Lack or control or inability to explore new approaches
- Afraid of failure or making mistakes
Boredom is a temporary yet complicated emotional state and is common in all ages. But it can cause difficulties in functioning 15 over time, if left unaddressed. However, understanding the common causes is the first and most important step to overcome it. Although there is no specific treatment for this aversive state, therapy and self-help strategies can help someone successfully deal with it in the long run.
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- Kimberley B. Mercer-Lynn, Rachel J. Bar, John D. Eastwood, Causes of boredom: The person, the situation, or both?, Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 56, 2014, Pages 122-126, ISSN 0191-8869, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2013.08.034.
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- Anita Bowser, Wendy Link, Mary Dickson, Dr Lesley Collier & Dr Maggie K. Donovan-Hall (2018) A Qualitative Study Exploring the Causes of Boredom for Men with a Psychosis in a Forensic Setting, Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 34:1, 32-48, DOI: 10.1080/0164212X.2017.1331151