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Are You Interested in Boredom? Here's Why You Should Be

Psychology research reveals why we get bored, and what to do about it.

Those of us fortunate enough to escape the truly devastating effects of the current pandemic may still find ourselves wrestling with one sneaky, pesky consequence of the restrictions and limitations we’ve been forced to endure: boredom.

While boredom is a familiar experience, defining it with clarity is no easy task. Philosophers have long been interested in boredom. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard saw boredom as a kind of “nothingness” that permeates reality. The American philosopher and psychologist William James argued that boredom “comes about … from the relative emptiness of content of a tract of time, we grow attentive to the passage of the time itself.” The British philosopher Bertrand Russell defined boredom as “a thwarted desire for events,” which emerges when we experience our present circumstances as less desirable than some other imagined situation and when our attentions are not be fully occupied.

saydung89 for Pixabay
Source: saydung89 for Pixabay

Psychologists, for their part, have been researching mainly two types of boredom. The first is the so-called “trait boredom”—defined as “the recurring tendency or chronic disposition of individuals to experience boredom.” Research has shown that trait boredom (also known as 'boredom proneness') may be a powerful predictor of important outcomes such as depression and anger.

High boredom proneness is also associated with lower self-control, self-esteem, and academic achievement, and was recently found to predict poorer adherence to the rules of social distancing and isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The second type of boredom of interest to psychologists is “state boredom”—the periodic, ordinary doldrums we all experience from time to time. Because it is inconspicuous and appears to lack an affective component, state boredom was not always considered a full-fledged emotion. However, recent research has demonstrated quite convincingly that boredom is indeed an emotion and a highly aversive one at that.

While boredom may not strike us with the intensity of other, better-studied emotions, it can have a forceful influence on people’s mood and behavior. Like other emotions, boredom has the potential to motivate opposite behaviors, both constructive and destructive.

For example, both having sex and failing to do so may be caused by boredom. Moreover, the same behavior may acquire a different meaning if motivated by boredom as opposed to another emotion. The meaning of sex is different when motivated by boredom as opposed to, say, passion.

An elegant recent paper (2018) by the researchers Erin Westgate (university of Florida) and Timothy Wilson (University of Virginia) sought to review and integrate the literature on state boredom into a new explanatory model. Referencing York University researcher John Eastwood and colleagues (2012), the authors define such boredom as “the aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in a satisfying activity.”

“Like physical pain,” the authors note, “boredom is a symptom that things are not quite right; when understood and heeded appropriately, boredom is both healthy and necessary ... It is a canary in the coal mine of everyday existence, signaling whether we want and are able to cognitively engage with our current activity—and impelling us to action when we do not or cannot.”

The authors describe three distinct lines of boredom research. The first looks at external environmental factors that bring about boredom, including “insufficient stimulation, non-optimal arousal, and constrained choice.” Indeed, research has shown that boredom is predicted best by situational factors, particularly those that involve monotonous or difficult tasks or harsh constraints on one’s autonomy.

The second line focuses on attention regulation, and how boredom results from “the profound failure of attentional systems to successfully orient, engage, and maintain focus on an activity.”

The third line focuses on the possible functions of boredom. This approach emphasizes “the role that emotions play in conveying information relevant to one’s current circumstances.” Boredom, in this context, is seen as “a distress signal that motivates behavioral or cognitive change “ signaling “whether an activity serves a useful goal…or is meaningful,” and conveying information about “whether the current activity serves a useful goal.”

Integrating these perspectives, the authors propose that boredom is “an affective indicator of unsuccessful attentional engagement in valued goal-congruent activity.” Boredom informs us whether we are both able and want to engage in our current activity. It is a functional emotion with both attentional ("can I focus?") and meaning ("do I want to?") components. We experience boredom when we are either unable or unwilling to engage in an activity. Conversely then, avoiding boredom requires us to have both the ability and the desire to engage in an activity.

According to their Meaning and Attentional Components (MAC) model, we engage cognitively when our available mental resources fit the cognitive demands of the situation. This optimal fit can work in two possible ways: low-level engagement "where available resources and demands are both low (e.g., a tired person has just enough energy to watch TV or work on a Sudoku puzzle)," and high-level engagement "where available resources and demands are both high.”

Attentional failure, in this model, happens when the demand-resource fit is disrupted in one of two ways: under-stimulation (the task is too easy) or over-stimulation (the task is too hard). Both will lead to boredom.

The second boredom component in this model is meaning, which refers to the degree one cares and desires a certain activity or goal. “Activities feel meaningful—and people want to engage in them—when they are congruent with currently activated goals that are both valued and task salient.” The more an activity is relevant to a valued goal, the less boredom we are bound to experience. When our activity does not serve a valued goal, boredom is likely, even if our cognitive resources are well-matched with the demands of the activity.

The authors argue further that “specific deficits in attention and meaning result in distinct profiles of boredom.” They describe three such profiles:

Attentional boredom occurs when “people are unable to successfully engage their attention in an otherwise satisfying activity.” (e.g., you like math, but the math class you're in is way too easy).

Meaningless boredom occurs when “an activity is incongruent with valued goals.” (e.g., you don't care about math, but you have to take a math class).

Mixed-state boredom occurs “when both attention and meaning deficits are…present,” such as when we have “more than enough resources to complete a meaningless task” or “insufficient resources to complete a meaningless task.” (e.g., you don't like math, and the math class is too hard).

According to the model, boredom “provides people with information about their current attentional and meaning states which they then use to form judgments and make decisions.” Thus, different types of boredom may signal different problems and motivate different behaviors. The authors describe four ways to alleviating boredom:

Switching activities. Meaningless boredom requires switching to a more meaningful activity. If your boredom is the result of under-stimulation, you may want to opt for a more complex, interesting (rather than enjoyable) activity—for example, watching a documentary about WWII. If your boredom is caused by overstimulation, then it may be wise to choose a simpler and enjoyable (rather than interesting) activity, like reading to your kids.

Regulating goal value. When switching activities is impossible or undesirable, you may want to switch your goal, or reconstruct the goal to make it more meaningful (e.g., turning a mundane activity into a game or competition).

Regulating cognitive demands. When a meaningful activity is either intellectually too hard or too easy (both of which result in boredom) you may try to regulate either the demands of the task or your own cognitive resources. If you’re under-stimulated (the task is too easy) try to make the task more complex, for example by placing a time limit on it, or doing it in a new way. If you’re over-stimulated (the task is too hard) you may look to simplify the task—for example, by eliminating distracting background noise or breaking down the task into smaller portions.

Regulating mental resources. When task demands are high and difficult to simplify, we may look to escape boredom by increasing our mental resources either short-term (coffee!) or long-term (practice, practice, practice).

The upshot of this discussion is that rather than respond thoughtlessly to boredom, we are wise to consider carefully the information it conveys and adjust our behavior in ways that recalibrate our efforts to fit the demands of the situation and redirect them toward meaningful goals.

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