Boredom Explained (in under 300 words)

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What is the best psychological strategy to avoid boredom?

There are these weird people who never seem to get bored.

“Oh!” say the chronically interested and engaged, “What a fascinating and exciting world we live in. How wonderful it is to be alive. How can anyone possibly be bored with all the variety in life?”

Lucky you.

I’m with French philosopher Albert Camus, who said (in The Plague):

“The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”

‘Everyone’ might be a slight exaggeration, although some estimates suggest up to 50% of us often feel bored. For teenagers that’s definitely an underestimate.

And boredom is not to be taken lightly. There’s evidence that those who are bored are more likely to die earlier than others (Britton & Shipley, 2010). Also, bored airline pilots make more mistakes as do bored nuclear military personnel. So you really can be bored to death.

Here’s how psychologists describe the experience of boredom (Eastwood et al., 2012):

  • Frustrated: being unable to engage with a satisfying and interesting activity and finding this really frustrating.
  • Meaningless: everything seems meaningless. Boredom is an existential crisis: you want to shout, “What is the bloody point?”
  • Boring environment: feeling that everything and everyone around us is boring.

And here are the three psychological strategies that people spontaneously use to cope with boredom (Nett et al., 2009):

  • Reappraise: mentally work to increase the value or importance of the situation or activity.
  • Criticise: change the situation to dispel the boredom.
  • Evade: distraction with another activity.

Of course we use all of these strategies at different times. But there’s tentative evidence to suggest that we should rely more on reappraisal than the other two. The worst strategy seems to be trying to evade boredom (think: drink, drugs and gambling).

Image credit: Cassidy Curtis

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About the author


Dr Jeremy Dean is a psychologist and the author of PsyBlog. His latest book is "Making Habits, Breaking Habits: How to Make Changes That Stick". You can follow PsyBlog by email, by RSS feed, on Twitter and Google+.

Published: 21 January 2013

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