Exploring the unengaged mind

How bored are you right now?

What is Boredom?

Boredom is the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity. It’s an unpleasant state that involves difficulty focusing our attention, a sense that time is passing slowly, and feeling tired and lethargic or irritable and restless.

Boredom occurs when we can’t become engaged with our inner thoughts or the external world: we are disconnected. Given thatattention is the cognitive mechanism that controls the focus of our engagement, it could be said that boredom involves a failure of attention.

The explanations we give as to why we’re disconnected are also important. For example, when bored we might explain our predicament by blaming the external world (correctly or incorrectly) by saying things like: “This task is uninteresting”, “I’m being forced to do something I don’t want to do”, “There is nothing to do”, etc.

In everyday life we use the term “boredom” rather loosely to refer to a broad range of experiences. However, when researching boredom it’s important to define the concept precisely and to distinguish it from neighbouring, but distinct, experiences like “apathy”, “frustration”, and “depression”.


What Causes Boredom?

Research into the causes of boredom is still in its infancy. At present, we know that certain personality characteristics—involving cognitive, emotional, and motivational factors—are associated with the tendency to experience boredom.

In terms of cognitive factors, we know that individuals with chronic problems regulating and controlling attention—–the kind of problems seen in Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—are more likely to experience boredom.

In terms of emotional factors, we know that individuals who have an impoverished imagination, a lack of life meaning or purpose, and problems understanding their emotions, are more prone to experience boredom, likely because they are not able to identify what activities they would find fulfilling.

In terms of motivational factors, we know that individuals who are very sensitive to reward or punishment are more likely to experience boredom. High punishment sensitivity people often withdraw from activities because they find the environment threatening. In contrast, high reward sensitivity people need more and more exciting activities to fulfill their need for pleasure, and thus find many environments under-stimulating.