Why Do We Get Bored?
Bored, bored, bored!
Well, there must be very few of us indeed who haven't complained of boredom at one time or another.
It's certainly a common enough phrase in many modern households with teens about the place! How many times have we clenched our teeth when we hear again the old lament, "Mom, I'm bored!"
Boredom is generally viewed as a negative thing.
To be bored is to lack imagination, to be unmotivated, to be doing less than your best - we suspect, even, a symptom of a deeper malady such as depression or other illness. Either that, or people interpret boredom as showing a lack of moral fibre and personal discipline in the person who says they are bored.
But could it be that we have simply misunderstood the experience of boredom?
Could it be that - despite our entrenched views and personal experience which seem to support the idea that boredom is a bad thing - that we have simply misinterpreted what can actually be one of the most healthy and creative mental states?
Sound far-fetched? Well, the truth often does until you start to examine the evidence. So, through the lens of scientific enquiry and a little bit of eastern mysticism - hey, why not? - we're about to take a sideways look at this problem of boredom.
I'm confident that we'll cast the whole business in a very different, surprising and creative light.
And one thing I can guarantee is - it won't be boring!
Why Do We Get Bored?
We'll examine the latest psychological research into the definition and understanding of boredom.
We'll look at what we might learn from the meditation practices of eastern mystics and why they don't get bored when they're doing nothing.
First up, let's watch this video, from the never boring V-sauce, who will help us unlock the meaning of boredom. And the funny thing is, he does manage to make the subject of boredom...well...interesting. Watch:
The Origins and Meaning of Boredom
Boredom is a Modern Problem
For some time now boredom has been far from boring to scientists.
In fact, they’ve been very busy trying to get to the bottom of the boredom problem. You see, it’s a problem which seems to be getting worse.
Before the industrial revolution, the concept of ‘boredom’ didn’t exist in the English language - there wasn’t a word for it. As we’ll see shortly, that fact alone helps us to understand what this peculiarly modern problem is really all about - and how we can solve it.
But first let’s have a look at what the scientists have been doing.
Boredom is in the Brain
The Science of Boredom
Okay, so there’s more than one research project into the problem of boredom and so there’s more than one idea about what it means.
At the University of York in Ontario, Canada, Dr. John Eastwood has defined boredom as the experience of desiring to undertake positive activity but feeling unable to do so. He thinks that the problem is neurological, that it’s a temporary fault in the ability of the brain to maintain attention.
But before you start losing attention, you should listen to this comic song...
(play the video to hear it)
I'm Bored by Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band
So, according to Dr. Eastwood, boredom is a brain thing – rather than being to do with your circumstances.
Dr. Eastwood and his colleagues carried out a survey of young North Americans and 91% of those taking part reported feeling bored – and especially feeling bored in school or at work.
Some other studies have suggested that boredom at work can lead to increased accidents as well as lower productivity.
So far, it doesn’t sound as if anything positive could come out of it, does it? But there's more.
Boredom and Pro-social Behavior
At the University of Limerick, the scientist Dr. Wijnand van Tilburg, has been making discoveries that cast the whole business of boredom in a very different light.
Dr van Tilburg on Boredom
"Boredom can paradoxically be a very strong motivator for people to seek out unpleasant yet meaningful tasks, such as blood donations, against meaningless but pleasant behaviour," said Dr. van Tilburg. "It does not promote engagement in meaningless yet pleasant behaviour."
"Boredom makes people long for different and purposeful activities, and as a result they turn towards more challenging and meaningful activities, turning towards what they perceive to be really meaningful in life.”
According to van Tilburg when people experience boredom they will often report feelings associated with a sense of purposelessness. But according to his research, this is only one step – the first step – of a positive process of personal change.
His findings suggest that the experience of boredom ultimately motivates people to actively engage in higher levels of what he terms pro-social behaviour. That is, actively seeking to engage with and help others.
His research also showed that people who regularly report feelings of boredom are more likely than others to seek out activities that are perceived to render their lives more meaningful – and this often involves being socially useful and trying hard to help others – rather than simple entertainments and distractions.
Boredom and Creativity
Other psychologists have uncovered strong links between creativity and boredom.
Boredom can arise when the established, traditional behaviors or ways of doing things, are no longer fully functional or satisfying. So a bored person will frequently shift gear into a new experimental mode and begin to try new things, to explore new possibilities: in other words, to get creative.
In such cases, boredom functions as an alarm call to change, to creativity. The experience of boredom comes about through a feeling of being under-stimulated.
That can mean that the activities and opportunities the current situation offers are insufficient to motivate the bored person – in which case it is a clarion call for them to make positive, life-enhancing changes in their life.
Boredom as a Psychological Saftey Mechanism
When someone gets bored it can also be a consequence of having been over-stimulated in some way and so returning to normal levels requires a period of recalibration.
This is one of the reasons, many psychologists believe, that boredom is more common now than in previous centuries – especially among young people raised in the digital age.
Our lives are much more fast paced than ever. We are bombarded daily and from every angle with high-octane sensory stimuli: from the speed of traffic to the television, cinema, computer games, advertising and the general hubbub of modern living – especially in the urban environment.
Boredom as Downtime
Our children would complain of boredom less if they had a better diet, less time spent ‘gaming’ and more time engaged in real-world activities such as sport, reading, art or just quiet conversation.
So boredom can actually serve as a safeguarding technique. We effectively ‘shut down’ because we have been over-stimulated and need some recharge/recalibration time.
Studies with teenagers have shown that excessive and prolonged sensory over-stimulation through video games can result in a diminished ability to concentrate, make decisions and value the natural world or the company of other people.
In such cases boredom is a necessary step to resetting the brain to allow normal engagement with the wider world.
Boredom Began with The Industrial Revolution
No One Got Bored Before 1766
Prior to 1766 there was no word for boredom in the English language and there are no accounts of boredom as a problem.
So what happened in 1766?
Well, the technical date for the beginning of the Industrial revolution that you will find in the history books is 1760.
So within a decade of the start of the Industrial Revolution - the increasing mechanisation of life and work, the increased pace, intensity and noise of rapidly developing urban life - we get people experiencing boredom.
Given the discoveries of modern psychology, that pretty much figures, doesn't it?
Bored? Try this...
Whatever you're doing, take a two minute break.
Meditate. Close your eyes, breathe deeply and just watch your thoughts. You might surprised at the insights you gain!
Go for a walk.
Help someone else.
Allow yourself to day-dream.
Consider just leaving what you are doing. It may just not be the right thing for you.
Make a plan for the future. Then take the next achievable step, however small.
Sleep. You might find that when you wake up your brain has 'recalibrated' and the boredom has gone.
Make sure that you are not over-stimulating your brain all the time.
Why Buddhists Don't get Bored
I'm not a Buddhist and I guess that in fact this could apply to lots of other people, too. However...
We tend, in the modern industrialized West, to think that boredom is a problem to be solved by doing more and getting more stimulation.
We tend to view it as a failure to be sufficiently motivated and active.
But what of a Buddhist monk or nun, sitting for hours and hours a day in silent, still meditation - only pausing to undertake the most mundane and routine of domestic tasks? Do they not get bored?
Well, if we can trust what they say - and I'm sure we can - the answer is, no. They never get bored. On the contrary, they seem to avoid entirely these crazy mood swings between being wildly excited and enthusiastic and tired and bored.
They seem to experience a perpetual, balanced serenity.
I have nothing else to say about that.
But, in the light of everything else that we have looked at in this article, I think it is well worth thinking about. Don't you?
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© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn