We’re accustomed to hearing this from our kids during the school holidays in varying tones of desperation, depending on their age — although never from small children, who have not yet learned the concept of boredom, as they continue their investigations of the plug socket with a metal fork. Nor do we hear it as much from older teens, who have new exciting secret lives to keep hidden from you at all costs. No, it’s the kids in between who are most likely to cry boredom. And at the other end of the age spectrum, boredom in the over 60s increases, especially in women — turns out we are not designed for retirement.
e expect and accept children being bored, and have been conditioned to run around trying to fix it with activities. Interestingly, parental oxytocin is not triggered by the cries of a bored child — unlike the cries of a hurt or sick child, parents do not have a hormonal response to their child’s boredom, which in terms of evolutionary biology, is probably a good thing as it prompts kids towards self-soothing, self-reliance and self-motivation. The constant, managed filling of time is relatively new.
We are even less sympathetic to adult boredom. We tell ourselves that only boring people get bored and will go to great lengths to avoid it: mindlessly falling into online rabbit holes, reaching Angry Birds level 60, counting ceiling tiles, opening a third bottle of wine. Boredom can make us feel restless, unsatisfied, fed up, lethargic. We feel it ought to belong to the olden days, to Jane Austen characters trapped in stuffy drawing rooms.
Until, that is, the pandemic confined us all to stuffy drawing rooms. God knows we have all in the past year experienced boredom, no matter how Zen our mindset. But what if it is our approach to boredom, rather than boredom itself, which needs addressing? First, we need to understand what it actually is.
Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom places the sensation under a microscope. Written by cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert and clinical psychologist John Eastwood, the book is a culmination of 15 years of research into a subject previously left to philosophers and theologians. “We’ve developed an understanding of boredom that emphasises the key concepts of engagement and agency,” they write. “Boredom is an experience occurring inside our minds.” It’s not just the stuffy drawing room, it’s you.
It is not, however, an emotion like anger, joy or sadness, but “a feeling associated with our thought processes”. There are two underlying mechanisms: boredom can be a ‘desire conundrum’ (wanting to do something but not wanting to do anything) and it can be caused when our mental capacities, skills and talents are being underused.
“We are biologically predisposed to seek mental engagement,” Danckert and Eastwood write. “Boredom is the signal that keeps us searching for that engagement.” So if you find time dragging, if you are struggling to concentrate, if whatever you’re doing seems pointless, and you feel both lethargic and restless at the same time, this is your brain signalling to you that it wants meaningful engagement, just as your stomach rumbles when it’s empty.
Danckert and Eastwood say the horsemen of external boredom are “monotony, lack of purpose, constraint, and poor fit between our skills and the challenge of the moment”. Internally, there are five causes of boredom: emotion (how we are feeling in the moment); biology (our ability to respond to our environment); cognition (our ability to focus); motivation (the push to engage); and volition (the self control to establish and follow a plan). “Weakness in any of these internal domains can put us at risk of boredom,” they say.
This is why we dive into what researchers at the University of Nevada call “experiential avoidance” — falling into your phone, engaging in risky behaviours (the third bottle of wine, the unwise liaison), or just flopping about feeling simultaneously lethargic and agitated. Groaning with boredom yet unable to do much about it.
It gets worse. Steven Hayes, lead psychologist of the Nevada research, says that “people who avoid their feelings report feeling bored more often” and “an ability to accurately label emotions is prominent in people prone to frequent bouts of boredom”. To counter this, the boredom-prone need more novelty, because “they quickly become neurologically unresponsive to things around them”. Cue even riskier behaviours.
“There are so many different types of boredom,” says Dr Anne Kehoe, a member of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI). “Yet society is harsh on those who say they are bored — while it is almost expected in children, it’s frowned upon in adults. Boredom generally feels unpleasant and makes you examine your surroundings around what we feel and what we need. Too much boredom can lead to poor concentration, risk taking and risky behaviours, and with longer term boredom, not following the rules anymore as anger and frustration take over.
“We are much less used to feeling bored now than in the past. Waiting in a queue can feel boring and unproductive, so we reach for our phones. But boredom can be helpful in terms of getting us in touch with ourselves, how we are feeling, what we need.
“Boredom can be motivating in that it can foster connections with our communities, and make us look at our values.” During lockdown, boredom has driven many of us to seek out and appreciate what is on our doorstep — the simplicity of nature, the sea, walking, rather than the fizz-bang-whizz of travel and entertainment. And kids are made for playing in the mud, climbing trees, running around outdoors.
“If parents keep relieving children of their boredom, this means that kids will never solve boredom themselves. They won’t experience the feeling of what it means to be still,” says Dr Kehoe. “Children need to figure out for themselves what they want, rather than having endless activities to alleviate any feelings of potential boredom.”
Professor Eva Doherty , also a member of PSI, says her response to a bored child “is to endeavour to discover what’s making them annoyed, as that’s what’s behind the feeling of boredom. If the emotions are effectively empathised in a non-judgemental way, then there’s lots of potential for motivation and subsequent creativity. Criticising a child because they are bored — because of parental anxiety and concern — will only make the situation worse as the child will only feel more angry.”
Unlike children, who can be fairly easily guided towards accessing their own creativity and imagination with a bit of parental patience and empathy, boredom in adults can be a tougher challenge. Especially as there’s so much money to be made from bored adults, as we are herded towards clickbait, gaming, betting, porn, intoxicants, junk food and other short-term solutions that may not feed our souls.
“Many such activities are designed to control our attention,” write Danckert and Eastwood. Like snacking on junk, diversionary tactics do not satisfy us in the longer term.
“The more we allow things external to us to solve the problem of boredom, the more our agency atrophies,” they add. “The more our agency atrophies, the more vulnerable we become to boredom.” Instead the authors advocate seeking a state of flow (when you are so engaged in and absorbed by a satisfying activity that you forget everything except what you are doing — this could be anything from knitting to gardening to building a space ship). They also advocate “fostering curiosity”, because curiosity is the opposite of boredom, — or “just relaxing” — perhaps via mindfulness meditation to see what lies underneath your boredom.
Because in an overstimulating and overstimulated world, where we dread and avoid boredom more than our ancestors could have ever imagined, sometimes allowing yourself to be under-stimulated can be a positive. It can lead to creative thinking, to problem solving, to realisations, perhaps to appreciation of things previously invisible. As Andy Warhol put it: “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.”
How you know you’re in flow
⬤ Our skills and abilities must be up to the challenge.
⬤ We need a heightened sense of control.
⬤We need well-defined goals and clear feedback on progress.
⬤ Our attention must be intensely focused.
⬤ Our awareness must be so tightly linked to what we are doing that we lose sight of ourselves.
⬤ Whatever we are doing must feel effortless.
⬤ What we do we are doing for its own sake — we are intrinsically motivated.
⬤ Our sense of time becomes distorted.