Can boredom cause depression

How to Beat Boredom

Source: InesBazdar/


If so, chances are you feel lost and imprisoned by your inability to grab onto anything that interests you. Some people confuse boredom with laziness, but they are notably different: Laziness brings up images of someone lounging around, not wanting to put effort into doing anything. People who are bored feel restless to do something—but nothing feels compelling or motivating. They feel stuck.

Surprising as it may seem, you can break out of your boredom much as you might break out of prison—by tunneling down.

The first step toward feeling motivated is to allow yourself to actually feel the boredom. You may think you already do; maybe even that you feel it too much. Perhaps. But in actuality, you may surf the Internet, watch TV, listen to music—anything to get out of yourself—and in those moments in-between the distractions, you are overcome by that nasty, bored feeling.

This is not allowing yourself to feel bored.

Allowing yourself to feel bored involves saying yes to the feeling. It means inviting it in and sitting with it when you want to run from it. It is noticing when you are looking for distractions and reminding yourself to return to that uncomfortable feeling. While “sitting” with your boredom, you will have a chance to take a closer look at it, and consider: Are you really just unmotivated, or is there something else going on?

Many people feel bored because disconnecting from the world is their way of protecting themselves from difficult situations or emotions. You may feel hurt, sad, angry, or afraid. You may be facing a difficult situation—say, a bad marriage—that you prefer not to face, but keeps pushing its way into your heart and mind. To solve the problem, you simply unplug. Then nothing can bother you, or so you hope.

This is not usually done consciously. Sit quietly with your boredom, allowing yourself to be aware of the thoughts or feelings that arise from deep within. If nothing comes to you, it can help to just review the circumstances of your life slowly, turning your attention to each one, and giving yourself a chance to become aware of the reactions you have to them.

If you find that you are avoiding some particular experience, be respectful of your efforts to protect yourself. There is a reason that you have disconnected, so approach the feared or avoided topic with care. You might journal about it or talk with a trusted, supportive friend.

Give yourself the chance to have the experience and challenge yourself to face your fears. If you feel overwhelmed, take a step back, but keep returning. As you acknowledge, label, and invite in your experiences, they will inform you about what you need to do next: Feel lonely? You’ll be aware of the desire to connect. Feel afraid? You might notice a desire for what you fear. Feel empty? You’ll need to explore what fills you up, even if it’s just a little bit.

For some people, boredom is part of depression. They lack any joie de vivre. They might be sad, but they also might just lack interests and have lost the capacity to enjoy anything. If you struggle with this, it can sometimes help to get yourself moving. Despite wanting to hunker down, go for a walk or exercise, connect with a friend, make plans to socialize, do things that used to make you happy, and make sure you get enough sleep and eat properly. Together, these kinds of actions can often help people re-engage in life and make small positive steps that gain momentum until they are back on a happier life journey.

As you look inside and allow for your experiences, also be sure to treat yourself with kindness. It’s not as if you are purposely making yourself suffer. (And even in the unlikely event that you are, there must be something painful that would make you do so.) Be compassionate to your struggles, just as you would be to anyone else’s. Then, support and encourage yourself to face them. If you need the help of a therapist, choose to take that brave step.

In the end, coming out of your boredom will feel like breaking out of a cold, dark, isolation room into the freedom of the outdoors on a warm, sunny day.

Are You Simply Bored Or Is It Depression? Know The Difference


  1. Boredom is when a person is not mentally stimulated by his surrounding
  2. Depression is a mental disorder characterised by continous low mood
  3. Studies show boredom is necessary to pursue new goals

Let’s be real. We all have experienced boredom at some point in our lives. We all have sat through lectures that don’t interest us at all, or listened to our friends talk about something boring. When we are bored, we often find ourselves staring at nothing or just counting the seconds to pass away. But it can also make us feel restless and desperate. It leads us to under-perform at work and withdraw from people around us. This is often considered to be one of the symptoms of depression. So are you depressed if you are bored? Not always. But in the year 2000, J Sommers in her article, Boredom Proneness: Its Relationship to Psychological- and Physical-Health Symptoms, showed us a clear link between boredom and depression.

To differentiate between boredom and depression, let’s first understand what these terms mean.

What is depression?

Depression is a mental disorder characterised by low mood. It is the constant state of being unhappy and feeling empty. It is characterised by irregular sleep patterns, feelings of worthlessness and sometimes, false beliefs and paranoia.

How is that different from boredom?

Boredom is simply a state of mind in which the individual is not mentally stimulated by his/her surroundings. This leaves them unmotivated to do any work.

So, how does it affect our lives?

Boredom, at times can be dangerous to health. But in On The Function Of Boredom, Shane Bench revealed that boredom is necessary to pursue new goals and makes individuals more creative. In such cases, people prone to boredom, actually perform better than normal individuals. The same cannot be said for depression.

In depression, an individual performs poorly, rather than trying to improve their performance. He/she feels no motivation to do so. It is also accompanied by low self-esteem and low energy, making the individual prone to fatigue. People with depression also experience pain without a physical cause.

Photo Credit: iStock
Also read: 7 Things You Didn’t Know About Schizophrenia

What causes boredom? And, how is it different from depression?

Boredom can be caused by inadequate rest, low levels of mental stimulation or lack of choice over day-to-day activities. The causes of depression, however, are more widespread.

Biological, psychological and social factors all play an important role in causing depression. It can be genetic and inherited. It can also be triggered by trauma or any other major event in the life of an individual. Bullying, sexual, mental, and physical abuse are all other reasons why people fall into depression. Substance abuse can also make you prone to depression.

How is the diagnosis of boredom different from depression?

Let’s say that you’ve been feeling bored all day while working but going to a party at night can get you excited again. Of course, you can again get bored while working the next day. But depression, to be clinically diagnosed, has to last for more than 2 weeks, continuously. It does not go away with a change of activities.

So what’s the cure?

Boredom can be cured by trying new things out. You can bring a change in your lifestyle, workplace or try out new hobbies to get rid of boredom. But, depression is an unsettling feeling that will make you feel out of place no matter what you do.

Psychotherapy helps with depression. Both individual and family based psychotherapies have positive results. Sometimes, medications are also prescribed for depression.

So, if you are feeling bored, don’t jump to the conclusion of being depressed. It is true that, boredom can lead you to depression if it lasts for a prolonged period of time. But try to distract yourself and fight the mental illness from hitting you.
Also read: Everything You Should Know About Anorexia


Boredom Can Be Dangerous for Mental Illness

While I always recommend making time for relaxation, there’s one facet to having time on your hands that I must caution about.

All too often people with mental illness are left with idle time, myself included, which can lead to trouble. Spare time means more opportunity to worry and overanalyze things that happen. This is common among anxiety sufferers, but it can be even more of a problem for people in my situation, namely people who are living with schizophrenia.

Sometimes, when we have too much time on our hands, our minds go to places that are intense and scary. Troubling ideas can manifest themselves in any number of ways. Whether it’s paranoia or delusions, depression or hallucinations, our minds are all too susceptible to spiraling out of control. That’s why I think it’s important that we have something to do.

I’ve talked about creative flow before. You find your flow when you engage in a creative activity that’s so engrossing you lose track of time. Creative hobbies are important because they keep us occupied and focused on something other than our worries. It can be drawing, painting, woodcarving, writing, working at an easy job or really anything that allows you to flow.

For me, writing is where I find my flow. If not there, then in photography and walking or hiking. These seemingly nominal tasks are incredibly important for maintaining my stability and, while I don’t do them as often as I should, I’m well aware of what can happen when I have too much free time.

In the last couple of months, my schedule has been pretty clear and it’s led me to some compromising situations in regard to acting out about my delusions or paranoia. It’s also created a whirlpool in my mind where I feel so frustrated that I’m not making any headway that I can’t work, thereby reinforcing the fact that I can’t make any headway. It certainly gets to a point where having things to do can be a lifesaver.

We all need to feel like we’re making progress in our life endeavors. Too much idle time can make us go a little crazy — that’s true for anyone but especially for people with mental illness. If you’re in a situation where you feel like you aren’t making any progress, it might be a good idea to take small steps toward your goal. This can provide you with a base to build something bigger. Start the momentum forward on things that you’d like to do or things that you feel should be done. It’ll get you out of the cycle of worry.

Believe me, I’ve been there, and I’m all too familiar with the fact that doing nothing can lead to feeling stir-crazy. While relaxation is essential, it’s also important to feel accomplished. Just don’t overload yourself when you finally get going. It takes a delicate balance to keep from being overwhelmed.

Bored Man image via .

Boredom Can Be Dangerous for Mental Illness

Boredom And Depression: Can One Lead To The Other?

By Stephanie Kirby

Updated November 07, 2019

Reviewer April Brewer , DBH, LPC

Our approach to boredom has changed over the years. With modern technology, we’re used to always having something to entertain us. But what happens when there isn’t anything to distract you? What happens when you get bored? Many people are starting to think that they’re getting depressed because they’re bored. Understanding the connection can help you avoid both.

Feeling Bored? Learn When Boredom Could Be a Warning Sign of Depression


Can Boredom Cause Depression?

There isn’t an easy, straightforward answer. Boredom motivates some individuals to rediscover a hobby, explore a new interest, reconnect with friends or family, meet new people, promote self-reflection, or even pursue a new career path. But for those who are clinically depressed, boredom can be a pit of despair because it gives the brain an excuse to drift toward negative thoughts, making the depression worse.

Boredom can become destructive over time if it’s not proactively addressed. It may even lead to high-risk behaviors like increased alcohol or drug use, increased sexual activity and/or sexual partners, addictive behaviors such as gambling, shopping, or eating, and even self-harming thoughts and behaviors. Throughout this article, we’ll discuss the connection between boredom and depression and what you can do to overcome it.

Existential Boredom and Depression

You can get bored while you’re waiting for someone to pick you up from work, at night when you’re supposed to be sleeping, and in between commercials while you’re watching television. None of these instances are enough to ignite depression, but they can be troubling to those who are already diagnosed with it.

The type of boredom that can cause depression is called existential or apathetic boredom; in Alex Lickerman’s article “Boredom,” he defined it as the inability to find anything interesting in life. In this case, having depression can cause existential boredom just as existential boredom can cause depression. People who can’t find anything interesting generally conclude that life is meaningless, and then they become depressed.

While depression is one of the most common mental health challenges, it’s very treatable. In fact, studies have found that web-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can reduce depression in patients. When you understand the cause of your depression and your treatment options, you can learn to overcome it.


What is Boredom?

Boredom is a psychological state experienced when an individual:

  • Lacks interest in anything during brief intermittent periods or more steady periods of time
  • Finds him or herself unable to rest or relax
  • Feels little to no excitement
  • Displays apathy, lack of concern, or little interest in something that would normally be important
  • Finds it difficult to get or stay motivated

Those who already have anxiety are more prone to developing depression when they experience long shifts of boredom. They’re likely suppressing negative thoughts already, so when free time or boredom arises, they sometimes let their mind wander and the negative thoughts take over.

