This article is part one of a larger essay that was originally published in the online journal RecoveryView.Com

During the long trek toward sustained sobriety, persistent and sustained boredom is unquestionably the feeling state that the average person struggles with most, and it is the affect that relapsed addicts invariably cite as the primary reason for succumbing to the temptation to use again. In short, when it comes to the avoidance and management of boredom—after years of regulating subjective well-being through the exclusive use of alcohol and drugs—the addict is in essence a one-trick pony (i.e., get high and stay high). So why, one might ask, has boredom been so ignored by both researchers and clinicians when it comes to drug and alcohol addiction?

Over the years, I have suggested a number of possible answers to this question, and I won’t rehash them here, except to mention two commonly held misconceptions about boredom. One is the implicit but almost universal assumption that boredom is too ubiquitous an experience to be taken seriously. Hence, it is seldom measured or inquired about by clinicians. The second is the fact that in most cultures, much like the supposedly “weak-willed” alcoholic of popular literature, complaints of frequent and persistent boredom are typically viewed as a sign of a flawed character. Indeed, from the parental admonishments in our childhood to the perky exhortations of the activity directors of our retirement communities, we spend our lives being constantly implored to simply say “no” to our boredom. Fortunately, these attitudes have been increasingly challenged by a growing body of research that suggests that boredom is an extremely important affect state that is intimately tied into the mechanisms of self-regulation and self-control, and that individuals (and possibly even cultures) vary in their susceptibility to boredom.  

What is Boredom?

To better understand boredom’s, albeit underappreciated, role in self-regulation, and by extension recovery; we need first to understand a little bit about what is meant by the term “emotion”.  For starters, it is important to appreciate that the distinction commonly made in everyday language between emotion and thought (or cognition) is more illusion than reality. There is no such thing as an emotionless thought or a cognition-free affective expression. A second key point to keep in mind is that the experience of emotion is a brain-based event. Much of what is described as emotional processing takes place in the center of brain (the meso-limbic area) whereas cognitive activity is associated with a much more recently evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC).  The meso-limbic emotional center, which is found in most lower animals, is designed to rapidly parse incoming sensory information into survival-relevant categories that in turn then motivate the individual to emit the appropriate survival-relevant responses (e.g., run away, fight and so on). It is a part of the brain that is centered on the here and now; it is not interested in long term goals, counterfactuals, or delay of gratification. The PFC, on the other hand, is a system that acts as the counterweight to the impulsiveness of the meso-limbic system. It attempts to inhibit rash actions in the face of insufficient evidence, weighs long term costs and benefits, and takes context into consideration.  It is the ongoing dance between these two systems that determine how and when emotions are expressed and moderated. And not coincidently, the neural pathways that link these two parts of the brain are the same pathways that figure most prominently in contemporary theories of addiction (e.g., Wiesbeck et al., 1996).

So what does all of this say about boredom? Well, when individuals are asked to provide a definition of an emotion like anxiety or sadness, they invariably provide a characterization of either the expressive or subjective aspects of the emotion.  In other words, they attempt to describe what it feels like or what it looks like to be sad or anxious.  And if one attempts to provide a similar type of definition for boredom, it is easy to see why it is often characterized as being too fuzzy a concept for clinical use. However, emotions also have a function. They can be defined by the role that they play in our attempts to adapt to our environments.   Anxiety, for example, signals an impending threat and serves as a trigger for the fight-freeze-flee response. The expression of depression and sadness, on the other hand, is a social cue marking an individual’s resignation in the face of a perceived experience of inescapable failure or loss. It is literally a cry for help and social support. In the case of boredom, it is generally believed that boredom is a signal that we have exhausted, or are on the verge of exhausting, all that is interesting, rewarding and potentially pleasurable in the current environment. Boredom prompts us to seek out a new and potentially more interesting and rewarding environment or to seek out yet untapped novelty and reinforcement in the current environment by changing the way we interact with it.

To the extent that survival of a species depends on exploration of the unfamiliar in the hope of finding new mates, new sources of food and water, new places of shelter, and, in general, new knowledge about the world and how it works, boredom is a critical navigational tool.  Consequently, it comes as no surprise that individuals who are frequently and persistently bored -- either because they are biologically predisposed to be easily bored (i.e., boredom prone) or because of inescapable monotonous conditions (e.g., prison) – also tend to be less well adapted. For example, high levels of boredom and/or boredom proneness has been found to be associated with higher rates of depression, anxiety, hopelessness, loneliness, impulsiveness, alcohol and drug dependence, negative affect, pathological gambling, somatization, truancy, academic failure, occupational dissatisfaction and absenteeism, and psychopathology in general.  In fact, there is preliminary evidence to suggest that chronic boredom may even be bad for our physical health (e.g., Blaszczynski, et al., 1990;  Kass, et al., 2001; Rupp,& Vodanovich, 1997). 

