When you pay attention to boredom it gets unbelievably interesting. – Jon Kabat-Zinn
Recently, I’ve noticed a trend among the younger generation: fewer and fewer people have hobbies. But when you consider the time we live in, it makes sense.
With Netflix, Facebook, the whole dang Internet at your fingertips, why would anyone growing up today want to collect stamps? Hobbies resulted from not having anything to do, but with the whole World Wide Web accessible in your pocket, nowadays, you are rarely without means for stimulation.
So, with the overwhelming opportunities of our technological age, have we eradicated boredom?
In adult populations, about 65% of people will experience boredom on any given day. But when looking at youth populations more specifically (from a study in 2007), about 95% of respondents report some daily experience of boredom.
But what exactly is boredom?
According to one definition, boredom is the “aversive experience of wanting, but being unable to engage in a satisfying activity” (van Tilburg & Igou, 2017; p., 310). Often, boredom is associated with a particular posture: a collapsed upper body, a downward tilted head, and limited overall movement. But importantly, boredom is almost always negative.
To quote one early social psychologist, Erich Fromm:
“I am convinced that boredom is one of the greatest tortures. If I were to imagine Hell, it would be the place where you were continually bored” (van Tilburg & Igou, 2017; p.309)
But boredom isn’t the only negative emotion out there, so why do people so uniformly categorize boredom as an unpleasant experience?
Well first, boredom often co-occurs with other negative emotions, namely, loneliness, frustration, sadness, and worry. Often then, we likely ascribe some of the negativity from these other emotions to boredom, too—making boredom seem all the more unpleasant.
However, there is a specific quality associated with boredom that distinguishes it from many other negative emotions: a lack of meaning.
Having meaning in one’s life (i.e., a purpose) is a big contributor to overall wellbeing. However, when we’re bored, we feel like life is substantially less meaningful. In fact, research has shown that boredom prompts people to engage in more nostalgic thinking as well as taking more extreme political stances—both of which have been shown to elevate one’s purpose in life.
But beyond a sense of meaninglessness, boredom is also associated with a lower state of physiological arousal (i.e., physical activation). Typically, having low arousal like this is unpleasant (think of being drowsy or tired when trying to work). As such, boredom often promotes engaging in activities that increase one’s arousal, such as gambling or some new kind of task.
Because of this, boredom can actually motivate people to eat healthy foods!—assuming those healthy foods provide a relatively exciting alternative to one’s current offerings. (Interestingly, unhealthy foods are usually considered more “exciting,” which is one of the reasons we turn to junk food when we’re bored.)
1. Men (on average) are 33% more likely to experience boredom than women.
2. Young people (~25 years of age) are about 4x more likely to experience boredom than older people (~45 years of age and up).
3. Full-time employees are less likely to experience boredom than non-full time employees.
4. Although having a relationship partner results in less boredom, whether or not a person has kids seemed to have no effect.
Overall, however, boredom tended to peak for most people in the afternoon (between noon and 6:00pm)—which is why today’s post comes perfectly in that window. For where there’s boredom, there’s no better cure than some psychophilosophical curiosity.
Psychophilosophy to Ponder: There’s a classic saying that “idle hands are the Devil’s workshop” (i.e., if you’re bored, you’re more likely to do something “sinful.”) In light of today’s post, how does the research support or dispute this claim? How could boredom contribute to something like bullying? But how could it also contribute to something like volunteering?
Chin, A., Markey, A., Bhargava, S., Kassam, K. S., & Loewenstein, G. (2017). Bored in the USA: Experience sampling and boredom in everyday life. Emotion, 17(2), 359.
van Tilburg, W. A., & Igou, E. R. (2017). Boredom begs to differ: Differentiation from other negative emotions. Emotion, 17(2), 309.