Think about the last time you were bored.  Maybe it was when you had to stand in a never-ending grocery line, or when you were scrolling through Netflix unable to find a new TV show or movie that piqued your interest.  Even in such a fast-paced world, all of us are subject to experiencing the emotion of boredom.  Our brains may struggle to fill what little free time we get, our jobs may leave us feeling restless, and sometimes we may just have a lack of interest in our current surroundings.  Though it may seem like a trivial or mundane state of mind to be in, boredom and its effects on mental health are anything but.  Boredom is not nearly as discussed as other emotions like happiness, frustration, or anger, yet current findings have determined that this emotion can have major impacts on wellness, overthinking, productivity, and overall health. In this blog, we will unpack the emotion of boredom, exploring its influence on our everyday lives and brain health.

Understanding Boredom

Boredom is defined as a state of mind that is characterized by a lack of stimulation and interest with one’s surroundings.  The experience of boredom is completely subjective, as different factors can cause one individual to become bored while another is engaged.  For example, a children’s TV show may grip the attention of a child, while leaving a parent is left feeling disinterested.  Boredom can be induced by a number of things.1 It can come from a lack of external stimulation, or it can also be caused by one’s own internal factors such as a lack of motivation or purpose. It can happen as a result of a discrepancy between one’s desires and currently reality.  It can emerge as a result of doing repetitive activities, routine chores, or a lack of novelty in one’s everyday life that makes it seem as though time is moving begrudgingly slow. What is important to note about boredom is that it is not simply a lack of something to do.  A bored individual may want to do something and become stimulated, but they are unable to for whatever reason.

In addition, boredom can be associated with low-arousal states and high-arousal states alike.  On one hand, an individual may feel so bored with an activity that they find themselves falling in and out of sleep.  On the other hand, boredom can lead one to feeling restless and agitated to the point of foot tapping and pacing.  According to psychologist John Eastwood, PhD, from York University, boredom usually fluctuates between these two states.2  A person can muster up enough concentration to work on an unattractive task, but they can also fall back into monotony when the motivation drifts.

Who is most likely to get bored?

The capacity to experience boredom is quite universal.  In fact, over 60% of U.S. adults report that they experience feelings of boredom at least once per week.3  It can affect us when we are at work or school, and it can happen within our friendships, relationships, and during our free leisure time.  Research has shown, however, that boredom is most prevalent among young people, men, those who are unmarried, those with alexithymia (the inability to identify and label one’s own emotions) and those with lower incomes.2,3  Additionally, individuals who have a high sensitivity to reward are at higher risk for boredom.  For example, those who pine after thrill-seeking activities, such as sky-diving and bungee jumping, are more likely to find that the world moves too slowly and are easily bored.  The opposite type of individual, the ones who are overly sensitive to punishment and experience higher levels of anxiety, are more likely to pull back and hide away from the world.  When they act like this out of self preservation, they may become bored and disenchanted with the lack of stimulation in their lives.2

Pros and Cons of Boredom

The Pros

When people are engaged with demanding tasks such as work, school, an interesting movie, or a captivating conversation, their brains do not really experience boredom.  However, when these activities are done, individuals tend to fatigue and they may look for ways to entertain themselves, but this downtime also allows the brain to recuperate.

  • The brain needs rest: When brains are focused on a specific, intensive task, it is exerting high levels of energy.  After a period of intense focus, it is then able to return to a resting state and restore itself through the default mode network.  Within this network, several different interconnected brain regions activate and support one another to bring the brain to its resting state.3  Within the resting state, the brain is able to do a number of important tasks such as consolidating memories and reflecting on events and lessons that the person might have learned that day.  The brain plays back the events and scenarios of one’s experiences and is able to apply those lessons to the future.  In this downtime, people can think about their actions and the actions of others, reflect on the past, and think about the future.3
  • The brain learns to be creative: As the brain spends time in its default state, it can learn to develop creative answers to issues within that person’s life.  In a state where the brain is unable to become distracted by a phone game or the latest Twitter headlines, it has time to wander freely and think about problems more feasibly.3  When an individual is constantly distracted by other things, the brain cannot rest and indulge in any creative thoughts. However, take the shower as an example; when a person is able to isolate themselves and focus on just this activity, their brains are able to roam to other thoughts beyond the shower and mull over different perspectives and problems that they are grappling with.
  • Boredom encourages novel interests and introspection: Though boredom can be a frustrating emotion, it can encourage individuals to try new things they would otherwise never do. According to a 2021 study, the COVID-19 pandemic was a period of time in which mass amounts of people were experiencing boredom at high levels due to lockdowns and isolation protocols.4  In this time, people had to find new ways to experience novel interests, like baking, cooking, painting, knitting, and others.  Boredom can also lead individuals to meditate and reflect on their lives; what they want to accomplish, what they aspire to be, and how to practice self-improvement routines.  Other research studies show that moderate levels of boredom inspires individuals to engage in creative thinking and problem solving behaviors.1

The Cons

In modern times, we have had no issue finding things to distract ourselves from boredom.  We are constantly bombarded with never-ending stimuli in the form of texts, social media, Youtube videos, and almost any type of media entertainment one can think of.  Even with all of these distractions, individuals can still become bored and it has its own negative consequences.

  • Boredom is linked to depression and anxiety: Research shows that boredom is not only the experience of having nothing to do or engage in, but it is an emotion that affects one’s mental health and behavior.  Studies have shown that boredom is a risk factor and symptom of depression.  According to a 2015 study, 722 students were scored on boredom and depression scales.5  Results showed that students who scored high on the boredom scale also scored high on the depression scale, which gives an indication of how boredom is directionally related to depression.  Though some people find isolated time to themselves as restorative and reflective, boredom for others can disturb motivation, affect goal-directed behavior, reduce pleasure, trigger anxious thoughts, and exacerbate symptoms of anxiety disorders.1
  • Boredom is an undesirable emotion: People do not really enjoy feeling bored, regardless of how beneficial time spent with one’s own thoughts can be. In a 2014 study, researchers found that 67% of male participants and 25% of female participants would rather administer electric shocks to themselves instead of having to sit alone with their thoughts and experience boredom!6  Feelings of boredom can also lead to decreased levels of productivity, poorer mental health, and is associated with negative behaviors such as self-harm, impulsivity, sensation-seeking activities, substance use, and distracting behaviors within the workplace.1 More severe cases of chronic boredom can also lead to shorter life-spans, as research shows that people who experience higher levels of boredom were more likely to die young compared to people who had more ways to engage with the world around them.2


How to deal with boredom

Finding a balance between boredom and activity is important for balancing one’s mental health and giving our brains a rest.  To combat feelings of boredom:

  • Spend time outside.  Going for a walk outside can provide an individual with a number of benefits.  Walking is great for fitness, and being outside can provide our brains with a therapeutic way to stay engaged with our surroundings and feel somewhat relaxed.
  • Embrace moments of rest and relaxation.  It can be tempting to always be onto the next activity or social gathering that will distract you from your thoughts.  However, setting aside intentional time to let your mind wander, reminisce, and rest is important for your mental health too.
  • Try a new activity that isn’t too daunting.  When people attempt to quell their boredom, it may sometimes feel like too much work or too difficult to think of something worthwhile.  Beating boredom does not have to be fancy.  Simply writing in a journal, listening to music, roaming the aisles of a library, or trying a new cooking recipe can make such a big difference!
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