boredom with screen time may have become even more
“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
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, 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.” n