Temptation, Cravings, Relapse and Boredom

In its simplest form, the core struggle that takes place in early recovery (and often later) is between that part of the self-regulation system that we call “will power” and the temptation to use again. These feelings of temptation are referred to as cravings or urges, and they are invariably “triggered” by various cues in our environment (i.e., things that we have learned to associate with getting high).  Not surprisingly, there is considerable behavioral and neuro-imaging evidence to indicate that will power or self-control is centered in the PFC, the part of the brain that is tasked with inhibiting imprudent, impulsive behavior; whereas the visceral drive toward immediate gratification, the craving for a reward, whether in the form of drugs or food, is housed in the meso-limbic mid brain regions.  Moreover, we now know that the mental effort involved in inhibiting the cravings that emanate from the mid-brain requires a considerable expenditure of cognitive resources. When these resources are critically diminished, it is difficult for an individual to effectively inhibit cravings in other areas until the resources are sufficiently restored. (Baumeister, et al., 1998). This phenomenon, which is referred to as “ego-depletion”, explains why when participants in a study were asked to refrain from eating cookies that had been placed in front of them, they were less willing to exercise self-control on a subsequent task involving the spending of money. In fact, in a similar study, researchers were able to obtain essentially the same results by simply asking individuals to imagine themselves in the place of another person exercising will-power in an effort to resist the temptation to consume some food items (however, see  Job, et al . 2010, for an alternative interpretation of the ego depletion findings).

There are of course many implications that flow from these findings with respect to the recovery process. For example, it suggests that for poly-substance users, resisting the cravings associated with one substance may actually impair subsequent efforts to control the impulse to use another. However, I would like to suggest that there is one implication that is often overlooked, and that is that the exertion of effort involved in sustaining attention in the context of a boring task is also an ego-depleting activity. The bored individual is restrained (either intrinsically or extrinsically) from acting on the impulse or desire to direct attention elsewhere. In effect, a bored individual craves change and novelty. For most of us, this craving for change is normally managed by a suite of well-established and reasonably reliable boredom-management tools and strategies. They include such things as hobbies, relationships, work, and socially sanctioned behavioral addictions such as watching television, browsing the internet and even daydreaming about our past or future pleasurable experiences. However, in the case of the recovering individual, these alternative strategies have long ago dropped out of their boredom-coping repertoire, thereby erecting a strong bias toward strategies that invariably lead to drug seeking and drug use. It is therefore not surprising that studies conducted by my own research group and by others have repeatedly found that individuals who are easily and frequently bored for long periods of time are especially vulnerable to addiction and relapse (e.g., Orcutt, 1984).

Part two to follow shortly.

Baumeister, R. F. Bratslavsky, E.; Muraven, M.  &Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego Depletion: Is the Active Self a Limited Resource?. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 74: 1252–1265.

Blaszczynski, A., McConaghy, N., & Frankova, A.  (1990).  Boredom proneness in pathological gambling.  Psychological Reports, 67,  35-42.

Job, V., Dweck, C. S., & Walton, G. M. (2010). Ego Depletion--Is it all in your head?: Implicit Theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science 21 (11): 1686–1693.

Kass, S.J., Vodanovich, S.J., & Callender, A.  (2001).  State-trait boredom:  Relationship to absenteeism, tenure, and job satisfaction.  Journal of Business and Psychology, 16(2),  317-326.

Orcutt, J.D. (1984). Contrasting effects of two kinds of boredom on alcohol use. Journal of Drug Issues (14): 161-173

Rupp, D.E. & Vodanovich, S.J.  (1997).  The role of boredom proneness in self-reported anger and aggression.  Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12(4), 925-936.

Todman, M. (2009) Bored to Distraction.  Recovery View.com http://www.recoveryview.com/2009/06/bored-to-distraction-ego-depletion-recovery-and-relapse/#comments

Wiesbeck, G, A., Wodarz, N.,  Mauerer, C.,  Thome, J.,  Jakob, F.,  and Boening, J (1996).  Sensation Seeking, alcoholism and dopamine activity.  European  Psychiatry (11): 87-92.

About the Author

McWelling Todman, Ph.D.

McWelling Todman, Ph.D., is the Associate Professor of Clinical Practice, Director of the Mental Health and Substance Abuse Counseling Program at the New School for Social Research.

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