Boredom can provide opportunity for self-reflection

Feeling a little bored? Don’t know what to do? Relax and go with the flow. That’s the advice of York clinical psychology Professor John Eastwood, who adds a little self-reflection couldn’t hurt either, and might actually prove helpful.

Most people’s initial reaction to the idea to combat boredom by diving into a stimulating activity is equivalent to thrashing about in quicksand, says Eastwood, which will only make sinking occur that much faster. All that thrashing about can lead to a nasty cycle of feeling bored more easily and then needing more and more stimulation to keep it away.

"You start seeing yourself as a passive recipient of life. Like a drug, you need a bigger hit next time," says Eastwood.

The Xbox game has to be more exciting, the movie more thrilling or boredom sets in. What may stave off that pesky feeling of boredom is a passion and a zest for life, a desire to participate in life, rather than viewing life as something that happens to you.

"I think boredom is very much related to human feelings like desire or passion," says Eastwood, whose research on boredom appears in the December 2007 issue of Scientific American Mind. "When we lose our sense of a passionate desire to connect with the world and make a difference, we’re more likely to become bored."

Boredom, however, can be much more than just a nuisance or a transient feeling, like that experienced when standing in line at a bank or a grocery store. For some, boredom can be debilitating. Being bored to death is more than just a catchy phrase. Boredom has led to attempts at suicide, explains Eastwood.

Right: John Eastwood

"The term boredom can also refer to a much more pervasive, chronic and debilitating kind of distress. We know that boredom is associated with all kinds of mental health problems – depression, anxiety, substance abuse and suicidal behaviours," says Eastwood. "We also know it’s associated with health problems, with social problems, family problems and work problems. So we know it’s associated with all kinds of very significant distress."

Addictive behaviours such as overeating and gambling have also been linked to boredom. In short, boredom can have dire consequences on a person’s life, their happiness and their health.

"Some estimates put it between 18 and 50 per cent of people who say that they chronically struggle with boredom and find it difficult for them," Eastwood says.

That is why the study of boredom is important to Eastwood. He thinks research findings on boredom can have real clinical applications.

"As a clinical psychologist the concept of boredom holds a lot of interest for me. As someone who works with people who are struggling with life difficulties, boredom has great relevance," says Eastwood. "So it’s not just an academic or clinical puzzle that interests me, it also has some real concrete implications for my work with people clinically and for my training of clinical psychologists."

What fascinates Eastwood is that boredom has received little attention from psychologists, and that leaves the research field wide open. "Writers, philosophers and thinkers have been thinking about boredom as an important human experience for a long, long time. Even back to antiquity, if you look at, for example, the seven deadly sins, sloth is one of them," he says. "What’s interesting to me is that psychologists haven’t. If you look at the psychology literature, there’s not very much at all on boredom."

Eastwood and his York PhD students have several studies on the go right now, all looking at a different aspect of boredom, including how to define it, how to measure it and why it occurs. York PhD candidate Shelley Fahlman is currently developing a new scale for measuring boredom. Some of the other questions the studies are exploring include – do some people have a greater propensity toward being bored than others and is it experienced in the same manner cross-culturally?

So far, even the definition of boredom has eluded researchers, as the term encompasses the trivial and transitory, but also the more chronic and pervasive, form of the feeling. Some varieties of boredom seem more closely related to depression, though Eastwood believes the two are distinct. So coming up with one definition is a challenge.

"I think to be bored means a person is disengaged or disconnected from the world in some way, a feeling that the world doesn’t offer what you want or what you need. The bored person tends to focus their complaint against the world. I’m bored because the world is lacking in some sort of way. It’s experienced as stemming from a constraining, impoverished or limiting environment," says Eastwood. "It’s associated with feelings of emptiness or flatness or lethargy, whereas depression often has with it negative feelings or attitudes toward the self, and the emotional feelings there are much more heavy, acute sadness rather than that kind of empty, blank feeling."

Eastwood speculates that retaining the distinction between boredom and depression "allows us to say something about the human condition or human suffering that we can’t say if we only have the definition of depression".

Most people have experienced boredom at one time or another, but defining it proves tricky. It continues to be an elusive human experience, but Eastwood is excited by the research opportunities it provides. "Boredom provides a unique opportunity to understand and explore the social factors around a distressing human experience in a way that may not be possible with something like depression, which has so many assumptions built into it that we can’t see it freshly or newly," says Eastwood.

Research conducted last year by Eastwood and colleagues shows that people who experience alexithymia – difficulty describing or identifying their emotions coupled with an impoverished inner emotional or fantasy life – are more susceptible to feeling bored. The research pointed to alexithymia as being distinct from boredom, but clearly linked to it. That suggests boredom is related to an internal psychological state, not simply the result of a lacking external environment.

"The idea here is the person isn’t aware of their desire, so they lose those compass points to help direct them toward meaningful or satisfying activity," says Eastwood. "They are disengaged from the world."

There are approximately four current theories of boredom. One looks at how an inability to focus or pay attention is associated with a propensity to be bored, another proposes that people with a propensity to be bored have a high need for stimulation and excitement, a third theory focuses on life meaning or purpose and the lack of it, while the fourth theory sees the bored person as someone who is unaware of what they want, their passions and their desires.

Eastwood believes they all have one common thread – disengagement from the world. He hopes further research will bear this out. What is really needed first, however, is an agreed upon way to define boredom and a way to measure it.

So, what to do when feeling bored? Well, Eastwood is still working on the answer to that. He does believe, though, that people should take it seriously. Telling someone who complains of boredom to "just go do something" isn’t going to solve the problem. "That’s not helpful," says Eastwood. "They would do something, if they could."

Is there any benefit to boredom? Yes, says Eastwood, it can provide people with an opportunity to reflect, and in that way, it can lead them to a better understanding of their thoughts, feelings, wishes and desires. It can help people reclaim their passion for life.

So the next time boredom hits, strike a pose and start thinking.

For more information about research on boredom, contact John Eastwood at

By Sandra McLean, York communications officer.