Is Boredom Good?

boredomBoredom, as a subject of study, is perplexing. It seems apparent that there exists no such thing as an objectively boring event, yet everyone has experienced boredom. While one group of people may find the study of philosophy, for example, to be mind-numbingly dull, others find it stimulating. As one man’s trash may be another man’s treasure, so one man’s boredom may be another man’s excitement.

If this is true, boredom is a subjective phenomenon, wholly dependent upon the individual. Essentially, we are responsible for our own boredom. However, anyone who has experienced boredom knows that when it is being experienced, it is believed to be caused by something – anything – else.

So what is boredom? In short, boredom is the feeling we get when we perceive the fulfillment of a desire to be either uncontrollably delayed or completely unfulfillable. Boredom is, as Doctors Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek put it, “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” Also, it should be noted that it does not matter whether this inability is real or perceived; it only matters that it exists.

With an understanding of what boredom is, let’s now examine the causes of boredom. The easiest way to do this, I think, is by examining  a few hypothetical situations, but before we delve into those, it is important to note that at one time a task may be exciting, but at another it may be excruciatingly boring. Reading a book, for example, can be a lot of fun, but sometimes it just seems dull. Indeed, I have experienced both feelings at two different times during the course of one day while reading the same book.

I think Dr. Markman did an excellent job explaining such phenomena when he said, “people need to have a reasonable level of psychological energy or arousal to feel bored.  When people have low arousal and there is not much happening in the world, then they often feel relaxed.  When they have high arousal, though, they have energy they would like to devote to something, but they cannot find anything engaging.”

Thus we may conclude that arousal is a prerequisite for boredom, but let’s not forget about the situations which we put aside for that note. Let’s imagine that you’re sitting in on an advanced mathematics class, say Calculus II. You’ve mastered the concepts of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, but you know nothing concerning calculus. As you sit there, more than likely, you will become extremely bored. The professor drones on and on about all sorts of concepts, but you have no idea what he is talking about, so you mentally check out.

You become bored because you lack the ability to engage. You do not have the prerequisite knowledge to understand what is being discussed, so you experience boredom. Consequently, we may conclude that inability to engage can be a cause of boredom.

Now let us examine another scenario. You, having completed high school math as before, somehow end up sitting in on a first grade math class. As the students struggle to add 1+1, you roll your eyes and mentally check out. You quickly become bored. If you don’t, it’s probably because you find the kids interesting, not the math. In this situation, I think we can all agree that the mathematics would be boring, even though we definitely understand the concepts.

Here you become bored because there is no challenge, no novelty, only redundancy. Your mind does not have to engage, because the task has become mindless to you. Therefore, we may conclude that boredom can be caused by a lack of challenge, a lack of an object to expend you psychological energy upon.

For our last scenario, imagine that a man walks up to you, hands you a pencil, and tells you to stay where you are and to twirl the pencil above your head. At first, your curiosity would probably be aroused. But after a few minutes of twirling the pencil over your head, you would probably get bored and go do something different.

In this situation, you became bored because you perceived the activity to be meaningless. It may have been engaging at first, your mind probably ran a thousand different directions wondering why the man would tell you to do what he told you and wondering what would happen as a result, but once you perceive the task to be meaningless, you disengage. If you remember the definition of boredom as the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity, you will see immediately why meaningless activity is boring. It is not satisfying. It gets us nowhere.

Therefore, boredom occurs when we have energy, when we really want to do something, when we are psychologically aroused, yet have nothing engaging, either because we are not able to engage, the content is not challenging enough, or it is meaningless, to expend that energy upon. Having defined boredom and seen its causes, let us now attempt to determine whether it is good or bad.

It is helpful, in this pursuit, to compare boredom to pain. Just as pain alerts our body that something is wrong, so boredom alerts our psyche that something is wrong. It can tell us any combination of these three things: that we do not possess the means to engage, that we are not being challenged, or that what we are doing is meaningless.

None of this, however, tells us if boredom is good or bad. Instead, it tells us that boredom is essentially a built in alert system that signals us when something is wrong. It is how we respond to these alerts that determines whether the alert was good or bad, or – more accurately – useful or not.

Only two choices are ever available in response to boredom. We may either respond passively or actively. What I mean by this is that we may either expect someone or something else to come along and cure us, or we may set about changing ourselves and our relation to the environment.

One response is external; the other is internal. One looks at the Calculus II teacher and wishes he would explain things in a way that someone of your understanding could comprehend; the other decides to look for similarities between what is being drawn on the chalkboard and the mathematical concepts which you already know. One is helpless; the other is not.

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