Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Staving Off Boredom by Focusing On It

Feeling all of your emotions is the key to avoiding boredom.

You probably have a complex relationship with new things.  For example, the first time you hear a new song, it is unfamiliar, and you are not sure whether you like it.  After that first listen, the song begins to grow on you.  For a while, it may seem like you can’t get enough of the song, and you may play it repeatedly.  Eventually, though, you get bored with it, and another song captures your attention.

 This same pattern comes up across many different aspects of your life, including foods, TV shows, and even friends.

 The reasons for this boredom are straightforward.  Initially, you focus on the positive characteristics of the new thing.  In order to continue to experience the positive feelings that come along with that thing, you spend more time with it.  Eventually, though, your experience begins to feel repetitive.  You can predict what is going to happen.  And so, you start to feel some negative feelings in addition to the positive ones.  When those negative feelings outweigh the positive feelings, you go in search of something new.

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 Psychologists call this phenomenon satiation.

 Can you slow down the rate of satiation?

 An interesting paper by Morgan Poor, Adam Duhacheck, and Shaker Krishnam in the October, 2012 issue of the Journal of Consumer Psychology explored this topic.

 They suggested an interesting prospect.  If you focus both on the positive experience of the object as well as the negative experience, you might actually be able to slow down the rate of satiation.  The idea is that if you acknowledge the negative feelings that occur as you start to get bored, you may engage strategies to think about the object in different ways in order to continue having a positive experience with it.  They tested this proposal in several studies.

 In one experiment, participants either listened to a short snippet of music or to a longer and more repetitive part of the same piece.  Pretests showed that people who listened to the shorter piece liked it better and experienced less boredom than those who listened to the longer piece.  The participants in this study read one of two articles before listening to the music.  One group read about how important it is to distinguish among all of the emotions you are experiencing.  A second group read about how difficult it is to distinguish among emotions.  Finally, the participants listened to the long piece of music.  Every 30 seconds, they rated their overall enjoyment of the song.  Consistent with the researchers’ proposal, people who read about the importance of distinguishing among emotions enjoyed the piece throughout the listening period.  Those who read about the difficulty of distinguishing among emotions quickly got bored, and after three minutes, they were no longer enjoying the music.

 Another study in this series showed a similar effect with looking at a beautiful photograph.  In this study, participants also described any strategies they used to help manage their emotions.  Participants who were encouraged to distinguish among all of the emotions they experienced often talked about trying to manage their emotions by focusing on the positive characteristics of the photo and looking for new subtleties in the picture over time.  Those who were not encouraged to distinguish among their emotions were much more likely to try to avoid the photo in order to avoid the negative experience.

 Putting this together, these results suggest a novel approach to satiation.  A good way to fight boredom is to start by acknowledging that you are getting bored.  By allowing yourself to experience both the positive and the negative emotions, you can engage strategies to help you accentuate the positive characteristics of the experience to allow them to continue to outweigh the negative ones.

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 Check out my book Smart Thinking (Perigee).

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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