The way one person feels when saying “I’m bored” might be entirely different from what another person feels when they say the same thing.
Psychology itself has not nailed down an exact definition. But a 2012 survey of prior boredom research has led to the current concept that the two main ingredients of boredom are 1) something unpleasant and 2) something ‘low-arousal’, meaning we don’t feel stimulated or interested by it.
So if your partner or parent chastises you for being bored, there is your comeback line – it’s entirely subjective.
The good and bad of dealing with boredom
If “I’m bored” always translates into a day spent bingeing on social media, Netflix, and snacks? Not so good.
But there are ways to make boredom a win.
1. Turn it into a trigger for creativity.
The first impulse many of us have when bored is to seek distraction through the creativity of others — bingeing on films or books. But we are missing an opportunity to embrace our own good ideas.
Psychologist Sandi Mann feels boredom can give our minds necessary space to daydream and create.
The study she led at the University of Central Lancashire found that when asked come up with as many uses for plastic cups as possible, it was a group that had first experienced the boredom of copying out numbers from a phone book that then came up with the best answers.
2. Allow yourself to be nostalgic.
Find yourself going through old photos and pining for ‘pre-pandemic’ times? It’s not a bad tactic.
Researchers at the University of Limerick led by Wijnand Van Tilburg and Eric Igou found a positive link exists between nostalgia and boredom. When we are bored we think of the past, and that nostalgia then has us longing for meaning. This longing in turn pushes us to take actions to find meaning, to counteract the boredom.
3. Do something for something else.
One of the things van Tilburg and Igou found was that when people were driven by nostalgia to seek meaning, they then showed a tendency towards caring acts, such as blood donation, to replace their feelings of emptiness. So now might be the time to shop for an at risk neighbour, or volunteer for a mental health helpline.
The same researchers then did another study that looked at whether already having a sense of meaning and purpose would make us less likely to experience boredom in the first place. They found that religious people “reported higher perceived meaning in life, which was associated with a reduced tendency to feel bored.”
Of course you don’t have to join a religion to feel a sense of meaning! You can explore your own ideas of spirituality and ‘raison d’être’. Need help with this? Both existential therapy and transpersonal therapy focus on helping you find your unique sense of purpose.
5. Try mindfulness.
Sometimes we say we are bored when really we are uncomfortable. Not filling our time with ‘busy tasks’ means all our unprocessed experiences can start niggling to the surface in a mess of emotions and strange thoughts.
You could say “I’m bored” and reach for your phone for some social media scrolling.
Or you could see boredom as an opportunity and turn tomindfulness. Instead of reaching for the nearest distraction, sit quietly, breathe, and simply observe, without judgement, the thoughts and feelings that come up. What are they trying to tell you? What might you need to face and heal?
Feelings of boredom can, however, be a sign of depression if they come alongside feelings of hopelessness and cycles of negative, ‘doom and gloom’ thinking.
So if you are saying, “I am bored because of this lockdown”, but then feel better imaging all you will do when it ends, it’s just boredom.
If you are thinking, “I am bored with this lockdown and the world will never be the same and what’s the point?” You might have depression.
Boredom and poor parenting
Always feeling “I’m bored” can again also be your brain’s way of avoiding facing and processing difficult emotions.
If we have no immediate task to do, we can start to have thoughts and emotions we don’t want. Claiming we are bored gives us an excuse to seek a distraction, and avoid those feelings and thoughts further.
Part of your difficult childhood might have involved undue punishment for small things, or only being given love if you were ‘good’. The ‘Boredom Lab‘, an incentive committed to understanding boredom at York University, explains that:
“Individuals who are very sensitive to reward or punishment are more likely to experience boredom. High punishment sensitivity people often withdraw from activities because they find the environment threatening. In contrast, high reward sensitivity people need more and more exciting activities to fulfil their need for pleasure, and thus find many environments under-stimulating.”