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What Is Boredom?

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

We all know the feeling. Time becomes slowed down. Nothing seems interesting. There is a feeling of yearning, but for what? This is what we call bored. We tell ourselves that we are bored! What does this mean?

One meaning we give to our boredom is that the book we are reading is not interesting. Another meaning might be that a class we are taking is a total bore. In other words, we look to something external to blame.

Boredom, when chronic, is very stressful and that has serious consequences for health. For example, we might be waiting room of a doctor’s office. The time seems eternally long. Feelings of irritability and anxiety set in. This is where we start to feel very stressed. It seems as though the solution is to be seen by the doctor.

Another example might be that, boredom might cause someone from losing focus at work and getting injured because of the lack of attention. How many times have you been driving for a long period of time, become bored with the road and lose attention. My guess is that a good number of traffic accidents are caused this way.

Boredom is not trivial. It is out of boredom that some people turn to addiction, gambling, over-eating and alcohol abuse.

These are examples of blaming the boredom on something external. Perhaps it is not. Perhaps boredom is internal in nature.

Up until now, little research has been done on the phenomenon of boredom. Some have seen it as a variation of depression. None of the explanations are satisfactory, now, empirical research has been done on the state we call boredom.

Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University (Ontario, Canada) and colleagues at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo wanted to understand the mental processes that underlie our feelings of boredom in order to create a precise definition of boredom that can be applied across a variety of theoretical frameworks. Their new article, which brings together existing research on attention and boredom, is published in the September 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

According to the website, ScienceDaily, and quoting from the Sep. 26, 2012 issue of the journal:

“Drawing from research across many areas of psychological science and neuroscience, John Eastwood and colleagues define boredom as ‘an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,’ which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.

Specifically, we’re bored when:

1. We have difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity

2. We’re aware of the fact that we’re having difficulty paying attention

3. We believe that the environment is responsible for our aversive state such as, “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do.'”

Alex Lickerman, MD, a physician and practicing Nichiren Buddhist put it, there is nothing that is intrinsically boring. There are examples of prisoners of war, sitting in complete isolation, who are able to focus their minds and find interesting things to prevent boredom. What he does to reduce the experience of boredom is to:

“Whenever I’m bored, I try to ask myself three questions:

1. How can my current circumstances help me develop myself?
2. How can my current circumstances help me contribute to the happiness of someone else?
3. How would the wisest person on earth look at my current circumstances and what would he or she do in my stead?”

Lickerman’s effort is to make all of life interesting.

The point is that research indicates that there is a relationship between boredom and lack of attention to what is happening inside of ourselves as well as what is external. We need to refocus our attention to what we are thinking and feeling and to the stimuli in the environment instead of over looking both.

Ultimately, if boredom is something that becomes chronic and cannot be changed by any effort at refocusing attention, cognitive behavior therapy is an excellent way to overcome this painful state of being.

Your comments are questions are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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