Boredom Brings Choices, For Bad or Good

There is no universally accepted definition of boredom. But whatever it is, researchers argue, it is not simply another name for depression or apathy. It seems to be a specific mental state that people find unpleasant—a lack of stimulation that leaves them craving relief, with a host of behavioural, medical and social consequences. Maggie Koerth-Baker, Nature Magazine (2016)

But is boredom always such a bad thing? Opinions vary, but traditionally—and not so traditionally—it has been seen along those lines:

Erich Fromm (1900-1980): “Boredom is nothing but the experience of a paralysis of our productive powers.”

Eric Hoffer (1898-1983): “When people are bored, it is primarily with their own selves that they are bored.”

Louis C.K.: “’I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored’.”

According to researchers (as reported by Meghan Holohan, Mental Floss), there are five different types of boredom:

  1. Indifferent: “People with indifferent boredom appear relaxed, calm, and withdrawn…”
  2. Apathetic: “…People who have this kind of ennui show little arousal and a lot of aversion.”
  3. Calibrating: “People with calibrating boredom find that their thoughts wander and they want do something that differs from what they’re currently doing. But they’re not exactly sure what or how they might go about it…”
  4. Reactant: “This boredom is the worst…” Highly aroused, restless, and aggressive. “People experiencing reactant boredom really want to leave their dull situations and flee from the people they blame for it…”
  5. Searching: “…experience negative feelings and a creeping, disagreeable restlessness. They look for ways out by focusing on more interesting activities.”

Some people innately have more problems with this issue than others. Temma Ehrenfeld (Psychology Today) reports that “(t)he tendency to boredom is about 60 percent hard-wired.”

Elsewhere she briefly explains the research of neuroscientist Irving Biederman, who says opioids in the brain are key and offers some suggestions:

To stoke your inner opioids, keep trying new things, or delve deeper into an area you already know and love, triggering fresh insights. ‘You can get hits either way,’ Biederman says. ‘The best way not to be bored is to do what you like doing, typically something you’re good at.’

Better things can come from those initial twinges of unpleasant ennui. Neel Burton, MD, Psychology Today: It “can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities. Most of our achievements, of man’s achievements, are born out of the dread of boredom.”

As Therese J. Borchard concludes in “Boredom Can Be a Door to New Growth” (Psych Central), how we handle it and/or where it takes us is about the choices we make: “Boredom…is the door to addiction, distraction and danger or creativity, innovation, and growth.”

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