What Type of Bored Are You?

Many individuals have experienced boredom at some point in their lives, but what type of boredom? Knowing the type of boredom you’re experiencing may help you to effectively counter it. A follow-up study published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in 2006 identified five different types of boredom:

  1. In some cases, an individual will feel calm and cut off from the distant world; this can be described as “relaxation” or being “in their own bubble.”
  2. Another type is often described as an unpleasant state of boredom with “wandering thoughts or not knowing what to do.” The individual may display an openness to unrelated activities, but not presenting activities.
  3. Described as a more agitated negative feeling, another type of boredom prompts the person to actively search and look for relief by thinking about activities to engage in or reaching out to another person.
  4. Some individuals experience elevated negative feelings of uneasiness and/or aggression. They may have a strong desire to escape boredom and are more likely to engage in fulfilling alternative activities or reach out to another person to talk to or spend time with.
  5. Finally, others may be detached, experiencing low arousal or unpleasant feelings of helplessness and depression.

Some types of boredom may be temporary, and it’s possible they may even feel restful, but the last type can be particularly concerning, especially for individuals who are already prone to anxiety and depression.

Feeling Bored? Learn When Boredom Could Be a Warning Sign of Depression


Am I Experiencing Signs and Symptoms of Depression?

Depression can cause a wide range of cognitive, behavioral, and physical symptoms. It is important to note that individuals may experience different or varying symptoms compared to others who are diagnosed with depression. Also, all of the symptoms need not be present to warrant a diagnosis of clinical depression. Here are some common signs and symptoms:

  • Low or depressed mood and/or noticeable mood swings
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in doing things that were once fulfilling
  • Significant change or fluctuation in weight (excessive weight loss or gain)
  • Decreased ability to focus or concentrate, especially for longer periods of time
  • Increased feelings of fatigue, more days than not
  • Decreased energy levels
  • Sleeping difficulties (not enough, too much, or interrupted sleep pattern)
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Recurring thoughts of death or of others dying
  • Depressive symptoms that appear to be causing significant stress
  • Depressive symptoms that last longer than two weeks

While taking into consideration the signs and symptoms above, only licensed medical providers and mental health providers such as Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Professional Counselors, or Clinical Social Workers have the ability to diagnose clinical depression. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, take care of yourself by reaching out to a medical professional.

Refuting Existential Boredom

Saying that life is meaningless is a serious statement; if not addressed early on, this belief could lead to suicidal thoughts. It can also result in self-harming or suicidal behaviors, but it doesn’t have to. With the help of a good therapist, it’s possible to change your outlook.

If you decide to pursue therapy, you’ll be paired with a qualified mental health provider like a Psychologist, a Professional Counselor, or a Clinical Social Worker, all of whom are generally called “therapists.” A therapist may help you see that everything does, in fact, have a point, and therefore, life can be interesting. Even if you don’t find something meaningful, someone somewhere does.

With your therapist, you’ll begin to understand how each object, activity, or person holds meaning or value to others, and then you can slowly find value in these concepts. This shift in perspective helps to counter depressive symptoms and deter suicidal thoughts.


In addition to therapy, you can reduce feelings of boredom and depression by interacting with others. It’s particularly important to have a positive social support system in your life because seclusion can make depression worse. You can receive social support from family, friends, colleagues, groups, or communities.

The benefits of good social support are that it helps to eliminate boredom, improve overall physical health, and create feelings of stability and security. People with strong social support can also recover from stressful situations more quickly, enjoy improved feelings of self-esteem and self-confidence, maintain a healthier level of mental health and wellness, and find more fulfillment in daily life overall. Connecting with others helps us develop different perspectives as well, which helps us all see the different ways that life can be meaningful and valuable.

BetterHelp Makes Counseling Easier

BetterHelp offers online therapy that makes it easy to get the help you need. It’s convenient because you’ll have access to a counselor whenever you need one. If you’re feeling bored and worry about becoming more depressed, you can reach out for help no matter where you are. You can read reviews of our online therapists below, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

“I am going through a difficult time in my life right now, feeling confused, anxious, sometimes depressed – and absolutely not sure where this is coming from. Kristy is a very good listener, but she also quickly identified key points to work on, which already prove to be extremely helpful in spite of the short time we have been working together. I have full trust in her competence, and very much like how she is guiding me through the reflections both on- and offline. With her, I am in the best hands possible!”

“I signed up for BetterHelp at a time where I felt my lowest. I was matched with Lenora and she has been nothing but wonderful. She has helped me learn how to control my emotions and identify when I am at risk for losing control. She always seemed to genuinely care about my feelings and well being. Because of her, I feel more confident and in control of my life. I am truly so grateful that I was matched with her as my counselor.”


Don’t let your boredom turn into something more. Take the steps you need to learn how to overcome boredom and depression. With greater social support and the right therapist, you can enjoy a more meaningful and fulfilling life. Take the first step.

Can boredom lead to depression?

