Boredom is one of the most common negative emotions, and yet relatively little explored in the psychology literature.
A woman, Kate, wrote to me recently –
“I am bored all time. I have very few friends. I can’t get motivated to do anything to move my life forward. I don’t know what to do except mess around on my computer, watch movies and generally be alone because I don’t have anybody to hang out with.”
We can probably all think of times when we’ve been there. For myself, much of high school and even college was about escaping feelings like these.
But what to say to this bright, interesting, woman who was looking for a solution?
The first thought that I had was to come up with a list of suggestions: why don’t you try this or that. They quickly realized that this sounded like the answer that my mother used to give me when I said I was bored as a kid. It was never satisfying. None of the ideas that they came up with ever sounded worthwhile. In fact I seem to remember times when I rejected the suggestion as an interesting only to decide on my own, later, to do something quite similar.
I decided to do some online research.
I came across an interesting article the talked about the “value” of boredom. After all, why have any motion without it serving some purpose. And perhaps if we can understand the purpose of boredom we can figure out what to do with it or about it.
Shane Bench of the Department of Psychology at Texas A&M University wrote an interesting article provocatively entitled “On the Function of Boredom.”
They note that the experience of boredom is ubiquitous and occurs frequently in daily life across a variety of cultures (you are not alone).
Although it is a state that is surprisingly difficult to define precisely, they cite the the most widely used definition of boredom: “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”
Adaptive theories of emotion suggest that each specific emotion signals that the person needs to take some action to attain goals or avoid negative outcomes.
If boredom arises from the perception that the current situation is no longer stimulating, as reflected in diminishing emotional response or interest. Boredom organizes responses to this situation. Its purpose is to encourage a person to seek alternative goals and experiences, even if those experiences might result in negative emotions.
Back to Kate. The reason that she is bored is because something is missing from her life, some sense of purpose or direction. Boredom is in fact there precisely to signal that watching TV is not an acceptable solution.
It encourages her not to be satisfied with what she usually does and focuses her attention on. It says look for something more or better. Or perhaps try to identify some personal value that is not being fulfilled.
ACT therapy argues that when we are unhappy it is often because we are disconnected from our deepest values. And boredom is often the emotional signal of that state.
The problem with boredom is that it can actually interfere with the activity of focusing on those values and identifying them.
There’s a wonderful values worksheet that you can download following this link. But it’s hard to imagine how anyone who’s acutely bored could really engage, on their own, in the exploration of values and what’s missing.
In other words boredom serves as a motivation but it’s not very good at motivating the behavior that’s most likely to lead to an enduring solution: a thoughtful consideration of what’s missing.
Over the years the solution that I’ve most often found to be helpful in my life is a combination of distraction and then reflection. The thing that most effectively brings me out of boredom is physical activity, particularly if it is outdoors and if it involves aerobic exercise. There’s something about nature that, for me, soothes that sense of dissatisfaction. And physical activity shifts me into a state of mind where it’s possible to begin to think creatively about solutions.
It’s often hard to make that leap, but when I do I almost always feel better.