Wednesday, February 5, 2014

What is boredom?

We have all experienced boredom.  Sitting in a class where the teacher is droning on about a topic you don’t care about, you may find yourself daydreaming or staring at a clock that doesn’t seem to be moving.  Waiting for a delayed flight to take off at the airport, you may search in vain for something to distract you. 

Boredom is unpleasant and physically painful.  It can make you angry and frustrated.  Boredom can also influence your actions in negative ways.  Bored people are prone to overeat for example, 

So how does boredom work?

An interesting paper by John Eastwood, Alexandra Frischen, Mark Fenske, and Daniel Smilek in the September, 2012 issue of Perspectives on Psychological Science. 

These authors suggest that attention plays an important role in creating boredom.  In particular, there are a few conditions that need to be met for people to feel bored.  First, people need to have a reasonable level of psychological energy or arousal to feel bored.  When people have low arousal and there is not much happening in the world, then they often feel relaxed.  When they have high arousal, though, they have energy they would like to devote to something, but they cannot find anything engaging.

Second, boredom typically occurs when people have trouble focusing their attention and they believe the reason for this difficulty is in the environment.  When sitting in the airport, for example, there is probably a lot going on.  There are people having conversations that you could listen to.  You probably have something to read.  There may be televisions showing the news.  But, the stress of waiting for a delayed flight often makes it hard to concentrate, and so your mind jumps from one thing to another.  You assume that this is caused by the environment, and so you feel boredom.

The authors of this paper point to an interesting study by Robin Damrad-Frye and James Laird in the August, 1989 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  In this study, participants had to listen to a tape of a person reading a Psychology Today article.  In the next room, there was a television soundtrack from a soap opera playing.  For some groups listening to the article, the TV was very loud and distracting, for others it was barely noticeable, and for some it was not playing at all.  After listening to the article, people rated their boredom during the study. 

The people who heard the barely noticeable TV rated themselves as more bored than either the ones who heard the loud TV or heard no soundtrack.  The idea is that both the loud TV and the soft TV were distracting, but for those who heard the loud TV it was clear why they were distracted from the article.  Thus, they may have been frustrated with the noise, but they were not bored.  Those who heard the soft soundtrack had difficulty concentrating, but they were not sure why, and so they attributed the difficulty concentrating to boredom.

This example leads to another key aspect of boredom.  As Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek point out, bored people become aware of their difficulty concentrating.  As a result, bored people often try to amuse themselves by daydreaming and letting their mind wander.  Interestingly, while mind wandering helps people to keep their minds occupied, studies suggest that the more your mind wanders, the more bored you feel.  The idea is that you recognize that this daydreaming is meant to occupy your mind, and so you realize that the situation is boring.

One more key element of boredom is control.  Boredom often occurs when you have little control over your situation.  Waiting rooms, lectures, and airline gates are all places where you have little control over your situation.  Normally, we react to unpleasant situations by changing the situation.  If you don’t like a book you are reading, for example, you close it and do something else.  Boredom happens when you are unable to change the situation.  

Finally, a real problem caused by boredom is that it leads you to dislike the things that are the object of boredom.  In my senior year of high school, for example, I was forced to read Moby Dick.  I struggled to get interested in it and spent long hours staring at the pages trying to lose myself in it.  To this day, I really do not like Moby Dick.  The negative feelings that came with the boredom have stuck to the book.

As the authors of the review point out, these negative feelings can actually impair later performance.  Stress can decrease people’s ability to pay attention and can narrow people’s working memory capacity.  These effects can be a particular problem in school settings.  Students need to be able to work at peak capacity to get the most out of school.  So, boredom can create long-term difficulties for students.

What can you do about boredom?  Obviously, there are times when you are stuck.  If you are listening to a lecture that you cannot leave, then you just need to find a way to get through it.  When you have some control, though, use your understanding of boredom to help you out.  If you can, try to do a meditation exercise to lower your arousal level.  If you can lower your arousal, it will help you to feel less bored.  Also, keep some music handy.  Music you enjoy can crowd out distractions in the environment.  It can also influence your mood in positive ways to counteract the pain of being bored.