Seems to me a very interesting subject matter in boredom, is one that speaks culturally and ofcourse metaphysically. I dea and I nea, are only two states of consciousness in which Idea gets you out of boredom, and I nea gets you into it. You see, boredom essentially can be a very powerful creative tool to make you think about the deepest recesses of the human mind, and it makes you think about why you refuse to do certain things in life.
Like, for example, from 9-6 you’re extremely prodcutive and you want to acheive everything you can at work. But come 7pm, you just want to curl up and sleep. Or, on the flip side, you want to escape reality and go and get hammered. Both states of affairs are equally indicative of a similar problem. Probably, a single state of affair is conducive to reality-based elusiveness. However, at the end of it all, boredom consumes you until you can’t think any more.
How do you tackle it then? By being what ever you want to be and by doing whatever you want to do. Your heart wants to play and your mind wants to tick. See even light particles are constantly moving to reach your eye. If they got lazy and bored, you’d be blind. Or if all the local vegetable vendor got lazy and bored, you’d starve. This is why boredom is considered a major problem in society. It is a weakness. This is precisely why people that are bored feel more bored, because you have stigmatized boredom as unfavourable.
What consumes me, consumes you, and that everyone gets bored and lazy all ways and forever. It is because you want to reflect on things and avoid certain future pains. But you see these pains come from expectations of success, or even normality. When someone expects you to be normal, you tend to do just the opposite, to show them and yourself that there are two paths to life. Normality is ofcourse accompanied by crazy. So let your crazy out and express it in jest, because those who don’t have the spark, have nothing to lose but zest.
Boredom still encapsulates all the things that you’re supposed to do, and enters a frame of procrastination. Now in this state of affairs, you don’t want to accomplish something because you fear the repercussions of faliure. You dont take risks at work, you dont submit your term paper on time, you also dont call your grand parents any more. You see, this boils down to one thing. Why do you live?
Why do you continue on with life? Why are you so scared to express and hurt other people? Hurting people is the first step to making them understand that human intelligence is more than just what society frames it to be. But ofcourse, society is an easy punching bag for your troubles. It is you that forms society and you that destroys it. So why not create a society that is more favourable to laziness and more favourable to expressing that laziness to the n-th degree. Now that you’re relived from boredom, you now dont know who you are anymore.
You see, your ego was atached to the identity of being bored. Youve formed your identity and with the help of others, defined yourself as bored. Now what? Now theres nothing to do, but to enjoy your boredom till the extent that boredom becomes boring and you want some excitement.
It is thus that the world moves around in circles, until you find out that boredom and fun are simply two sides of the same coin. The same game that captures you, bores you, excites you, and traps you is the same game that everyone is playing. The game of living life, the game of the self-creator. The creator of all problems is the mind, and the solver of all problems is the mind itself. How does one then listen to something that’s out of his mind?
Something that’s bored out of his mind?
Now you’ve moved into the past and you reminisce about the past boredom. You learn and then you forget. And you repeat boredom again.
Here it is folks. Boredom will never leave you, and so will energy. You will always have these emotions inside of you. It is simply your mind that chooses to pick one, in hopes that you’ll finally be able to define yourself.
Self-definition brings extreme stress, which brings extreme dissatisfaction, which ultimately makes you want to curl up in your blanket and be bored to death. Stink away, until you never want to return.
Q- Well then, how do you get out of it and enter a state of energy?
A – You’re here, already. Nowhere to go anywhere. You are energy, just like you are the universe. You are fear and anger, you are lust and unfaithfulness. You are everything. Now how does everything define itself as only ONE thing? It can’t. The voices in your head are simply directions that you can choose. You choose wisely – that is your decision. You choose stupidly – that is also your decision. Both decisions mean the same thing, and ultimately you will die. Now what do you want to do in this musical life? Live in fear and play the sad game. Or live in harmony and live the happy game? Both games are equally fine. No preference should be given to either. And now you see, you are free to choose boredom or energy, as and when you choose to do so. Good luck, because you are the mirror, from which we reflect ourselves.
Now check yourself. Do you feel a little relieved?
Have no fear. Death will always be near. But even in death, the fear you shear, will count you on, for years and years.

I’ve met lots of people with a talent to bore in my time, but Sandi Mann is one of the few to have honed it as a craft. Eager volunteers visiting her lab may be asked to carry out less-than-thrilling chores like copying out lengthy lists of telephone numbers. They mostly tolerate the task politely, she says, but their shuffling bottoms and regular yawns prove they are hardly relishing the experience.

Their agony is science’s gain, though, since Mann wants to understand the profound effect that boredom may have on our lives. So far, she is one of the few psychologists to have forayed into such mind-numbing territories. “It’s the Cinderella of psychology,” she says. After all, admitting that you study boredom might itself sound a bit, well, boring – but that is far from the truth. Boredom, it turns out, can be a dangerous and disruptive state of mind that damages your health – and even cuts years off your lifespan. If that sounds negative, Mann’s research would also suggest that without boredom we couldn’t achieve our creative feats.

Bored to death

Boredom is such a large part of day-to-day existence that it is somewhat surprising the word only entered the language with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House in 1852. Dickens study of Lady Deadlock’s suffering – she is “bored to death” by her marriage – would end up pre-empting many of the latest findings. But perhaps because of its prevalence in our lives, scientists had been slow to explore the sensation. “When you are swimming in something, maybe you don’t think of it as being noteworthy,” says John Eastwood at York University in Canada, who was one of the first scholars to take an interest.

One of the most common misconceptions is that “only boring people get bored”. Yet as Eastwood set about exploring the reasons for boredom, he found that there are two distinct types of personality that tend to suffer from ennui, and neither are particularly dull themselves.

Boredom often goes with a naturally impulsive mindset among people who are constantly looking for new experiences. For these people, the steady path of life just isn’t enough of a rollercoaster to hold their attention. “The world is chronically under-stimulating,” says Eastwood.

