"Perhaps the world's second-worst crime is boredom; the first is being a bore." — Cecil Beaton

Creativa Images/Shutterstock
Source: Creativa Images/Shutterstock

Boredom. Ennui. Apathy. Doldrums. World-weariness. Whatever word we use to describe it, the feeling is all too familiar. And while boredom is not easy to define, dealing with it is a persistent challenge for many of us, and regular topic of psychological research, especially over the past decade.

Researchers looking at boredom have proposed various theories to explain why we get bored and the role that it plays in how we think and behave. Neuroscientists have suggested that boredom occurs due to low levels of arousal or stimulation, which motivate us to search for novel experiences. In a real sense, escaping boredom underlies much of our need for entertainment, whether new movies or TV shows, fads, or the latest online memes.  

Most research into boredom focuses on three main issues:  

  • Who is most susceptible to boredom? The focus here is on boredom as a personality trait. Psychometric tests have even been developed to measure "trait" boredom, including the Boredom Susceptibility Scale and the Boredom Proneness Scale.
     
  • What situational factors contribute to boredom? Engaging in tasks that are monotonous or unstimulating seems to a prime cause of boredom, though, again, some people seem more susceptible than others.
     
  • What are the consequences of boredom? While most theories about boredom suggest that it probably serves a useful function, boredom still tends to be regarded as something that must be avoided. Negative consequences of boredom can include depression, substance abuse, absenteeism from work or school, reduced job satisfaction, and even a general sense that life has no meaning.

Recent surveys indicate that anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of Americans report feeling bored at some point in a typical day. Young people seem particularly vulnerable, with surveys showing 91 to 98 percent reporting daily bouts of boredom.

The most comprehensive studies of boredom typically involve experience sample methods (ESM), i.e., using a diary to record thoughts and emotions at specific times during the day. This also enables participants to report other emotions or experiences that may occur with boredom, and enables investigators to explore how age and gender can influence who is most likely to experience boredom and under what circumstances.

A new study published in the journal Emotion used experience sampling to examine boredom in 3,867 U.S. adults over a three-year period. Alycia Chin of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and a team of researchers from Carnegie Mellon University recruited their participants as part of a larger nationwide study. With an average age of 44, participants were evenly divided between male and female and were reasonably representative of the general U.S. population.

All participants were asked to complete questions using a custom-made iPhone app (participants without iPhones were supplied one for use in the study). The app was designed so that participants could report their time use (i.e., what they were doing, who they were with, and where they were), overall mood, how alert they felt, as well as the different emotions they experienced (anger, boredom, confidence, contentedness, excitement, exhaustion, frustration, happiness, hopefulness, indifference, interestedness, loneliness, love, overwhelmed, relief, sadness, and worry). For each time-use question, the app provided a set of additional options for some entries, including follow-up questions to extract further information.

Data for the study was collected in a series of annual waves from 2011 to 2013, during which each participant was required to use the app to record their daily experiences every waking half-hour over the course of seven to 10 days. Compliance was extremely high with a total of 1,126,113 half-hour reports being collected, an average of 291.21 reports per person.

The results showed that 63 percent of participants reported feeling bored at least once during the course of the study period. In fact, boredom was the seventh-most commonly reported emotion, with the only other negative emotions more frequently reported being exhaustion, frustration, and indifference. Boredom was also far more likely to be reported in conjunction with negative emotions than with positive ones. These negative emotions included loneliness, anger, sadness, and worry. Participants were least likely to report boredom while feeling happiness, hope, or relief.

Men were far more likely to report feeling bored than women, and single participants were far more prone to boredom than those who were married. As expected, age was also an important predictor, with the predicted level of boredom of a 25-year-old participant being nearly four times as high as that of a 45-year-old. Other factors, such as level of education, income, and employment status, also showed a relationship to the level of reported boredom, though these relationships were weaker.

Activities most commonly associated with boredom in the study included studying, "doing nothing," and working. Activities least likely to be linked to boredom included personal grooming, sleeping, and sports/exercise. Participants were more likely to report feeling bored in the presence of strangers, coworkers, or when they were alone, and least likely to report boredom when with children, partners, or friends.

Schools, medical facilities, airports, and places of work were most commonly mentioned as sites where people were prone to boredom. Participants were slightly more prone to reporting boredom during weekdays than weekends, but there didn't seem to be other indications that people were more prone to boredom on certain days of the week.

While this study suggests some intriguing conclusions, Chin and her colleagues acknowledge some limitations in their research. There was no way to prove that certain situations may be more likely to cause boredom, for example, or how being bored affects the way people think or behave. There is also the question of what "boredom" actually means to individuals, since many people define it in different ways. Still, boredom seems to occur most often in situations where people tend to lose focus because they are carrying out activities they consider to lack meaning to them.  

By understanding the nature of boredom, including the situations that lead us to feel bored, we can learn to recognize the harmful consequences of too much boredom and foster more fulfilling lives. As Richard Bach said, "In order to live free and happily, you must sacrifice boredom. It is not always an easy sacrifice."

References

Chin, A., Markey, A., Bhargava, S., Kassam, K. S., & Loewenstein, G. (2017). Bored in the USA: Experience sampling and boredom in everyday life. Emotion, 17(2), 359-368. 

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