Science Watch

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.