All of us feel bored at times. Finding the inspiration to create something new, or the energy to complete a routine task, can be particularly difficult when we feel uninterested. Boredom can also lead to unhealthy, impulsive behaviors, such as overeating or gambling, or stagnant emotional states like depression. So how can we get out of that rut and combat boredom? We have to start by developing a greater understanding of the purpose of boredom, as well as the various forms it can take. Armed with that knowledge, we can begin slaying the dragon of boredom with more skill, power and ease.
“The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.”
– Dorothy Parker
Function of Boredom
Boredom, like all other emotions, provides information. Emotions help guide our behavior in order to achieve our goals and/or avoid negative outcomes. For example, happiness may signal that we’re on the right path, sadness that we’re not, and boredom, that we need to take a closer look (at what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, whether it’s worth it or not, etc).
When we perceive something to be uninteresting, we experience a decreased emotional response related to the situation- that is, we feel bored (Bench and Lench, 2013). The experience of boredom is reflected in the shift of one’s attention to new external or internal stimuli (e.g., we are bored with the book we’re reading and our mind starts to wander). Various factors can contribute to boredom, but the result is always the same: a turning away from the present experience.
An exhaustive review of the literature conducted by Eastwood and colleagues (2012) confirmed the conceptual relationship between attention and boredom. They note that boredom is defined as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” For example, Pete loves to write fictional stories and is working on a novel. However, on a particular day he was noticing that he was having trouble concentrating on his writing and had writer’s block. He also noticed that he felt bored, something he never feels when he does what he loves most – writing. He was so focused on the fact that he had writer’s block that it led to a feeling of boredom (when the core issue was actually difficulty concentrating). To combat the writer’s block and feelings of boredom, Pete could try some new approaches to writing. For example, if he was used to typing on the computer at his desk, a change of environment and tools (i.e., paper and pen) could be an alternative behavior that may trigger some inspiration for Pete.
Simple tasks that do not need much focused attention may also lead to a lack of engagement. This is the form of boredom that we all familiar with – that comes up when we have to do some mindless chore like washing the dishes or folding laundry. Alternatively, attempting to complete complex tasks in an over-stimulated environment (e.g., loud music, conversations, activities happening all at once) can also lead to boredom (or feeling unsatisfied) as one’s attention is pulled in different directions. While we don’t typically think of changes in our attention as boredom, the associated feelings that come with drifts in attention are in fact boredom.
5 Types of Boredom
Goetz and colleagues recently published data from two studies examining different types of boredom, using sample pools of 63 college students and 80 high school students. In both studies, the students were given personal digital assistant devices (PDAs) to complete questionnaires about what they were doing and how they felt about it, six times a day. The researchers found five types of boredom that were related to various emotional states:
|Type of Boredom||Associated Emotions||Associated Behaviors|
|1) Indifferent||Relaxing||General indifference to, and withdrawal from, the external world.|
|2) Calibrating||Slightly unpleasant||Thoughts may wander, and open to doing things to change the situation, but not actively looking for alternatives.|
|3) Searching||Restless, may experience more negative emotions||Seeking out ways of minimizing boredom through distraction (e.g., repeated checking of Facebook!) or even thrill-seeking.|
|4) Reactant||Dislike, very unhappy, angry or aggressive||Leave situation and avoid those responsible for the situations (e.g., anger over being stuck in traffic).|
|5) Apathetic||Extreme aversion||Less likely to actively try to change the situation, similar to learned helplessness or depression.|
1.) Think about a recent time you felt bored and try to identify the specific type of boredom you were feeling. Understanding the type of boredom you might be experiencing and the type of conditions that lead to boredom can be a helpful first step into gaining insight about your process.
2.) Note the thoughts that are going through your mind when feeling bored. For example, in a study conducted by Critcher and Gilovich (2010), the researchers found that people are more apt to report feeling bored or dissatisfied when their minds wander to something positive. They tested this by having one group of students think about fun activities and the other group to think about obligations of duties. They were then asked to complete a task that required concentration – a jigsaw puzzle. Those who essentially conditioned their minds with thoughts of leisure (the positive group), then perceived the puzzle to be less satisfying. This study suggests that part of combating boredom is to be aware of the thoughts that come up while engaging (or trying to engage) in a task, and how you interpret those thoughts.
3.) Consider trying these strategies below, relative to the particular type of boredom you’re experiencing:
|Type of Boredom||Strategies to Try|
|Indifferent||Find more engaging ways to relax, rather than just “tuning out” and then later return to the task.|
|Calibrating||Take one small step in the direction of your goal, even if it’s something really simple. Getting started can lead to a sense of momentum.|
|Searching||Take a break from what you’re doing and engage in something productive, rather than mindless. Consider reaching out to friends or family for new ideas to try.|
|Reactant||Try some mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing, to reduce negative emotions or make a change in your environment if possible.|
|Apathetic||Make it a point to engage in a new activity, as novel experiences tend to help with the depressive characteristics that go along with apathy. Talk to friends about how you’re feeling and speak to a professional if you think you might be depressed.|
Be curious about your experience of boredom. See if you can identify the type of boredom you’re experiencing. See what kinds of thoughts you’re having about the situation related to the boredom. Try new things to see if you can find something that will engage your attention. Are there projects at work you want to try? New activities to do by yourself or with family? Learn a new skill? Brainstorm, make a list, and try them out!
What are some of your ideas for combating boredom? Share below!
Bench, S.W., & Lench, H.C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3, 459-472.
Critcher, C. R., & Gilovich, T. (2008). Incidental environmental anchors. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 21, 241-251.
Eastwood, J.D., Frischen, A., Frenske, M.J., & Smilek, D. (2012). The unengaged mind. Defining boredom in terms of attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7, 482-495.
Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Hall, N.C., Nett, U.E., Pekrun, R., Lipnevich, A.A. (2014). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion, 3, 401-419.
About this Contributor: Ivy Hall is a licensed clinical psychologist working at the California Department of State Hospitals. She graduated from UC San Diego with a B.S. in Psychology and received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Pacific Graduate School of Psychology at Palo Alto University in 2013. She has extensive experience in treating individuals with substance abuse and dual diagnoses, anxiety, depression and mood disorders, chronic pain and illness, PTSD, and end-of-life issues. She has provided services to a variety of populations (Veterans, dually-diagnosed, Axis II, young adults and families, incarcerated persons), across multiple modalities (inpatient, residential, and outpatient) using a variety of treatment approaches (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing (MI), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)). She is passionate about incorporating diversity into her work and personal life. Outside of work, she loves to cook, run, workout, and root for the Giants, Niners, and Warriors!