Boredom is at once both easy to identify and difficult to define. A small but growing collection of scientists have devoted their research to boredom, and some conceive of the state as a signal for change. Boredom indicates that a current activity or situation isn’t providing engagement or meaning—so that the person can hopefully shift their attention to something more fulfilling.
There’s a distinction to be made between the state and the trait: State boredom refers to feeling bored in a specific situation, while trait boredom refers to how susceptible one is to boredom. Trait boredom is correlated with self-control, anxiety, depression, and substance use.
Boredom may occur when our energy isn’t channeled into an outlet that provides meaning or fulfillment. But this encompasses a few key components. One is mental arousal, having energy you want to devote to something engaging. A second is difficulty concentrating on a single task. And a third is lack of control over your surroundings, such as in a waiting room or lecture, in which you can’t redirect your attention to a different activity.
Boredom is a catalyst for change and an opportunity for reflection. Therefore, the feeling may arise during a task that isn’t challenging or is extremely repetitive. It can emerge due to a lack of self-awareness about what we find fulfilling. Personality traits also play a role—those prone to sensation seeking, extraversion, and novelty may be more likely to experience boredom.
Some therapists who treat patients that constantly struggle with boredom believe that boredom may be due to masking emotional pain, such as a childhood trauma, which renders the person unaware of their true wants and needs. The person may also be under-stimulated or navigating procrastination and anxiety.
Susceptibility to boredom is correlated with substance use. People may use alcohol or drugs to relieve boredom and avoid confronting painful emotions or thoughts. Targeting boredom early with engaging activities that children or teens find meaningful may theoretically help them avoid turning to drugs or alcohol.
Boredom can’t kill you—but it may be correlated with dying earlier. A study of 7,500 British adults found that people who were often bored at work were more likely to die earlier and 2.5 times more likely to die of heart disease than those who weren’t bored. They also reported less physical activity and poorer health, which could be a link between boredom and mortality.
The best way to overcome boredom may be to explore and identify why you feel bored in the first place. If you realize that an activity isn’t valuable to you, perhaps you can explore how to engage in more valuable experiences in the future.
In a situation that you can’t control, meditation can help you feel boredom less acutely. And in the case of a dull work task, simply getting it done quickly may be the best option.
Boredom is a state of failing to find meaning, which is a deeply uncomfortable feeling. Yet rather than try to escape it, throw yourself into boredom so that you can explore what might provide fulfillment to overcome it. Eastern cultures have long understood the value of embracing boredom, believing it to be a path to a higher consciousness.
Think of the experience as meditation, such as “bus-waiting meditation,” and turn it into an opportunity for breathing exercises. Take time to reflect on an aspect of your life for which you feel grateful. Approach the experience as a journalist or scientist, exploring what specifically is fueling your boredom. These tricks and others can reframe the moment.
Boredom has the capacity to spark creative ideas and launch new projects. For children, boredom can propel new routes of play and self-entertainment, which can help develop creativity, self-reliance, and relationship skills.
Boredom can provide unexpected opportunities for children to learn and grow. When children are bored, and responsible for entertaining themselves (without screens), they develop new ways to do that. They learn to tolerate uncertainty, exercise creativity, communicate with others, and negotiate conflict.
In cultivating their own identity and preparing to leave home, adolescents may disavow everything they previously loved to make space for new interests, hobbies, and relationships. Frustration and confusion during this process can manifest in boredom. This can lead some teens to act out to relieve boredom or struggle internally with feelings of hopelessness or despair.