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Boredom has more to do with you than the situation

It creeps up on you as you sit at your desk. You yawn, scan the web, check Facebook but still the ennui lingers. At some point almost every day we feel bored, at least for a little while. We’ve all experienced that feeling of listlessness, but what is boredom? Is it not having something exciting to do? Is it being unable to pay attention to what you’re doing? 

One team of Canadian researchers was apparently interested enough in boredom to find out.

“Intuitively, it is pretty clear that boredom is a common human experience and little research has been done to bear out that fact,” says John Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto.  

Eastwood and his colleagues observed that people believe boredom relates to their environment: We think if a lecture or a conversation is boring, we can simply change topics to avoid the dullness.

“We attribute [boredom] with problems in the environment rather than the problems with ourselves,” explains co-researcher Mark Fenske, associate professor of neuroscience and applied cognitive science at the University of Guelph and co-author of the book, “The Winner’s Brain.”

But boredom might have more to do with us than uninspired surroundings.

Eastwood and Fenske reviewed descriptions of boredom from existentialist philosophy, psychology and literature and also conducted a study with subjects, where they described how they feel when experiencing ennui. The researchers then crafted a definition encompassing the overlapping ideas from the literature and study. Boredom occurs when we have trouble paying attention to internal and external stimuli needed to enjoy an activity, we realize we struggle to pay attention, and we blame the environment for our lack of enjoyment.

“Our approach is to link [boredom] to attention,” says Fenske. “The fact that we’re able to talk about boredom in terms of attention [means] we’ve already changed the focus.”

Framing ennui in terms of attention is significant because psychologists know how treat attention problems, meaning experts can help people experiencing chronic boredom.

Fenske and Eastwood agree that most people think of boredom as trivial and commonplace, perhaps it’s why researchers haven’t studied it. But boredom can be a sign of more serious problems. 

“Boredom can have some horrible effects and we see it associated with pathological states. [There’s a] strong association with depression and boredom and traumatic brain injury and boredom,” notes Fenske. He adds that drug and alcohol abuse counselors know that patients relapse when faced with boredom.

“I think that you can think about it in two ways … boredom is related to addiction, gambling, eating problems … or you can think of chronic, protracted boredom as a problem in its own right,” Eastwood says.

While friends often tease the researchers about their boring research, the two believe their findings provide new areas of study.

“I have no data to support this, but I speculate that people might experience a lot of boredom in modern times because we are experiencing intense entertainment.  We’re used to being passively entertained and that constant stimulation puts us at risk for [more] boredom in the future,” Eastwood says.  

The paper, “The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention,” appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science. 

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