Perhaps an annoyed parent or teacher once said this to you in your youth: “Only boring people get bored.” You likely suspected it then — and I can confirm it for you now — that this statement is not a true one.
On the contrary, boredom turns out to be a rather fascinating thing, a feeling that is lately the subject of some excitement among researchers who study emotion. (Quiet, measured excitement, but excitement nonetheless.) Boredom studies began in earnest in the 1980s, when a pair of University of Oregon psychologists developed something they named the Boredom Proneness Scale, a set of 28 questions that is intended to measure how easily an individual becomes bored.
Before I bore you to death, though, you can take that very test yourself, and find out where you rate on the Boredom Proneness Scale.
It is easy for me to concentrate on my activities.
Frequently when I am working I find myself worrying about other things.
Time always seems to be passing slowly.
I often find myself at ‘loose ends,’ not knowing what to do.
I am often trapped in situations where I have to do meaningless things.
Having to look at someone’s home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously.
I have projects in mind all the time, things to do.
I find it easy to entertain myself.
Many things I have to do are repetitive and monotonous.
It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
I get a kick out of most things I do.
I am seldom excited about my work.
In any situation I can usually find something to do or see to keep me interested.
Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing.
I am good at waiting patiently.
I often find myself with nothing to do — time on my hands.
In situations where I have to wait, such as a line or a queue, I get very restless.
I often wake up with a new idea.
It would be very hard for me to find a job that is exciting enough.
I would like more challenging things to do in life.
I feel that I am working below my abilities most of the time.
Many people would say that I am a creative or imaginative person.
I have so many interests, I don’t have time to do everything.
Among my friends I am the one who keeps doing something the longest.
Unless I am doing something exciting, even dangerous, I feel half-dead and dull.
It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy.
It seems that the same things are on television or at the movies all the time; it’s getting old.
When I was young, I was often in monotonous and tiresome situations.
You don’t get bored easily. Read on for more about what that means.
Your tolerance for boredom is about average. Read on for more about what that means.
You get bored easily. Read on for more about what that means.
The research on boredom is still “in its infancy,” said John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University, one of the leading experts on the subject — and yet there are a few things that studies using this scale have found about the types of people who tend to be more, or less, prone to boredom. Eastwood gave Science of Us a brief tour of what the science on boredom (not to be confused with boring science) says so far.
Boredom and attention are closely related. People who score high on the Boredom Proneness Scale also tend to have difficulty with what’s called executive functioning — they have not-great attention spans, in other words. “People who, for example, have been diagnosed with ADHD report more experiences of boredom,” Eastwood said. “But you don’t have to be clinically at the level of ADHD — if you just have a weak attention capacity or ability, that would seem to predispose you to be bored.”
If attention is, as Eastwood defines it, the ability to “regulate your engagement with the world,” then the link to boredom makes sense. “We select and focus on something, and we hold other things at bay, we keep them out of our mind,” Eastwood said. “And so if we can’t regulate our attention very well, then we’re going to have a hard time staying engaged in an activity.” You lose your focus, and the feeling that accompanies the distraction registers as boredom.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, by the way. It’s easy to see why a capacity to stay on-task is beneficial, and yet there is some evidence that suggests a link between distractibility and creativity. (If you’re still in a quiz-taking mood, you can test how easily you get distracted, too.) The notion that boredom and creativity may be linked is an intuitive one, though Eastwood cautions that it’s still early days in terms of the research here. Still, it’s a popular idea. “I was the most bored little kid you’ve ever seen,” Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda told Broadway.com in 2011. (For evidence, consider this footage of a young Miranda dancing his little heart out to “Footloose.”) Earlier this year, he elaborated on that childhood boredom in an interview with GQ. “Time alone is the gift of self-entertainment—and that is the font of creativity,” he said. “Because there is nothing better to spur creativity than a blank page or an empty bedroom.”
Boredom may shed some light on what motivates you. This is simplifying things, but broadly speaking, there are two categories people tend to fall into in terms of motivation: One force, known as the behavioral-activation system, drives you out into the world to discover new things. The other, called the behavioral-inhibition system, pulls you back home, where it’s safe. People who are high in either of these tend to be more boredom-prone.
Behavioral-activation types are high in sensation-seeking; these are the people who are jumping out of airplanes, traveling to exciting places, trying new foods. “For them, the world is just moving too slowly,” Eastwood said. “They’re looking for that next hit of adrenaline. So they’re more likely to feel bored — their motivation system is driving them into the world, and the world’s not meeting their need for stimulation.” On the other end of this continuum are the anxious, timid, stay-at-home types, those “that maybe end up avoiding life because of fear or anxiety,” Eastwood said. “And that withdrawal or avoidance means they’re going to be cut off from meaningful or satisfying activity in the world.”
Boredom also has a lot to do with the way you understand your own emotions. There are some people who, if you ask them how they are doing, will reply, “Good.” Or maybe, “Not so good.” In an extreme case, “they might say, ‘Oh, I have a stomachache’ — they somaticize their feelings, they talk about their body,” Eastwood said. “But they don’t really talk about their feelings.” These people are high in what’s known as alexithymia, a term that sounds vaguely like some rare disease but is the psychologists’ term for someone who struggles to speak about their feelings.
They also, the research has suggested, tend to be highly boredom-prone. This may have to do with the directionlessness that is tied up in boredom. “Emotions are like compass points — they orient us toward meaningful and valued activities in the world,” Eastwood explained. “They help us stay on course, and move toward things that are important and valuable to us. Emotions are guides. And if we lack our guides … then we’re wandering. ‘What do I want to do? What’s going to bring me pleasure or enjoyment? What’s meaningful to me?’ If we lack those compass points, then you’re going to struggle to stay engaged in satisfying or meaningful activities.”
But you could look at this link another way. Consider, for instance, your own habits when boredom strikes. Do you reach for your phone to numb the feeling immediately? Or do you dwell in the boredom for a bit, letting it nudge you toward a change you may need to make, something that would add more meaning to whatever is currently boring you? The key here may be less about how easily bored you are, and more about what you do with the boredom when it hits you.
Boredom, then, could be thought of as a warning signal, your mind’s alert system telling you that you’re not finding purpose in what you’re currently doing, and so you’d better switch things up. It’s like pain: No one likes to feel pain, and no one enjoys feeling bored. But both feelings can be useful. Pain pushes you away from harm. Boredom pushes you toward meaning. Every emotion serves a purpose, and this may be boredom’s.