Boredom isn't depression-lite
John Eastwood is a clinical psychologist and researcher into cognitive science. Katie Haylor asked John to unpick a few bits and bobs of boredom...
John - Boredom occurs when our mental capacities are under utilised and we desperately want to be doing something, but don't want to do anything that's available. It's like we can't muster up an actionable desire, you might say, and boredom is associated with slow passage of time, difficulty concentrating, a sense of meaninglessness and also oscillating energy levels - maybe restless at one moment and then listless the next. Boredom is importantly different from apathy. When we're apathetic, we're content with the status quo. And we sort of desire for nothing. Boredom is also different from frustration because when we're frustrated, we have a clear desire to be doing something in particular, but we're blocked in that pursuit of that activity. Tolstoy famously summed up boredom as the desire for desires.
Katie - Why does this happen? I've always viewed it as a motivator to find the thing that I want to do. I don't know if that's accurate. Why do we get bored?
John - Well, we can speculate about this. You know, of course it's hard to say for sure, we can try to look at its function and how it operates. And I would say that boredom, like all uncomfortable feelings is natural. And it serves a purpose. The key is to hear its message properly and to respond well. And we often don't respond well when boredom occurs. I would say that boredom tells us that we're not being agentic, that is we're not effectively making choices, executing our intentions. In a nutshell, we're not being self-determined. The discomfort of boredom ensures that we don't linger in this state of stagnation.
Katie - What factors might mean someone's more likely to get bored? Does it kind of break down in any way by demographic?
John - So we can think about boredom being caused by both external factors or by internal factors. External factors - boredom occurs when what's on offer doesn't connect with our values, is either too easy or difficult for us to engage with, lacks the variety that we crave, or takes away our choice or our freedom. So you could say that boredom ensues when there's a mismatch or a misalignment between us and our environment. And some of us might find ourselves in those kinds of environments more so than others. However, we're partially responsible too, like what we bring to the table matters in terms of our personality or in terms of psychological factors. People who are afraid of their feelings or avoid their feelings or lack facility with their feelings, they're more likely to be bored. The idea is that emotions are like compass points that orient us or guide us in life. And when our compass isn't working, we have a hard time moving towards valued activities.
We also know that people who have weaker attention abilities, or they have executive functioning problems, are more likely to be bored. We also know that our biology matters. So some of us have a lower kind of resting state of energy or alertness. And so we need more excitement or more stimulation from our environment to become energised enough to focus and to pay attention. You know, like the risk takers among us, right? People who want to seek thrills and jump out of airplanes to feel alive and to feel that excitement. And so people who are more of those sensation-seeking types are more likely to be bored. And it may be because they're trying to up-regulate their energy levels to be able to focus and attend more effectively. Like love, boredom is in the eye of the beholder. You know, what might lead one person to be terribly bored, someone else might really be able to find a way to engage with that activity.
Katie - Earlier, you were talking about boredom, not being apathy and not being frustration, but actually both of those emotions resonate with me in terms of potential depressive symptoms. What is the link between being bored and being depressed?
John - Well, we know that people who say they are bored or say they're depressed are more likely to express also the other emotional state. We also know that they predict one another over time. Now, the stronger direction of prediction over time seems to be boredom at time one predicting depression at time two. Now there's some evidence that it can also go the other way so that if you're depressed that time one you may be bored at time two. We don't know for sure why there is this tight association between the two. It may be that boredom is a risk factor for subsequent depression. So when you're bored, you're disengaged from meaningful and satisfying activity. And for those who are at risk for depression, that might be a dangerous place to be. You know, as you withdraw from the external world, you might start to ruminate and engage in depressive kinds of thinking, uh, that could lead you down towards a depressive episode. So that's certainly one possibility.
But there may be other variables that both cause depression and cause boredom. For example, we may look at certain kinds of motivational styles - high behavioural inhibition, people who are sort of very timid and cautious tend to withdraw from the world because they want to minimise pain or minimise problems. And by turtling in into that little protective shell, you might avoid pain, but you also set yourself up for increased boredom. And that could also be a factor contributing to depression. And there are other possibilities related to motivation and self control as well. But, you know, to be honest, we don't know for sure why the two are so closely related. And we also importantly know that they're different. Boredom is not a mild version of depression. They have very different defining features and our self-report tools that we use to measure both of them have been shown to be psychometrically distinct. And what that simply means is that we can do some fancy statistics and show that our boredom tool is not getting confused and actually picking up depression or vice versa. They're actually cleanly assessing discrete things, boredom and depression.
During the pandemic the thing that we might go to quickly in our minds and say, "Oh, well, I'm bored because I have fewer opportunities for things to do". And indeed, you know, it's hard to want to do what's available when there are fewer options, right? So you can get caught in that desire bind we spoke of earlier. But there are other factors that we know contribute to boredom that might be occurring during this pandemic. People who feel that their life lacks meaning, lacks any kind of organising principle, are more likely to be bored. And, you know, that's been been shown even in the lab. During the pandemic it's sort of like the rug has been pulled out from under us, right. Things we thought we could count on, things we thought were solid, things that we thought made sense are kind of up in the air. That is maybe a less commonly thought of contributor to boredom during the pandemic time.
Another one is emotional trauma. People who go through traumatic events actually report more boredom. And that again, might be very surprising for people to think about. But if, you think about what happens during an emotional trauma, people often become numb or kind of emotionally flat. It's like they disengage from their emotions. And then because they're numb, they're then without their orienting mechanism to help them move towards meaningful activities. This is one of the thing that we've been studying during the pandemic ourselves and our research hasn't been published yet. We're just finishing the analysis and the write-up of our results. But so far, what we're finding is - we did a longitudinal study where we tracked people over time - people who had the most emotional upheaval and difficulty because of the trauma in their life, because they had this difficulty at time one, we then looked at time two, to see how well they were able to regulate their emotions. And then at time three, we looked at how bored they were. And what we found is this pathway from emotional upheaval, emotional trauma to poor emotion regulation, to enhanced boredom.