Defining and measuring boredom

Learn more about “boredom studies” here. On the definition of boredom:

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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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!

Speculation: more Americans choose to pursue unretirement to find meaning

Various data points show more Americans continuing to work even when do not need the money at retirement age:

Unretirement is becoming more common, researchers report. A 2010 analysis by Nicole Maestas, an economist at Harvard Medical School, found that more than a quarter of retirees later resumed working. A more recent survey, from RAND Corporation, the nonprofit research firm, published in 2017, found almost 40 percent of workers over 65 had previously, at some point, retired…

Even more people might resume working if they could find attractive options. “We asked people over 50 who weren’t working, or looking for a job, whether they’d return if the right opportunity came along,” Dr. Mullen said. “About half said yes.”

Why go back to work? We hear endless warnings about Americans having failed to save enough, and the need for income does motivate some returning workers. But Dr. Maestas, using longitudinal data from the national Health and Retirement Study, has found that the decision to resume working doesn’t usually stem from unexpected financial problems or health expenses…

Researchers note that older workers have different needs. “Younger workers need the paycheck,” Dr. Mullen said. “Older jobseekers look for more autonomy, control over the pace of work. They’re less concerned about benefits. They can think about broader things, like whether the work is meaningful and stimulating.”

One of the primary ways that adult Americans find meaning is in their jobs. Not only does a job help pay the bills, a job has become a reflection of who you are. Think of that normal question that leads off many an adult conversation: “What do you do?” With a shift away from manufacturing and manual labor jobs, service and white-collar jobs can encourage the idea that our personality and skills are intimately tied up with our profession.
Put this emphasis on an identity rooted in a job or career together with a declining engagement in civic groups and a mistrust in institutions. Americans are choosing to interact less with a variety of social groups and this means they have fewer opportunities to find an identity based in those organizations. We are told to be our own people.
Imagine a different kind of retirement than the one depicted in this article: older Americans finish a long working career and then find time to get involved with extended family life or various causes, secular and religious, where they can provide both expertise and labor. Where would many congregations or civic groups be without the contributions of those who are retired and now can devote some more time to the public good? What if the child care needs that many younger families face be met with grandparents who could consistently help? What if retired Americans could regularly mentor children and teenagers who would benefit from wise counsel and a listening ear? That is not to say there are not plenty of retirees who do these things; however, this approach involves a broader look at life satisfaction that goes beyond a paying job.