The second kind of bored people have almost exactly the opposite problem; the world is a fearful place, and so they shut themselves away and try not to step outside their comfort zone. “Out of their high-sensitivity to pain, they withdraw.” While this retreat might offer some comfort, they are not always satisfied with the safety it offers – and chronic boredom results.

What happens in the brain when we are bored?

In people who are prone to boredom, this state can negatively affect their mental health. So, what happens in the brain when we get bored, and how can this help us find ways of dealing with boredom? A new study investigates.

Share on PinterestWhat happens in the brains of people who are prone to boredom? New research finds out.

On average, adults in the United States experience 131 days of boredom per year — at least that is what a recent commercial survey suggests.

What matters, though, is not just how much time a person spends feeling bored, but also how they react to the state of boredom.

Traditionally, boredom gets a bad rap because many people believe that the state of boredom equates with a lack of productivity or focus on a given task.

However, some research has indicated that it is good to be bored because this state helps boost creativity.

One way or the other, boredom is something we all have experienced repeatedly throughout our lives, and according to some research, it seems that animals might share this experience with us, too.

“Everybody experiences boredom,” says Sammy Perone, who is an assistant professor at Washington State University in Pullman. However, he adds, “some people experience it a lot, which is unhealthy.”

For this reason, Perone and colleagues from Washington State University decided to conduct a study focusing on what boredom looks like in the brain.

The study findings — which now appear in the journal Psychophysiology — might help them identify the best ways of coping with boredom so that this state does not end up affecting mental health.

At the end of the day, “we wanted to look at how to deal with effectively,” Perone explains.

The study premises

To begin with, the research team believed there was a “hardwiring” difference in the brains of people who react negatively to boredom vs. those individuals who experience no ill effects when they are bored.

However, initial tests — using electroencephalogram (EEG) caps to measure participants’ brain activity — proved them wrong.

“Previously, we thought people who react more negatively to boredom would have specific brain waves prior to being bored. But in our baseline tests, we couldn’t differentiate the brain waves. It was only when they were in a state of boredom that the difference surfaced,” Perone explains.

So, if there was no difference in terms of brain hardwiring, then what could explain why boredom affected some people more adversely than others? The researchers decided that the most likely explanation was individual response: some people simply reacted poorly to being bored, which could affect their well-being.

Previous research, the investigators report in their study paper, has actually suggested that individuals who are often bored are also more prone to poor mental health, and particularly to conditions such as anxiety and depression.

“People who report high levels of boredom propensity have an avoidant disposition. For example, these individuals are more likely to experience depression and anxiety,” the researchers write.

Based on these premises, the researchers argue that it is possible to find ways of coping with states of boredom so that they become less likely to affect mental health. But what might these strategies be? Before they could find out, Perone and team had to solve another mystery, namely what boredom looks like in the brain.

Brain activity in those prone to boredom

For their study, the researchers recruited 54 young adult participants. The researchers asked the volunteers to fill in a survey asking questions about boredom patterns and how they reacted to feeling bored.

Then, after a baseline EEG test measuring normal brain activity, the researchers assigned the participants a tedious task: they had to turn eight virtual pegs on a screen as the computer highlighted them. This activity lasted approximately 10 minutes, during which time the researchers used EEG caps to measure participants’ brain activity as they carried out the boring task.

In assessing the brain wave “maps” obtained via the EEGs, the researchers looked specifically at activity levels in the right frontal and left frontal areas of the brain.

That was because these two regions become active for different reasons. The left frontal part, the researchers explain, becomes more active when an individual is looking for stimulation or distraction from a situation by thinking about something different.

Conversely, the right frontal part of the brain becomes more active when an individual experiences negative emotions or states of anxiety.

The researchers found that participants who had reported being more prone to boredom on a daily basis displayed more activity in the right frontal brain area during the repetitive task, as they became increasingly bored.

“We found that the people who are good at coping with boredom in everyday life, based on the surveys, shifted more toward the left. Those that don’t cope as well in everyday life shifted more right.”

Sammy Perone

‘Reacting more proactively to boredom’

The team’s next step is to identify clear strategies that will allow people to cope better with states of boredom. Clues have already emerged after asking participants in the current study how they dealt with the boring activity.

“We had one person in the experiment who reported mentally rehearsing Christmas songs for an upcoming concert. They did the peg turning exercise to the beat of the music in their head,” says Perone.

“Doing things that keep you engaged rather than focusing on how bored you are is really helpful,” he notes.

In other words, proactive thinking could be a good way of coping with boredom. The trick, however, is getting individuals to learn how to do more of this, and succumb to boredom less.

“The results of this paper show that reacting more positively to boredom is possible. Now we want to find out the best tools we can give people to cope positively with being bored,” explains Perone.

“It’s really important to have a connection between the lab and the real world. If we can help people cope with boredom better, that can have a real, positive mental health impact,” the researcher contends.

Never a dull moment

Videos of fish-farm management techniques or men silently hanging laundry probably don’t top your Netflix queue. And that’s the point. These are some of the tedium-inducing tools that psychologists are using to study boredom in the lab.

“Even though boredom is very common, there is a lack of knowledge about it,” says Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychologist at the University of Southampton. “There hasn’t been much research about how it affects people on an everyday basis.”

Now that’s changing, as scientists have begun to take a closer look at this underappreciated emotion. The results of their research are anything but dull.

