How to Be Bored, and What You Can Learn From It

Figuring out the root cause of our lack of inspiration can help us make better choices in how we spend our time, experts say.

Credit…Delcan & Co.

At least once every weekend, one of my kids — ages 8 and 11 — lumbers over to me and moans, “I’m boooooored. There’s nothing to do.” When I remind them of all the things they could try (read a book, make an art project, play the piano) they glare at me as if I’ve just asked them to do 150 burpees and then lope off again, shoulders slumped.

It’s not just kids, of course. Many American adults reported feeling bored during the seemingly endless pandemic lockdowns. Boredom may also be contributing to the lack of engagement many Americans feel right now at work. Some research suggests that teens, too, were experiencing more boredom recently than they did in the past.

Boredom is no fun, but it can be a source of useful information. “It arises when we’re doing things that don’t seem engaging or satisfactory, and it pushes us to want to be doing something else,” said Andreas Elpidorou, a philosopher who studies emotions and consciousness at the University of Louisville.

Research suggests that boredom can arise for a handful of reasons, and that figuring out the root cause can help us make better choices in how we spend our time — or at least rejigger our experiences so they are more rewarding. Here’s how to make the science of boredom work for you.

Erin Westgate, a researcher at the University of Florida, has spent years digging into the various drivers of boredom and has found that it arises in a few kinds of situations.

First, we can feel bored when we’re in a position where we can’t pay attention, either because the task we’re doing is too easy or too hard. “For you to be able to pay attention and maintain attention on something, you need cognitive demands and cognitive resources to be balanced,” Dr. Westgate explained — in other words, the demands of the task need to match what your brain can bring to it.

When what we’re doing feels too easy, we often can’t focus, and our inattention gives rise to boredom. This could happen when your kid makes you play Candy Land yet again or “when you are at a meeting where your boss discusses the same issue for what seems like the hundredth time and you just tune out,” said Karen Gasper, a psychologist at Pennsylvania State University who studies how feelings influence people’s lives.

We can also feel bored when the thing we’re doing feels hard and overwhelming — for instance, when there’s a work memo we must write and we’re not sure where to start. Likewise, boredom might happen “when you are watching a movie with a complicated plot, and you are just lost,” Dr. Gasper said.

You may also experience boredom when an activity doesn’t feel particularly meaningful. “You might be reading a book that has a plot that’s uninspiring and predictable. You are able to pay attention to it, but you just don’t want to,” Dr. Gasper explained. When activities don’t align with our goals or values, they often incite us to feel bored and unfulfilled.

And then, of course, there are the situations in which you’re not really doing anything and you feel listless and bored — the thing that sometimes happens to my kids (and me!) when we have downtime. Dr. Westgate said she suspects this happens because we have no goal in mind in those moments, which makes us feel lost and uncomfortable.

If you’re feeling disinterested, Dr. Westgate suggested thinking through the various causes to figure out what’s inciting your boredom. Is the task you’re doing too hard or too easy? Do you not find it meaningful? Do you just not know what to do with yourself? In her experience, she said, people can easily determine which of these issues is driving the problem.

Next, work toward addressing the problem — but what you do will depend on the situation and how much flexibility you have. The best solution if you’re bored doing something is to stop doing that thing and do something else. But school, work and caregiving often require us to do boring tasks over and over again. Making matters worse, when we feel that we don’t have control over our actions, the lack of autonomy can make boredom worse, Dr. Westgate said. One classic study found that people who were forced to listen to boring lessons felt that time went by more slowly than people who had chosen to listen to them.

If the task you’re doing feels too easy, consider trying something new or challenging if you have the option, Dr. Gasper said. Maybe your daily walks are starting to bore you and you should consider hiking or rock climbing instead. If you have no choice but to continue doing the task, brainstorm ways to add complexity to it. Dr. Elpidorou said he once interviewed a U.P.S. employee whose job it was to unload and scan boxes all day, but who said he never felt bored because he and his co-workers played games to make the work more challenging. Playing music can also help, Dr. Westgate added, because listening to music “soaks up those extra attentional resources you have, so that you can, paradoxically, focus better on that under-stimulating thing that you’re doing.”

If you’re bored because what you’re doing is too hard, Dr. Westgate suggested breaking the task up into smaller parts so it feels more manageable. Set a goal of writing just one section of that work memo before lunch.

When a required task isn’t engaging because it doesn’t feel worthwhile, it may help to consider the task’s utility, including how it could help achieve bigger goals, Dr. Westgate said. For instance, if your kid doesn’t like math, encourage her to think about how math might serve her interests down the line — could it make her better at her dream job? Research has shown that this kind of framing helps to keep students engaged and do better in school.

It may also help to think about how a seemingly thankless task serves others or builds community. When you go to the grocery store, Dr. Westgate said, you can think of it as a pointless time suck, or you could think about it as a task you do to keep your family healthy and nourished. “Frame it to yourself in ways that matter,” she suggested.

All this said, if you find yourself consistently bored with what you’re doing, it’s smart to ponder whether there are ways to avoid those tasks, Dr. Westgate said, perhaps through delegation or a career change. Frequent boredom can also be a sign of depression, she added, so if you find yourself rarely enjoying the activities you do — especially if you used to get joy out of them — you may want to talk to your doctor.

I couldn’t help but wonder what role smartphones and social media play in boredom. Do I scroll through Instagram so much because I’m bored? Could the instant gratification I get cause me to feel more bored when I’m trying to do mundane tasks? No one knows for sure, but some research does suggest that although we reach for our phones to alleviate boredom, technology may also cause us to feel more bored. Dr. Westgate said that she worries that technology may prevent us from constructively responding to our boredom, too.

“If you’re constantly soothing away those feelings of boredom with something like a phone, instead of engaging with them, I think it’s taking away a really useful signal,” she said. Plus, if you reach for your phone every time you’re bored, it might prevent you from doing something else you find more rewarding.

In those moments of listlessness where you can’t figure out what you want to do, it may help to keep a mental list of activities you usually find fulfilling that you can turn to, Dr. Elpidorou said. This could include reading, playing an instrument, drawing, knitting or any other kind of hobby. (If your phone allows you to do something you find meaningful, like connecting with a friend or doing a crossword, that’s OK too.)

“Pick something that you normally like — you are able to do it and usually want to do it — and commit to doing it for a few minutes. Hopefully, you will become involved in it and the boredom will pass,” Dr. Gasper suggested.

I’ve been trying out some of these approaches over the past few days, and they’ve been useful. When I saw the blank computer screen looming in front of me when it was time to write this newsletter, I felt a twinge of boredom and reached for my phone — then recognized the irony of feeling bored while writing about boredom and had a chuckle. After that, I put down my phone and focused on writing just one paragraph at a time.

New York Times – November 3, 2022

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