What is the meaning of boredom?

It may seem like a trivial question but it is one that I have been asking myself a lot lately and one that you might have pondered over yourself at some point. Everybody gets bored, but why? And why is it such an uncomfortable emotion? Is there a meaning behind it? What can I do about it?

Boredom refers to the state of being disinterested in the outside world, in your thoughts and usually occurs when you are alone with just yourself.

Our brains need stimulation from somewhere and when we don’t get that stimulation, we become bored. The emotion can take any form from the twiddling of thumbs to full-blown existential crises.

This post will answer the questions of why we get bored, how much we actually hate being bored (hint: it’s a lot), why we hate the emotion, why it might actually be good for us and some ideas for changing your relationship with it.

The article is juicy, meaty and will take you on a journey through boredom but will hopefully not bore you. If it does, then it is another aspect of boredom to ponder in the shower later…


Why do we get bored?

All of us have been bored at one point or another in our lives. Maybe it was while waiting for a bus, while waiting for the microwave to finish or waiting for me to finish my point. What is less obvious though is why we actually get bored in the first place. What causes this strange phenomenon to occur? As with most emotions, there are more than a few factors at play:


Monotony in the mind

As Psychology Today highlights, any experience that is predictable and repetitive becomes boring. Too little stimulation in whatever activity that you are participating in causes not only boredom but an absence in desire and a feeling of entrapment inside of the mind.


Not paying attention

Many experts out there attribute boredom to the simple inability to pay attention. It is almost impossible to be engaged or interested in something that doesn’t have your complete attention. We get bored when we have a scattered mind and when it is frantically searching for something to focus on.


Boredom in culture

From the same Psychology Today article, it mentions that boredom is only a relatively new experience in human nature. For thousands and perhaps millions of years, human beings had no time to be bored as they were busy hunting for food, evading predators and keeping their family safe. With food in the supermarkets, houses to live in and a relatively safe world, we have much more spare time and mental capacity than we used to. One of the natural occurrences of all of this new free time is boredom.


Boredom as a brain issue

Although boredom can be attributed to circumstance and culture, there are experts that indicate that this is a brain issue more than a culture issue. One of those is Dr John Eastwood, a professor at the University of York in Ontario, Canada. He defines boredom as ‘the experience of desiring to undertake positive activity but unable to do so’. As a result, anyone who has ever felt trapped in their career, relationships or other areas of life may feel bored on a frequent basis.

There are many more factors that contribute to us getting bored. For some more from one of my favourite people on this sort of thing, check out Michael Stevens in the video below:



How much do we actually hate boredom?

The short answer: quite a bit.

In fact, our hatred for being bored is so extreme that in some cases, people would much rather be in pain than be bored.

The Huffington Post was one of the first sources to report on this finding. In a series of eleven studies by the University of Virginia, it was discovered that:

…participants from a range of ages generally did not enjoy spending even brief periods of time alone in a room with nothing to do but think, ponder or daydream. The participants, by and large, enjoyed much more doing external activities such as listening to music or using a smartphone. Some even preferred to give themselves mild electric shocks than to think.

This study was replicated in the very first episode of the Mind Field Youtube Series titled ‘Isolation’. In the first experiment of the show, the subject was initially asked to play around with a set of stimuli including an ‘electric shocker’ in the waiting room. They were then asked if they would like to experience the stimuli (electric shock) again. Unsurprisingly, they said no. They were then led into a room free of distractions aside from the electric shocker for half an hour. Despite having previously said that they wouldn’t like to experience the electric shock again, the test subject pressed it twice in just a few minutes to stimulate and free themselves of boredom.

They hurt themselves because it was simply something to do.

You can find the experiment (and full episode) below:

How crazy is that? People would rather hurt themselves than be bored.

The truth is, probably not as crazy as it first seems. I know personally that I am rarely sat in a room with just my thoughts and no external stimulation. 10 minutes a day maximum. The same might be true for you too, as it becomes a habit that we seek out stimulation, any stimulation, to avoid the dreaded feeling of boredom.

What punishment is reserved for the worst of the worst people in society? That’s right, extreme boredom. Or as it is more commonly known, solitary confinement.


Why do we hate boredom?

Almost all of us hate boredom. You know it, I know it, the people at Mind Field and the University of Virginia know it. But what we don’t know yet is why and if there is actually any real meaning behind it.

There are a number of theories as to why we hate being bored so much. One of them comes from author and professor Peter Toohey in his book Boredom: A Lively History:

nothing speeds brain atrophy more than being immobilized in the same environment: the monotony undermines our dopamine and attentional systems crucial to maintaining brain plasticity.

This would suggest that we hate being bored because our brain fears going into atrophy. We need a healthy amount of stimulation in our lives (but not too much) for optimal brain health and boredom is a state where we might fear not getting enough of the stuff.

Evolution might also play a role in our avoidance of boredom. Intelligence and conditioning gets built up over time and can degrade when not in use. Our surviving and reproductive ancestors were probably not sat around bored all day but rather, well, busy surviving and reproducing. It is very unlikely that boredom was a key part of our ancestral past and if it was, it was a brief state that pushed us to go do something useful – as it still does today.


Being bored in modern life


Being bored in modern life is like cleaning your car: it’s not fun, it’s not stimulating and luckily, there are many ways to get out of it quickly if you want to.