Boredom is a universal experience, yet until recently researchers didn’t have a go-to definition of the condition. Psychologist John Eastwood, PhD, of York University in Toronto, decided that was a good place to start. He and his colleagues scoured the scientific literature for theories of boredom and tried to extract the common elements. Then they interviewed hundreds of people about what it feels like to experience that tedious state.

They concluded that boredom is best described in terms of attention. A bored person doesn’t just have nothing to do. He or she wants to be stimulated, but is unable, for whatever reason, to connect with his or her environment — a state Eastwood describes as an “unengaged mind” (Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2012).

“In a nutshell, it boiled down to boredom being the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity,” he says.

From listless to focused

One of the more surprising aspects of Eastwood’s definition is that boredom can be associated with both low-arousal and high-arousal states. At times, boredom breeds lethargy — you might even have trouble keeping your eyes open. In other situations, being bored can lead to an agitated restlessness: think pacing, or constantly tapping your feet. Often, he says, boredom oscillates between the two states. You might pump yourself up to concentrate on a dreary task, then slip back into listlessness as your focus wavers again.

Some of us are more likely than others to suffer the effects of an unengaged mind. Unsurprisingly, given boredom’s close connection with attention, people with chronic attention problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder have a high propensity for ennui. James Danckert, PhD, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, found that people highly prone to boredom perform poorly on tasks that require sustained attention, and are more likely to show increased symptoms of both ADHD and depression (Experimental Brain Research, 2012).

Chronic boredom can look a lot like depression, but “they’re not the same emotional experience,” Danckert says. Together with Eastwood and other colleagues, he surveyed more than 800 people and found that boredom and depression were highly correlated, but were distinct states (Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 2011).

More work needs to be done to understand the relationship between these experiences, says Eastwood, but he speculates that boredom may be a risk factor for depression. “When people are bored, they’re disengaged from satisfying activity and more likely to become internally focused in a negative, ruminative cycle,” he says.

People with a high sensitivity to reward are also at risk of boredom. These sensation seekers — such as the skydivers among us — are particularly likely to find the world moves too slowly. At the opposite end of the spectrum, people who are overly sensitive to pain and punishment — such as people with high anxiety — are more likely to withdraw from the world out of self-protection. They may end up understimulated as a result.

Eastwood has also found that people with alexithymia, a condition marked by an inability to identify and describe one’s own emotions, are more prone to boredom (Personality and Individual Differences, 2007). “Feelings are like compass points that help orient us,” he says. “If we lack emotional awareness, we lack the capacity to select appropriate targets for engagement with the world.”

Killer doldrums

In many ways, boredom is a modern luxury. Danckert says, the word “boring” as it’s used now didn’t even enter common parlance until the industrial revolution gave us time to spare. “Early on in human history, when our ancestors had to spend most of their days securing food and shelter, boredom wasn’t an option,” he says.

In today’s electronic world, it’s rare to be stuck with absolutely nothing to do. Most of us are bombarded by near-constant stimuli such as tweets, texts and a seemingly limitless supply of cat videos right at our fingertips. But all those diversions don’t seem to have alleviated society’s collective boredom. The reverse may be true, says Eastwood.

“These might distract you in the short run, but I think it makes you more susceptible to boredom in the long run, and less able to find ways to engage yourself,” he says.

Teresa Belton, PhD, a research associate in the school of education and lifelong learning at the University of East Anglia, agrees. In 2001, she studied the influence of television on children’s storytelling. She found the main ingredient in children’s stories was their own direct experience. She attributed some of the lack of imagination in many stories to children’s resorting to TV time when they were bored (Media, Culture and Society, 2001). Given the steep rise in the use of technology since then, she suggests the tendency to alleviate boredom with screen time may have become even more prevalent.

“Whenever children are bored, they’re likely to turn on one of these electronic things and be bombarded with stimuli from the external world rather than having to rely on internal resources or devise their own activities,” Belton says.

Even without a smartphone, tedium is usually temporary. Eventually you reach the front of the line at the DMV, and even the dullest academic lecture draws to a close.

Danckert became interested in boredom while studying patients with severe brain injuries. “When I ask traumatic brain injury patients if they’re more bored post-injury, they all say yes,” he says, adding that chronic dissatisfaction with the world can lead them to engage in risky and impulsive behaviors.

Being underwhelmed can be problematic for the rest of us as well. It’s correlated with drug abuse, gambling and overeating. Eastwood is studying how tedium affects gambling behavior in the lab. The research is preliminary, he says, but so far it appears that men are more likely to make risky bets when they’re bored.

There’s even evidence that the phrase “bored to death” has some truth to it. As part of the Whitehall II Study, begun in 1985, British civil servants answered questions about social determinants of health, including some questions about boredom. More than two decades later, Annie Britton, PhD, and Martin Shipley, PhD, compared their responses with death records. They found the people who reported experiencing a great deal of boredom were more likely to die young than those who were more engaged with the world (International Journal of Epidemiology, 2010). The researchers theorize that boredom was probably a proxy for other risk factors, such as drug and alcohol use. Boredom is also associated with performance detriments, which in some cases can lead to serious problems.

“We know when people are bored they’re more likely to make performance errors and likely to not be as productive,” says Eastwood. “That’s a big deal if you’re an air-traffic controller or you’re monitoring a nuclear plant.”

On the other hand, boredom can prompt people to move out of tedious routines. Belton recently interviewed people known for their creative success, including an artist, a novelist, a poet and a neuroscientist. “They all said boredom can instigate new thinking and prod them into trying new things,” she says.

