The most common way to define boredom in Western culture is having nothing to do. Boredom is generally viewed as an unpleasant emotional state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity. The condition corresponds more precisely to the French ennui, an existential perception of life’s futility. Ennui is a consequence of unfulfilled aspirations (Goodstein, 2005).
Boredom is a universal experience. Almost everyone suffers from it in the course of their lives. Existing survey estimates show that between 30 percent and 90 percent of American adults experience boredom at some point in their daily lives, as do 91 percent to 98 percent of youth (Chin et al., 2017). Men are generally more bored than women. There is also a positive link between very low educational attainment and boredom.
Boredom is predictive of loneliness, anger ("cabin fever"), sadness, and worry. As Kierkegaard remarked, boredom is “the root of all evil.” Boredom is such a motivating force that people do all kind of things to ease the pain. The chronically bored are at higher risk for drug addiction, alcoholism, and compulsive gambling.
Here are a few main causes of boredom:
1. Monotony in the Mind
Boredom is similar to mental fatigue and is caused by repetition and lack of interest in the details of our tasks (e.g., tasks that require continuous attention, prisoners who are locked up, waiting at the airport). Any experience that is predictable and repetitive becomes boring. In general, too much of the same thing and too little stimulation can cause in its victim an absence of desire and a feeling of entrapment (Toohey, 2012).
2. Lack of Flow
Flow is a state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities, akin to “being in the zone.” Flow occurs when a person’s skills match the level of challenge presented by the environment and when a task includes clear goals and immediate feedback. Tasks that are too easy are boring. In contrast, tasks that people perceive to be too difficult lead to anxiety.
3. Need for Novelty
Some individuals are more likely to be bored than others. People with a strong need for novelty, excitement, and variety are at risk of boredom. These sensation seekers (e.g., skydivers) are likely to find that the world moves too slowly. The need for external stimulation may explain why extroverts tend to be particularly prone to boredom. Novelty seeking and risk taking is the way that these people self-medicate to cure their boredom.
4. Paying Attention
Boredom is linked to problems with attention. What bores us never fully engages our attention. After all, it is hard to be interested in something when you cannot concentrate on it. People with chronic attention problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, have a high tendency for boredom.
5. Emotional Awareness
People who lack self-awareness are more prone to boredom. A bored individual is unable to articulate what it is that he or she desires or wants to do. They have trouble describing their feelings. An inability to know what will make one happy can lead to a more profound existential boredom. Not knowing what we are searching for means that we lack the capacity to choose appropriate goals for engagement with the world (Eastwood, 2012).
6. Inner Amusement Skills
Individuals lacking the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively will rely on external stimulation. In the absence of inner amusement skills, the external world will always fail to provide enough excitement and novelty.
7. Lack of Autonomy
People feel boredom a lot when they feel trapped. And feeling trapped is a big part of boredom. That is, they are stuck or constrained so that their will cannot be executed. For example, adolescence is a peak period for boredom, largely because children and teenagers are not given a lot of control over what they want to do.
8. The Role of Culture
In many ways, boredom is a modern luxury (Spacks, 1996). Boredom was literally nonexistent until the late 18th century. It came into being as the Enlightenment was giving way to Industrial Revolution. Early in human history, when our ancestors had to spend most of their days securing food and shelter, boredom wasn't an option.
Boredom also has its benefits. It is important to see boredom as a “call to action” (Svendsen, 1999). Nietzsche suggested that men of rare sensibility value boredom as an impetus to achievement. Boredom can be a catalyst for action. It can provide an opportunity for thought and reflection. It can also be a sign that a task is a waste of time — and thus not worth continuing.
Chin A. et al., (2107). Bored in the USA: Experience Sampling and Boredom in Everyday Life. Emotion. 2017, Vol. 17, No. 2, 359–368.
Eastwood, J. D., Frischen, A., Fenske, M. J., and Smilek, D. (2012). The Unengaged mind defining boredom in terms of attention. Perspect. Psychol. Sci. 7, 482–495.
Goodstein E.S. 2005, Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity, Stanford University Press, Redwood CA.
Spacks PM (1996) Boredom: The literary history of a state of mind. The university of Chicago press.
Svendsen Lars, (1999) A Philosophy of Boredom . Beaktion Books
Toohey, Peter (2102), Boredom: A Lively History. New haven: Yale University Press