It is often said that only boring people get bored. If this is true, then we humans must really be a tedious bunch! Around 90% of us report being bored some of the time, and the average person says they experience about six hours of boredom every week!
Given boredom’s dismal reputation, you might think that the 10% of people who don’t experience it are the lucky ones……but they might well be missing out on something – it turns out that boredom can be positively stimulating!!
Everyone knows the feeling of boredom. The world around you dulls, concentration lapses, time starts to drag and all the things you could be doing seem equally unattractive and yawn-inducing, or is this just how it feels for me??!!
Anyway, defining boredom so that it can be studied in a lab has proved difficult. For a start, it’s not just about apathy, as it can include many other mental states, such as depression, frustration, agitation, and even Zen-like indifference. There isn’t even agreement over whether boredom is a low-energy, flat emotion, or whether it can be energetic.
Perhaps it can be all these things. Boredom has been classified into four different types: apathetic, searching, reactant and indifferent. Of these, apathetic boredom is the closest to classical boredom. Not only are you listless, but also not motivated to do anything about it. Searching boredom is a more agitated, restless state, associated with active efforts to find something to do. Failure may then lead to reactant boredom, an explosive combination of high arousal and negative emotion. Finally, there is indifferent boredom, which is relaxed, calm and not especially unpleasant.
Intriguingly, while most people experience all these kinds of boredom and may even flit from one to another in a given situation, they tend to have a leaning or preference towards one.
Having defined boredom, the next question is, what is it for? Not such a daft question, because boredom Is an emotion and emotions generally serve a biological function. The answer to this may lie with other animals. Like all emotions, boredom didn’t just arise when humans came on the scene. Many other creatures, including mammals, birds and even some reptiles, seem to have a version of it, suggesting that there is some kind of survival advantage to feeling bored. The most plausible explanation is that it provides some sort of internal kick up the backside. Wild animals that have done nothing for a while often go outside to look for things to do. This has clear survival value, given that exploring their territory can alert them to something useful or dangerous.
Human boredom may well be more complex than this, but there are parallels. Just like disgust can motivate us to avoid certain situations where we may end up contracting an infection, boredom may protect us from being drawn into infectious, social situations! Animals caged in a zoo are seen pacing up and down – the human equivalent is probably being stuck in a traffic jam. Our techno-loaded, overstimulated lives might be part of the problem, too. With so many distractions, we are neglecting our inbuilt boredom buster – our ability to daydream!! Our overconnected lifestyles might even be a new source of boredom as we flit from one app or device to another, seeking instant gratification.
The cure for boredom, people?? CURIOSITY!! Don’t worry about it killing the cat – there is no cure for curiosity! So, keep on the case. It’s not boring people who get bored, but people who stop being curious!