The poet took up his craft in middle age after finding himself stuck in a hospital bed for several hours with nothing to do. The only paper he had available was a stack of Post-It Notes, so he began writing poetry, the most practical activity to fit on three square inches.

“If people don’t have the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively, they might do something destructive to fill the void,” Belton says. “Those who have the patience to stay with that feeling, and the imagination and confidence to try out new ideas, are likely to make something creative out of it.”

Looking for meaning

Psychologists’ research has also begun to hint at the ways boredom can affect behavior, for better or worse. In a study done while he was at the University of Limerick, Van Tilburg and colleagues made participants’ eyes glaze over by asking them to copy dull literature references and make repetitive drawings. A control group did the same, but for a much shorter period of time. Afterward the researchers cued participants to retrieve memories. They found the highly bored people called up more nostalgic memories (Emotion, 2012).

“Feelings of nostalgia are associated with seeing your life in a broader perspective,” says Van Tilburg. “We saw that boredom actually increased people’s tendency to recall these very nostalgic memories and actually made them feel that life in general was more meaningful.”

In another study, Van Tilburg showed Irish study participants images of clovers and lists of traditional Irish names. When the participants were bored using the same techniques in the previous study, they responded more positively to these symbols of their national identity. But they were also more antagonistic toward members of an out-group. When asked to recommend a jail sentence for a hypothetical criminal, the bored subjects were harsher than the non-bored when sentencing a perpetrator said to be of English rather than Irish heritage (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 2011).

What that means, Van Tilburg says, is that when people are unengaged, they seek meaning wherever they can — whether that’s with a fond recollection from the past or a misguided sense of patriotism.

“Boredom signals what you’re doing right now seems to be lacking purpose,” he explains. “As soon as you offer people alternative behaviors that may give them a sense of purpose, they’re more eager to engage, and this can result in negative or positive behavior.”

Van Tilburg’s findings could have implications for dealing with boredom in constructive ways. “You can imagine situations like nursing homes, where it might be difficult for the elderly to find activities that alleviate boredom,” he says.

Other researchers are also investigating ways to alleviate monotony, especially in the classroom. Ulrike Nett, PhD, at the University of Konstanz, Germany, and colleagues compared strategies that high school students used to cope with boredom in math class. Some took a cognitive approach, such as reminding themselves how learning math would help them reach their career goals. Others used an avoidance strategy, such as chatting with friends. As it turned out, the students who took the cognitive approach experienced less boredom than the avoiders (Contemporary Educational Psychology (PDF, 622KB), 2011).

Despite these promising starts, don’t expect scientists to cure ennui just yet. “If there hasn’t been much research done on causes and consequences of boredom,” Eastwood says, “there’s been even less done on coping with it.”

Kirsten Weir is a writer in Minneapolis.

3: Searching

A more negative feeling reflecting a sense of unpleasant restlessness and an active search for ways out of the boredom mindset. A person might think about alternative activities, hobbies, leisure, or work.

4: Reactant

The highest levels of arousal and negative emotions. A person in a reactant boredom state has a strong motivation to escape his or her boring situation and avoid those responsible for it (such as teachers or a boss). Reflects significant restlessness and aggression. There are persistent thoughts about specific, “more highly valued alternative situations.”

5: Apathetic

This kind of boredom is different from the others. Like reactant boredom, it’s also unpleasant, but a person experiencing it has low arousal and a lack of positive or negative feelings–in other words, a feeling of helplessness or depression. Of the high school students sampled in the study, 36% of boredom experiences were of the apathetic kind, which is worrisome given that other studies have shown that boredom, depression, and destructive behaviors are often linked.

How do you know which type of bored you are right now?

Thomas Goetz, the lead researcher of the work and a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, says the multiple types of boredom can be loosely characterized along two dimensions. First, whether it is associated with a positive (score of 1) or negative (score of 5) emotion, and second, by degree of arousal, from calm (score of 1) to fidgety (score of 5).

“You can assess your individual boredom by writing down the two numbers,” he wrote Co.Exist in an email. “A bit simplified: 2/1 reflects indifferent boredom; 3/2, calibrating boredom; 3/3, searching boredom; 4/4, reactant boredom; and 4/1, apathetic boredom.” (Other combinations of scores fall in between boredom types.)

What were you doing before you started reading this? Were you fully focused on another article? Or doing the crossword? Eating breakfast? Organising your day? Or were you staring out of the window, feeling restless and bored?

It is more likely to have been the latter. Fleeting moments of boredom are universal, and are often what drives us to stop what we are doing and shift to something that we hope will be more stimulating.

But although boredom is common, it is neither trivial nor benign, according to Dr John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University, Toronto. Eastwood is the joint author of The Unengaged Mind, a major new paper on the theory of boredom.

Boredom, he points out, has been associated with increased drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, depression and anxiety, and an increased risk of making mistakes. Mistakes at work might not be a matter of life and death for most of us, but if you are an air traffic controller, pilot or nuclear power plant operator, they most certainly can be.

Commercial pilot Sami Franks (not his real name) confirms that boredom can make pilots lose attention. “When you fly long haul, there are two pilots, one of whom is monitoring all the screens while the other does the paperwork, talks to air traffic control and so on. You need to be alert for landing and takeoff, but once you’re 500ft above the runway, the plane’s on autopilot and it can be very quiet and boring.

“In a study I saw of co-pilots who woke up after a nap, 30% reported seeing the other pilot asleep too,” adds Franks, in a comment that will not play well with nervous flyers.

