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Are we nearly there yet? The truth behind boredom

We’ve all had an uncomfortable experience of being bored. It is both emotionally and physically painful. It is that frustrating, gut churning, heart-thumping, angry and often overwhelming feeling that we get when we are thrashing about in a state of wretched stagnation. Typically, this is when we are stuck in a situation that we have no control over, like waiting for a train that is delayed, or being stuck in a lecture that is of no interest and seems to be dragging on.

Are you always bored?

There has been very little research on boredom as an emotion, yet all of us experience it to one degree or another. However some people have a very low tolerance to boredom and find themselves being bored a lot. Alongside shame (another much under researched emotion), boredom is one of the most difficult emotions to experience and it’s not surprising that those who struggle with boredom continually seek ways to rid themselves of it.

Boredom manifests itself as a plethora of unpleasant feelings, and arise during times where we lack control.

Boredom manifests itself as a plethora of unpleasant feelings, and arise during times where we lack control.

People who struggle with boredom tend to seek out ways of behaving to relieve them from boredom that are risk taking or thrill seeking and, in some case, dangerous. They may take risks with money, relationships, sex, drugs, they may overeat, drink too much, and are probably more prone to accidents than most people as they can end up in risky and dangerous situations.

Why we get bored

Research suggests that this is because boredom is a problem with attention (problems with focusing), and with ‘arousal’ (in psychology speak). In this context ‘arousal’ means emotional arousal, either hyper-arousal (high) or hypo-arousal (low).

  • People who experience high arousal levels might be experiencing symptoms that range through anxiety, racing thoughts, impulsivity, manic-ness, or agitation and jitteriness.
  • Low arousal people may experience feelings of numbness, passivity, being disconnected or shut down, for example.

All of us are on this spectrum of high/low arousal somewhere, and we may move up or down this spectrum through life. People who are on the lower end of the arousal/energy scale tend not to experience boredom very often. Control is also a factor. We are more likely to be bored in situations in which we have little or no control (like waiting for a delayed train to arrive). In this situation we have little agency to change what is going on.

So, boredom occurs when someone with a high level of energy and arousal levels, coupled with a difficulty in focusing (which may be temporary, or more permanent) finds themselves unable to settle at a task or activity. They are almost too jittery to settle, and are left in a desperate state of wanting with no relief available. The urge to move on, and move away from these unbearable feelings is extremely difficult to resist for any of us who have experienced it.

Thrill-seeking will only make boredom worse

In the quest to alleviate the uncomfortable feelings of boredom people seek out experiences and activities to counteract their feelings, hence the move toward risky or dangerous activities. It works for a while, but the body and mind are now being topped up with even more arousal inducing experiences so that the individual’s levels of anxiety, impulsivity and agitation actually increase over time rather than decrease. More and more thrill seeking activities are sought out to counteract the frustrated energy levels and uncomfortable feelings, which only serves to make the problem worse over time. In some people this persistent emotional arousal can lead to more severe mental health difficulties.

People often engage in ever-escalating thrill-seeking activities to attempt to alleviate boredom, but the real cure for boredom lies elsewhere.

People often engage in ever-escalating thrill-seeking activities to attempt to alleviate boredom, but the real cure for boredom lies elsewhere.

The problem of boredom is therefore seen to the sufferer as a problem to which there are solutions in the environment, in the world around us. The sufferer believes that getting a new job/relationship/car will make things better, or that taking on more and more ‘exciting’ or thrilling activities will be the cure for the terrible feelings of boredom.

Boredom as a mental health issue

Research by Professor John Eastwood at York University in Canada suggests that the solution is actually in the opposite direction. In effect, the perpetually bored are naturally leaning towards behaviours and activities which make their situation worse rather than better.

Professor Eastwood sees this, sometimes tragically, in young men who talk about their life situation as a ‘failure to launch’ – they may still be living at home, struggling to get a job or a relationship and failing to become the man and the adult that society expects of them. Boredom is often cited as the main problem, alongside the judgement of others. Eastwood says “We find as a culture people are very harsh towards those who get bored. They get upset or judgemental where they wouldn’t react like that to people with another mental health issue”. Boredom is frequently linked to depression and anger, and other behaviours such as pathological gambling, bad driving, sensation seeking and impulsivity.

The real cure for boredom

Studies on both boredom and the human autonomic arousal system suggest that counteracting high arousal levels is best done by methods that slow down the arousal rate, so activities such as relaxation, meditation or mindfulness for example. According to the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who influenced folk like Freud, Nietzsche and Albert Einstein, boredom is a reminder of the meaninglessness of life and human existence.

If used positively boredom can be used to spur an inward dialogue and searching for our own meaning or purpose in life. Boredom when used well can be an amazing springboard to creativity. Bored people who use their boredom well get creative and inventive! What’s that saying about ‘idle hands….’?!

With an understanding of our true purpose in life, and lower arousal levels through activities such as mindfulness, boredom could be an occasional experience rather than the destructive life driver that it is for some people.