With the emergence of smartphones, the information age and stimuli lurking around every corner, boredom doesn’t even need to play a part in our lives anymore. Boredom is an unpleasant sensation, we have found more and more ways to avoid said unpleasant sensation and because we are humans, we are taking full advantage of it.

We are now so used to being mentally stimulated that like any addiction, when it is taken away we suffer. Because of this, things like social media ‘fasts’ are becoming more common and people are really starting to recalibrate their relationship with being bored. In his ‘4 Lessons From A 4-Week Social Media Fast‘, Jeremy Anderberg talks about ‘boredom’ often:

I noticed it mostly while waiting — waiting in line anywhere, waiting for my young son to finish going to the bathroom, waiting 5 minutes for my pour over to finish up at the coffee shop, waiting at Walmart for a tire to be patched (I forgot to bring reading material), waiting for the gas tank to fill up . . .

These small bits of time began to feel excruciatingly long — embarrassingly so, actually. What did it say about me, I wondered, that I get achingly bored after just a couple minutes with nothing to do?

I quickly realized that life offers plenty of waiting, and social media is seemingly the perfect antidote — which is why those companies are some of the world’s most valuable.

We might hate boredom so much these days because we are simply not used to it.


Why being bored might actually be good for you

Despite all of this negativity around boredom, the growing literature is that boredom might actually be good for you and some degree of meaning to your life. So stop checking your phone for a second and hear me out.

In the first video that I shared with you, it goes on to state that when you are bored, your brain activity only drops about 5% compared to normal and MRI scans even show a greater increase in areas that are responsible for recalling autobiographical memories, conceiving the thoughts and feelings of others (empathy) and imagination. This idea is backed up by a study titled ‘Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?‘, in which results suggested that ‘boring activities resulted in increased creativity’. When we take distractions away and our mind is free to just think, it does just that. And often in quite creative ways.

In the same ‘4 Lessons From A 4-Week Social Media Fast‘ article from earlier, Jeremy seems to come to a similarly interesting conclusion that boredom can actually be good for us:

It fosters thinking. Real thinking. With your brain! What a novel idea. I know that sounds silly, but it really is a bit unique in our world. Instead of diverting to social media with every minute that doesn’t have an allocated activity, I’ve learned to try to actively be thinking about something — planning my day/week, thinking through a decision that needs to be made, “writing” in my head and working out ideas, or even just plain zoning out. While I’m still bored when waiting around in line, and it’s still sometimes a little painful, I’ve come to embrace it as best I can. And my mind truly feels more focused — less scattered and more on top of things — because of it.

On top of this, it is important to remember that boredom is our physiological ‘call-to-action’. It protects us from being idle and wasting our lives away (although we are getting more creative at doing that). Boredom drives us away from the mundane and towards new things, to discovery, to learning and to growth.

In this sense, being bored has played a big role in our past, plays a big role in our present and if we are lucky, will still play a role in our futures. Like many things in life, boredom is one of those unpleasant but necessary components that keep us ticking as human beings.


How to deal with boredom


Even if you start to see the positive aspects of boredom, it can be difficult to fully accept boredom as a part of your life. In order to deal with the strong emotion that is boredom, you can learn to minimise it in a healthy way and learn to integrate it into your life when it does inevitably arise. Here are a few ideas to help you along the way:


Remember the positive aspects

Although it is an uncomfortable sensation, boredom has many positive aspects – some of which we have discussed here. Once you are familiar with how something is going to benefit you, you are more likely to gravitate towards doing it. Being bored is no different. Once you understand more of the benefits for yourself, the easier it is to integrate it into your life and to accept it rather than escape it when it does come along for a ride.


See reality, not concepts

One of the reasons that we get bored is that we aren’t paying attention. Anthony de Mello has a very unique way of looking at this problem in his book ‘Awareness’. He explains that we pay attention to concepts and labels that are boring, not reality itself. When we start to see the intricacies and details of all aspects of life that surround us, it is hard to become bored. From De Mello’s book:

he concept always misses or omits something extremely important, something precious that is only found in reality, which is concrete uniqueness. The great Krishnamurti put it so well when he said, “The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.” How true! The first time the child sees that fluffy, alive, moving object, and you say to him, Sparrow,” then tomorrow when the child sees another fluffy, moving object similar to it he says, “Oh, sparrows. I’ve seen sparrows. I’m bored by sparrows.”

If you don’t look at things through your concepts, you’ll never be bored. Every single thing is unique. Every sparrow is unlike every other sparrow despite the similarities. It’s a great help to have similarities, so we can abstract, so that we can have a concept. It’s a great help, from the point of view of communication, education, science. But it’s also very misleading and a great hindrance to seeing this concrete individual. If all you experience is your concept, you’re not experiencing reality, because reality is concrete.


Use boredom as a reset

Boredom can act as a powerful anchor into the present moment. When you feel boredom, it is a sign that nothing in particular has seized your attention. Use this to consciously decide on what you want to focus on next, rather than grabbing a quick-fix like your phone to solve the issue.

Our minds are shifting all of the time. Our emotions are changing all of the time. Who we are changes with who we are with. Boredom can be used as a sort of backstop and sign to slow down and start again. In his book ‘Waking Up’, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris touches upon this concept:

You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else – something that no longer supports your current emotion – allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.

Boredom doesn’t have to be what you used to think it was. Use the resources in this article to recalibrate your relationship with the world’s most hated emotion. You will be better for it.