Why Does Boredom Exist?

What function does boredom serve in our lives and why do we study it?

Posted Jun 01, 2020

It’s a great conversation killer at a party. Whenever you’re asked, “What do you do for a living?” replying that you’re a psychology professor is a sure fire way to shut down the conversation. Possibly because people feel as though you are in constant Freudian analysis mode, taking apart each word they say to diagnose their various pathologies. While one of us (John) is indeed a Clinical Psychologist, the other (James) is not. And regardless, John does not make a habit of psychoanalyzing everyone he meets! Far from it.

Sjale/Shutterstock
Source: Sjale/Shutterstock

When people find out that your focus is substantially on research, the typical follow-up question can open the conversation back up. “What do you study?” When you reply “Boredom” the most common reaction is a smirk that seems to say “Really?” Some just ask outright, as though studying boredom can’t possibly be a serious pursuit. Surely boredom is just part of the furniture of life — there in the room, but not of any real consequence. But boredom research is a serious pursuit, one we’ve been engaged with for close to two decades.

We came to it from different places, John from counselling young men complaining of boredom and a sense of failed life projects, and James from the classic, “physician heal thyself” adage — experiencing boredom and wanting to understand and conquer it. To be fair, he also examined boredom in young men who had suffered traumatic brain injuries and that prompted the pursuit of the neural correlates of boredom. Those reasons for satisfying our curiosity about the ubiquitous experience of boredom do little to highlight the importance of the topic itself. Why does boredom exist? And why does it matter?

The question of why boredom matters is possibly the easier one to answer. Boredom is consequential. Given our recent experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, this should come as no surprise. Stuck at home, our lives constrained by rules of social distancing, boredom has been a prevalent feeling. As the adage goes, “this too shall pass” — but boredom will be with us forever, pandemic or not.

We’ve known for some time that for those who experience boredom more frequently and intensely — the so-called boredom prone — it is associated with a long list of negative outcomes. Those challenges include poor mental health, starting with increased rates of depression, anxiety and aggression, and problems with alcohol and drug abuse. One epidemiological study even gave a hint of credence to the possibility that one could be bored to death. British civil servants who reported high levels of boredom in their job were more likely to die from heart disease decades later.

Beyond mental health, we know that boredom isn’t ideal for learning. Long associated with lapses in attention, researchers have consistently shown that boredom is associated with poor performance in academic settings. For teens more generally, boredom is a risk factor for substance abuse, risky sexual acts and even vandalism. Boredom — or more precisely, the tendency to be boredom prone — is consequential, making it vital that we understand the feeling state and its outcomes in greater depth.

Beyond the obvious applied situations in which boredom is critical, the feeling state itself is a ubiquitous human experience, one that until recently, has not received its research dues. And that brings us to the question our title poses: Why does boredom even exist?

Another way to ask this question is to ask why evolutionary forces would have selected for such an uncomfortable feeling? This is an interrogation of boredom’s function: What is it for? The philosopher Andreas Elpidorou (himself a Psychology Today blogger) suggests that boredom is a “push to act.” In the moment, we feel mentally unoccupied and this state is deeply distressing. Our preferred state is to be optimally engaging with the world to showcase who we are and what we are capable of — boredom is a call to action to achieve that end.

And what of animals? If this was indeed selected for at some point in our evolutionary history, there should be evidence of boredom in animals. In a study published in 2012 (and partly replicated in 2017), Rebecca Meagher and Georgia Mason examined the possibility of boredom in mink. They had two groups of mink, one housed in typically bland cages, with little to no opportunity to engage in any purposeful behaviours, and another group housed in cages with ample opportunity for action. The clever trick in this study came next. By exposing the two groups to pleasurable stimuli (a toothbrush, which is apparently to a mink what a laser pointer is to a cat), aversive stimuli (the smell of a predator’s urine) or neutral objects (a water bottle) they could differentiate the animal’s state.

A depressed animal would show little interest in the pleasurable stimuli. An apathetic animal would be indifferent to all stimuli. But a bored animal would launch at whatever was available, desperate for anything to engage in. And this is precisely what they observed. The animals housed in bland cages were quicker to approach all kinds of stimuli. They even ate more treats than the animals housed in engaging cages, something we see in humans (i.e., overeating when bored). When bored the animals were searching for any avenue to action.

In our book, Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, we make a strong claim about boredom. Yes it is uncomfortable, yes it often arises in situations that are monotonous and lack meaning. But much more than that, boredom signals to us that we are not being effective agents in the world. We are not deploying our skills and talents in a way that allows us to feel we are operating at our best. At our worst we seek temporary salves that are often not good for us — diving down the rabbit hole of the internet or having just one more beer. At our best, we can use boredom to contemplate what matters most to us. This doesn’t have to mean that we take on challenges that conquer the big problems. It just means finding something that matters in our lives and illustrates the many ways in which we contribute to the world around us.

As we write this, some parts of North America are beginning to consider opening up after many weeks of social isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What has been clear during this challenging time is that the restrictions on our normal repertoire of actions has been fertile ground for boredom. We contend that it is the affront to our sense of agency that breeds boredom. We want to be the author of our own actions and choices. When that authorship — or agency  — is removed from us, boredom ensues.

What we can learn from this challenge is that boredom forces us to focus on what matters. While it might be challenging to fulfill our desire to be effective agents during a pandemic, it is well worth our efforts to at least contemplate what we really want.  

While we’ve started here with a focus on boredom, we’re both interested in boredom’s opposite – engagement. If boredom represents the uncomfortable feeling of failing to optimally deploy our skills and talents, then the next obvious question to ask is: How do we optimally engage with the world? In our view, there is no single answer to this question. Engagement, in this sense, is a lot like happiness – what makes us happy will not necessarily do the trick for you. But research findings can point us in the right direction.

In this blog, we’ll not only explore the depths of boredom, but digress into the myriad ways that we can optimally engage with the world, from fostering curiosity, to the feeling of flow, to mindfulness and relaxation. Boredom may be singular, but the ways forward from the experience are most definitely not. The engaged mind, a sweet spot in human cognition, that’s where we hope to take this blog.