Learn more about “boredom studies” here. On the definition of boredom:
Contemporary boredom researchers, for all their scales and graphs, do engage some of the same existential questions that had occupied philosophers and social critics. One camp contends that boredom stems from a deficit in meaning: we can’t sustain interest in what we’re doing when we don’t fundamentally care about what we’re doing. Another school of thought maintains that it’s a problem of attention: if a task is either too hard for us or too easy, concentration dissipates and the mind stalls. Danckert and Eastwood argue that “boredom occurs when we are caught in a desire conundrum, wanting to do something but not wanting to do anything,” and “when our mental capacities, our skills and talents, lay idle—when we are mentally unoccupied.”
Erin Westgate, a social psychologist at the University of Florida, told me that her work suggests that both factors—a dearth of meaning and a breakdown in attention—play independent and roughly equal roles in boring us. I thought of it this way: An activity might be monotonous—the sixth time you’re reading “Knuffle Bunny” to your sleep-resistant toddler, the second hour of addressing envelopes for a political campaign you really care about—but, because these things are, in different ways, meaningful to you, they’re not necessarily boring. Or an activity might be engaging but not meaningful—the jigsaw puzzle you’re doing during quarantine time, or the seventh episode of some random Netflix series you’ve been sucked into. If an activity is both meaningful and engaging, you’re golden, and if it’s neither you’ve got a one-way ticket to dullsville.
On measuring boredom:
The interpretation of boredom is one thing; its measurement is quite another. In the nineteen-eighties, Norman Sundberg and Richard Farmer, two psychology researchers at the University of Oregon, developed a Boredom Proneness Scale, to assess how easily a person gets bored in general. Seven years ago, John Eastwood helped come up with a scale for measuring how bored a person was in the moment. In recent years, boredom researchers have done field surveys in which, for example, they ask people to keep diaries as they go about daily life, recording instances of naturally occurring lethargy. (The result of these new methods was a boon to boredom studies—Mann refers to colleagues she runs into on “the ‘boredom’ circuit.”) But many of the studies involve researchers inducing boredom in a lab setting, usually with college students, in order to study how that clogged, gray lint screen of a feeling affects people.
The study of human behavior continues. A few quick thoughts:
- Boredom often comes in solitary conditions. In addition to study social interactions and collective, looking at what people do on their own is worthwhile – and is connected to broader social interaction.
- The article mentions various dimensions of boredom as well as its persistence throughout time periods. I would be interested to hear more about how boredom has changed.
- In terms of measurement, why not more observational studies? If parked in a public space or granted access to living spaces, I would think researchers would have ample opportunities to see boredom. And the smartphone would seem to be a great device for tracking boredom given its ability to sense movement, keep track of particular uses, ask survey questions when boredom is sensed, etc.
The study of human behavior continues!