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The Science of Boredom and How to Not Waste Your Life

Sitting at your laptop, new emails and tasks pour into your inbox. You’re struggling to keep your eyes focused on the computer screen. Sometimes, it’s very easy to lapse into moments of boredom.

But at what point does it become a serious problem? How should you combat boredom amidst doldrum routine?

The dangers of being constantly bored

Society tends to view boredom as a neutral, even inevitable, part of modern life. However, research actually links boredom to serious concerns. According to Scientific American, “Easily bored people are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, hostility, anger, poor social skills, bad grades and low work performance.”

A University College London study showed a correlation between boredom and early death. Researchers 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.”

Another study done at the University of Waterloo found that cortisol levels rose after boredom was induced — showing that boredom is a state of stress. Mark Fenske, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph, said that “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.”

Two types of boredom

Dr. Carl Pickhardt categorizes boredom in two ways. “There can be Type One Boredom, from emptiness of purpose and not knowing what one would like to do with oneself. And there can be Type Two Boredom, from entrapment in disliked or disinteresting activities that one is obliged to do.”

When viewed through that lens, Pickhardt’s perspective rings true. Boredom is either purposelessness or lack of interest. The two types are distinct, but still related.

Why do we get bored?

What causes us to feel bored? What’s missing? According to Dr. Shahram Heshmat, boredom is a lack of at least one of the following.

Attention

If you will not, or cannot, give your attention to a topic, that may result in a feeling of boredom too. Heshmat noted, for example, that “people with chronic attention problems, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, have a high tendency for boredom.”

Interest and novelty

When you’re working on a monotonous task, it’s hard to retain an interest in the activity. Repetitive tasks tend to cause you to feel bored.

Alternatively, novel activities tend to feel challenging and exciting and increase your awareness.

Flow

“Flow” is a state of extreme focus on an activity. Have you ever been working on a project, feeling genuinely curious about what the outcome will be? Hours can go by in what feels like a matter of minutes.

If your work responsibilities, for example, don’t inspire you to engage at this level of focus and interest, you’re missing out on the flow state of mind — and you’re likely dealing with boredom.

Emotional awareness

Heshmat explains that “An inability to know what will make one happy can lead to a more profound existential boredom. Not knowing what we are searching for means that we lack the capacity to choose appropriate goals for engagement with the world.”

Inner amusement skills

Have you heard some people say that they enjoy people-watching when they’re stuck waiting in a public place? These people likely have strong inner amusement skills.

If you’re not able to amuse yourself during life’s in-between moments, you will find yourself feeling bored more often.

Autonomy

Boredom can occur when you feel trapped — unable to do what you want to do. Heshmat gives the example of childhood; this is a stage of life when people feel bored most often. Children are often in situations where they are “trapped” and unable to do what they would like to (at school, at home, being transported to the next activity, etc.).

A call to action

To avoid the psychological stress and other risks of prolonged boredom, there’s only one path forward. You need to see boredom as a call to action — make a change. 

Logically, this makes sense, but doing something different actually has a demonstrable effect neurologically too. New experiences stimulate the release of opioids, which make you feel pleasure and relaxation.

So, to combat boredom, you need to pursue activities that are:

New

Combat feeling trapped in a monotonous or repetitive position by becoming a life-long learner. Continue to pursue new activities and expand your skills and knowledge.

British psychologist Raymond Cattell made the distinction between fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Fluid intelligence is “the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower.” It peaks in your 30s and 40s.

“Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use the knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it.” It increases into your 40s and does not decrease until late in life.

So, while doing new things will always help to combat boredom, consider choosing new activities that are fitting for your current stage of life. A semi-retirement phase after your first career is completed, for example, can leverage your crystallized intelligence and keep you engaged while doing work you enjoy.

Conducive to variety

It is, of course, a challenge to constantly find activities that are new. A good strategy here is to find a job or lifestyle that is conducive to variety.

Beyond looking for a single job that offers varying responsibilities, consider an early retirement from full-time work. Another option is taking a series of mini-retirements throughout your working years, switching to new fields along the way.

Interesting, amusing, and fulfilling 

To combat Type One boredom, try to identify what is most important to you in life. What are your personal core values? If you can adjust your daily activities to align with your core values and plans for your future, that will help attach meaning.

To fight Type Two boredom, try to view the unpleasant small tasks you have to do as progress towards your goals. Considering these small steps to be accomplishing short-term goals will release dopamine in your brain.

Accomplishing your short- and long-term goals will feel good physically, and give you a sense of fulfillment and purpose.

Next time you feel bored, don’t just fight through it. Take action and see if there’s an opportunity to make a positive change in your life.

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