Science Behind Boredom: Inspiration or Modern Disease?

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Social distancing is taking its toll on many of us as we start to notice the dullness of life away from school. Many students, myself included, were glad when schools closed on March 13, but our gratitude dwindled just a week into quarantine. Though we found ourselves at leisure during the first week of closures, the lack of a tight schedule has surely been a cause for boredom for us all at some point. After finishing homework, we search for ways to pass the time, whether through social media or physical activity. Boredom is a strong but often unnoticed motivator for our actions. Therefore, it becomes difficult to pinpoint whether it benefits or impairs our productivity.

Psychologists have studied boredom in factory workers since the 1930s, finding that uninspired individuals sought drugs and other mental stimulants to relieve their monotony. While drugs are not as common of a coping mechanism today, we’re hooked on something far more addicting than drugs: technology. As a result, many scientists have labeled boredom negatively, comparing it to depression. They place boredom on the same emotional spectrum as disgust—feeling strongly repulsed or taken aback by something. From an evolutionary standpoint, the relationship between boredom and disgust makes sense: it coincides with the behaviors of our early ancestors. Early humans turned away from rotting food because they found it disgusting. Now, imagine you’re idle in the middle of a busy intersection. Seems unrealistic, right? How could anyone remain passive in the fact of imminent danger? These are the conditions early humans were subject to, except they had no signs of when a predator could strike. Without a constant food supply, they also constantly faced the risk of starvation. Negligence in this kind of environment is dangerous, so they use boredom as a sign of distress, motivating them to find food and other means to sustain themselves. In other words, boredom was a deterrent for laziness and a reminder to use our time more wisely. While this mechanism worked to their benefit, it is oftentimes the opposite for modern humans. Without the constant dangers of a nomadic lifestyle, humans nowadays are less productive with their downtime.

However, the term “boredom” is vague. Psychologists have thus split it into five categories, some of which inspire and motivate individuals while others accomplish the opposite.

The first type of boredom is indifference, often referred to as the most positive type of boredom. Imagine finishing all of your homework early or waiting for a friend at the park. Indifference is characterized by calmness and relaxation.

“Reactant boredom” is characterized by agitation: Johnny is annoyed and stuck in a class that he’s not interested in, and he can’t wait for the bell to ring. People typically feel restless and often find ways to distract themselves or think about the near future (seem familiar?).

If you’re deciding which Netflix show to watch or which social media app to scroll through, you’re experiencing “searching boredom” because you’re constantly looking for other ways to occupy yourself. However, these activities aren’t always unproductive, since you’re open to any activity to pass the time. You were most likely experiencing this type of boredom during our “break” from school.

If you ever find yourself tapping your feet, spinning your pen, or fidgeting with your surroundings, you’re experiencing calibrating boredom. While you’re not annoyed by anything in particular, you’re not trying to find ways around it either—you’re unsure about what to do and your mind is recalibrating.

The most painful type of boredom is apathetic boredom. Apathy is when you stop caring about your current activity and the possibility of doing anything in the future. Imagine you’re a factory worker doing the same repetitive task each day. You feel worn out and generally tired. You’re in the middle of a project and begin to comtemplate why you’re doing it in the first place. These are all examples of apathy. It is most similar to depression, and it’s characterized by a lack of motivation and a lack of desire to change.

Everyone has different coping mechanisms to manage their boredom—mechanisms that vary with the form they’re experiencing. Technology is the most popular medium through which people manage their reactant or searching boredom. Social media platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook are designed to maintain the user’s attention during prolonged periods of boredom. Others may seek more productive activities such as physical activity or reading, while some turn to social interactions to keep themselves busy. With the increasing number and variety of distractions available nowadays, it’s necessary to recognize which activities and creative outlets are more productive than others. Each type of boredom can be combated through different means, but they’re not necessarily all positive ways to manage boredom.

Modern technology is a double-edged sword. While it is a powerful tool for work and productivity, it can be equally powerful in distracting us from our work. While scientists argue over whether or not the human attention span has decreased, it is generally accepted that it has become harder to keep us engaged for prolonged periods, and it becomes increasingly difficult as technology advances.

Rather than technology, activities that involve self-improvement and learning such as exercise and reading are the most productive ways bored individuals can distract themselves. That said, these activities are not common choices for many of the types of boredom. Those experiencing searching boredom are most likely to engage in productive activities because they’re open to a greater variety of activities as opposed to those who feel more agitated or those who are just relaxing.

I found myself engaging in both types of stimulation during quarantine. I noticed that the screen time on my phone increased from an average of six hours each week to 10 hours each week after distance learning began. TikTok averaged between 20-25 hours each week (approximately three hours per day) under quarantine. As I walk through my daily routine, I pay attention to which types of boredom I experience. A normal day would start with me waking up and scrolling through TikTok for around an hour. I’d then finish some assignments and eat lunch. After my last Zoom meeting, I typically feel mentally exhausted and groggy from the food I ate. So, I scroll through TikTok for yet another hour waiting for my digestive system to do some work. Eventually, I get bored of scrolling and feel annoyed by the fact that I haven’t done anything productive yet. I take out my anger through exercise, performing repetitive tasks until I’m physically exhausted. However, this routine would motivate me to complete the rest of my assignments in the evening. At night, I’d reward my progress by scrolling through TikTok once more until I fell asleep. I experience indifference in the morning, and I experience reactant and searching boredom while working and scrolling through TikTok. I end my day feeling indifferent, knowing I successfully completed all my work. Under normal circumstances, the reactant boredom I experience during my classes would be tamed by the school’s phone policy, but I can freely break these rules at home. This is the sole reason why I feel bored more often at home. Instead of constantly being told what to do, I must decide for myself and experience searching boredom.

Experiments conducted by the University of Virginia demonstrate that individuals would rather receive an electric shock as opposed to experiencing prolonged reactant boredom of over 15 minutes. Similarly, a 2012 study conducted on minks concluded that animals have the same mechanisms of feeling uninterested by an activity and feeling pain when doing nothing. The researchers noticed that the idle subjects were more likely to engage in various activities, even those involving negative stimulation—like how humans preferred being shocked. These experiments demonstrate the strength of boredom as a motivator for taking action. It creates powerful urges for stimulation in our minds, making us take more risks and engage in potentially harmful activities.

Ultimately, boredom can’t be labeled as positive or negative because it merely inspires one to engage in a different activity. Our goal, though, should be to extract more meaning out of boredom by ensuring that our boredom will eventually lead us to more productive activities. To kickstart this process, one can create or update a to-do list, organize their workspace, or watch the news. While the list could go on forever, we should all strive for activities that produce a long-term outcome or have a clear benefit.