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The Battle Against Boredom

Shira Yehudit Djlilmand

As soon as summer hits, kids start complaining about being bored. They’re not the only ones — even we adults face boredom, whether we’re yawning our way through a tedious task or stuck in line at some bureaucratic office. Here, how to use that “I’m bored” feeling to improve your life, plus creative boredom-busters.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

When my kids assail me with the ubiquitous “Ima, I’m bored!” complaint during summer break, I usually gaze at them in baffled bewilderment. Aside from a house overflowing with toys and a yard bursting with bikes and riding toys, there is an entire world out there to explore. How could they possibly be bored?

Personally, I’m far too curious (aside from just plain busy) to ever worry about being bored. If I had to swap places with my children, I’d head outdoors and happily stare at a trail of ants for hours or spend the afternoon gazing up at the treetops dreaming up a poem. But it seems that I’m the odd woman out — like my kids, most individuals face boredom at some point in their lives.


One Word, Two Meanings

When people say they’re bored, what exactly do they mean? According to Webster’s Dictionary, there are two types of boredom: “uninterested because of frequent exposure or indulgence,” and “tired with life.”

The first is plain old simple boredom — the kind we feel when we have to sit through a really dull after-dinner speech or do the same brainless task for hours on end. The feeling comes and goes, depending on the person and what they’re doing.

The second type of boredom is a deeper feeling that never quite goes away. It doesn’t depend so much on what the person is doing, but rather on his inner state of mind. To be bored with life, in fact, may not be so much an emotional state but a philosophical or religious one.

It seems to me that spiritual boredom is a necessary part of our lives — it’s that nagging emptiness inside that’s trying to tell us we’re far from our Creator. Indeed, for many Jews, that exact feeling is what brought them back to Jewish tradition.


In the Laboratory

Boredom is such a subjective experience that it would seem near impossible to study, let alone measure. But that’s exactly what many psychologists have been doing for over a century.

In 1926, after observing factory workers, the British Medical Journal published the first scientific article on boredom, concluding that it was a “form of mental fatigue caused by repetition and lack of interest in monotonous tasks.” The first laboratory tests on boredom were conducted in the 1930s, which proposed that boredom, being a form of fatigue, could best be eliminated by the use of medical stimulants.

It wasn’t until 1986 that a psychologist at the University of Oregon developed the first full psychometric test, called the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS). The BPS determines how likely people are to become bored in different situations by asking them to rate twenty-eight statements (such as “Time always seems to be passing slowly”) on a seven-point scale. By using such criteria, psychologists have been able to discover connections between boredom and the risk of paranoia, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, and other risk-seeking behaviors. Perhaps the most important thing that the study of boredom has revealed is that the feeling is subjective — some people simply get bored more often than others. 

Not surprisingly, boredom may also be linked to having a “boring” personality. A 1984 study showed that college students who were less socially competent were more likely to be bored, perhaps because their lack of skills resulted in spending more time alone.

Why is it that one person can find stamp collecting or fly-fishing (or watching a trail of ants) totally absorbing, while another would find the same activity deathly boring? It’s true that everyone has different interests (indeed, the world would be a very boring place if we were all fascinated by the same things). But there’s more to it than that — as the saying goes, “Life is never boring, but some people choose to be bored.”

In a similar vein, Stephen Vodanovich, a psychologist at the University of Western Florida, claims that, “The most common way to define boredom in Western culture is ‘having nothing to do.’

But really, there’s never “nothing to do” — just things that people don’t want to do.

How you spend your leisure time seems to be directly connected to boredom. A 1987 paper published by Ellen Weissinger found that factors such as education, income, or status had no effect on a person’s boredom; what did make a difference was how much people believed their leisure activities could meet their emotional needs. Work is not necessarily expected to be interesting or rewarding, whereas our free time is our chance to “charge up our batteries.” But if we haven’t discovered which activities will do the charging, then we may well find ourselves bored.

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