If you are reading this, odds are you are not bored. At this moment, your attention is actively engaged. I can’t say for how long but I know that once you lose interest, you will blame me: this article is dull, this writer is boring.
But in trying to understand this universal feeling, researchers are increasingly asking: What does your boredom say about you?
“Kids have a term for it, ‘Boregasm,’ where you’re hit with a 1,000 pounds of boredom at once,’’ says Albert Nerenberg, a Montreal-based filmmaker who just released a documentary about boredom.
“For many years, [I and a film crew] did these satires of politics where we’d go into real situations with fake actors. We wouldn’t be able to do our stuff until the end. We’d sit for 45 minutes of political speeches and I experienced the [symptoms] of boredom: one is wanting to poke your eyes out or chew your arm off. Boredom produces self-destructive feelings.”
“We all experience it, but we just dismiss it as something that is relatively trivial,” says Mark Fenske, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph. “Boredom is associated with very serious problems: depression, problems with work productivity.”
You can also be bored to death. In 2010, researchers at University College London analyzed questionnaires completed by 7,524 civil servants between the ages of 35 to 55 in the late ‘80s. Those who reported a great deal of boredom were more likely to have died upon a follow-up than those who had not reported feeling bored.
While researching his film, Mr. Nerenberg sat down for a boring experiment by researchers at the University of Waterloo, where he was made to watch a video of two men hanging laundry while his heart rate and cortisol levels were monitored.
To broaden the field of research, Mr. Fenske and a few other Canadians have given new meaning to being bored; they’ve devised a new definition of boredom that recently appeared inPerspectives on Psychological Science, published by the Association for Psychological Science.
“All of the definitions focused on what it feels like to be bored, rather than the underlying mental processes,” Mr. Fenske says. “Boredom is about wanting to engage in some sort of satisfying activity, but being unable to … Something prevents you from being able to fully engage your attention.”
Those caught in the fog of boredom complain that the external world fails to engage them. “I had a friend whose mother would say, ‘You’re not bored, only stupid people get bored.’ The bad message is this common perception that if you’re bored, it’s kind of this moral failing.”
One model says “boredom is caused by an inability to identify or label emotions and to use those emotions to inform choice and behaviour,” says John Eastwood, associate professor of psychology at York University and the lead researcher on the article, published in Perspectives on Psychological Science.
“People talk about chronically being bored after experiencing trauma. When a person experiences intense, overwhelming emotions, one way of coping is to numb or to blot out emotion. When they shut down emotionally, they lose the ability to have desires and needs to guide behaviour.”
Another theory is existential. “When people don’t have articulated life goals or have a life goal that they can’t follow through on, that results in a more aimless, state of boredom.”
Mr. Eastwood’s own experiments measured one’s sense of life meaning against boredom levels and other studies have revealed that people who had given up on life goals seemed to be more chronically bored.
“Boredom tells us that our potentials are not being acted upon or our ability to connect with the world is being thwarted in some way.”
Most people don’t ask: “Why am I bored?” The pressing question is more likely: “How do I not be bored?” If you’re listening to a speech or in a meeting, try fidgeting or doodling.
“I’m a teacher, a professor, and when I’m teaching something like research methods — it’s admittedly dry material — everyone is tapping their pencils, shaking their knees. They can’t sit still. Initially I’d be offended by this,” Mr. Fenske says. “But movement like fidgeting and doodling are ways to increase our arousal, help you be able to pay attention and be able to engage with the material.”
Studies have shown that in classroom situations, groups who are given toys to fidget with learn better than those who are forced to sit still. Also slight distractions, such as subtle background noise, can help alleviate boredom when tasks are not challenging, research suggests.
It seems harder these days to be bored with such wonderful distractions as technology and what Mr. Eastwood calls “aggressive entertainment.” Waiting in line at the bank is now a moment to play Angry Birds on your tablet, or time to check email on your phone.
But trying to constantly curb boredom with “things” could also curb creativity, Mr. Fenske worries. “We don’t allow ourselves periods of uninterrupted, freely associative thoughts. That kind of freely associative thought is linked to creativity and insight,” he says. “If you’re always occupying yourself, you’re never going to have those periods of thought and presumably those great ideas.”
Instead, face the boredom. Be still. Let your mind wander.
“Overstimulation perpetuates boredom,” says Mr. Eastwood, who claims he is seldom bored. “It’s like quicksand. If you’re bored, don’t thrash around. Use it as a signal to tell you what needs to change: Am I preoccupied by something that is bothering me? Am I feeling discouraged that I can’t follow through on a particular goal? Use the boredom as an opportunity to make change.”
That’s great if you’re able to daydream, Mr. Nerenberg says, but what if you’re trapped in a board meeting or a classroom and you must pay attention?
“I used to be a bottle sorter. There’s no way you can make that interesting. If you really have to pay attention, you cannot daydream. That is why doing your taxes is boring.”
This article was originally published in the National Post Nov. 3, 2012.