The stakes are not usually so high, but boredom can be protracted, heavy and associated with an unpleasant sensation, according to Eastwood. And despite having attracted the attention of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and educationalists, there is no precise definition of boredom and no consensus as to how we counter it. The report says boredom is most often conceptualised as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”

“All instances of boredom involve a failure of attention,” says Eastwood. “And attention is what you are using now to blot out the plethora of stimuli around you while you focus awareness on a given topic.”

There are three functions involved in attention. We have to be suitably aroused, so as not to fall asleep on the job. Then we have an orienting system that can cut in so that if you cross the road, deep in thought, you will still respond to a flickering light on the edge of your visual field that heralds a fast-approaching car. And the third type of attention is an executive system that oversees our mental activities, so we can consciously stay engaged even if the task is not very interesting. Boredom results when any of these functions breaks down.

Dr Esther Priyadharshini, a senior lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia, has studied boredom and says it can be seen in a positive light. “We can’t avoid boredom – it’s an inevitable human emotion. We have to accept it as legitimate and find ways it can be harnessed. We all need downtime, away from the constant bombardment of stimulation. There’s no need to be in a frenzy of activity at all times,” she says.

Children who complain that they have nothing to do on rainy half-term breaks may find other things to focus on if left to their own devices. The artist Grayson Perry has reportedly spoken of how long periods of boredom in childhood may have enhanced his creativity. “We all need vacant time to mull things over,” says Priyadharshini.

But if boredom can enhance our creativity and be a signal for change, why is it such a corrosive problem for some individuals?

People who have suffered extreme trauma are more likely to report boredom than those who have had a less eventful time. The theory is that they shut down emotionally and find it harder to work out what they need. They may be left with free-floating desire, without knowing what to pin it on. This lack of emotional awareness is known as alexithymia and can affect anyone.

Frustrated dreamers who haven’t realised their goals can expend all their emotional energy on hating themselves or the world, and find they have no attention left for anything else. Bungee jumpers and thrill-seekers may also be particularly susceptible to boredom, as they feel the world isn’t moving fast enough for them. They constantly need to top up their high levels of arousal and are always searching for stimulation from their environment.

“Boredom isn’t a nice feeling, so we have an urge to eradicate it and cope with it in a counterproductive way,” says Eastwood. This may be what drives people to destructive behaviours such as gambling, overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, he says, though research is needed to tease out whether there’s a direct causal link.

Why is boredom so stressful?

It ‘messes with your head’

These two states present different kinds of ways boredom is stressful.

  1. Boredom allows your stress brain free reign to invade your head with worries and fears – boredom and depression go hand in hand – I call this ‘agitated boredom’
  2. Or it does the opposite and you feel ‘brain dead’ with no motivation to even think about your goals let alone set them – I call this ‘listless boredom’

For example having no action and distraction – that is nothing to focus your attention on to – presents great opportunities for the limbic brain to nag you about worries, negative thoughts, and things you’re procrastinating about or should be doing – and in this case the reaction is one of being nervous, twitchy, restless, anxious – i.e. stressed/anxious.

Alternatively, having nothing to focus your attention on to can induce almost a ‘fugue’ state when the brain, again having nothing to focus its attention on, goes into ‘idle’ mode – just ticking over – aimless and listless.

Either of these states could be associated with anxiety or depression. Boredom is not trivial.

So why does boredom happen?

It could be because there isn’t anything sufficiently stimulating to interest the brain – boring tasks at work for example that is repetitious. Certain personality types don’t mind this kind of task while it can drive others into extreme states of agitated boredom. So personality has something to do with it.

It could also be that our unconscious feels it needs some ‘me’ time to reflect, or cogitate (think deeply about something; meditate or reflect). Evolutionary psychology says this could cause the kind of boredom associated with depression.

Either way boredom is stressful and we need to address it because:

It can shorten your life.

Researchers at University College London found that civil servants who reported being bored in questionnaire were less likely to be alive when the follow-up questionnaire was produced. So the saying “I’m bored to death” might have some validity.

Other researchers found cortisol levels in bored subjects were higher than their less bored counterparts. Cortisol is a stress-hormone that along with adrenaline produces the arousal response. Here are some of my other articles related to cortisol levels:

  • What causes stress and anxiety and why we have two brains
  • Memory and Walking Into a Room: Why We Forget
  • 5 ways to focus better

It can stop you from giving up smoking

Boredom is a known trigger for smoking.

It can cause you to binge eat or drink

When you’re bored and unfocused your brain turns to easy comfort solutions.

Solutions for boredom

If you feel bored:

Researchers found nostalgia can be quite an effective antidote to boredom so think about the good times.Daydreaming about future plans can also beat boredom.

Don’t react by getting frustrated or stressed – calmly think of something to do.

Know when you’re bored – be mindful – get in early as soon as you start feeling fidgety or listless and:

  • Accept and take action (“What can I do to make myself feel better)
  • Move to a different environment (the brain is activated when we change environments)
  • Meditate
  • Have a cup of coffee or tea (a little caffeine is not a bad thing)
  • Doodle
  • Sharpen your focus on what you are doing (for example distractions from study can make us bored – like extraneous noise or people talking in the next room)
  • For major boredom (“I’m bored with my whole life”) – make a plan or consult someone to help you change your lifestyle (I often work with clients on this)
  • Music is always a good standby
  • Walk out the door and go around the block – look in people’s gardens or shop windows

Do you have any ideas on what to do to banish boredom? I’d love to hear them: comments on my articles are always welcome.

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