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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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