When we experience boredom, we tend to experience it as uncomfortable and agitating, and seek to banish it with some ready distraction. Or, we try to look at boredom sort of piously, as something we should learn to sit with, because it builds character.
My guest today would argue that it’s best to see boredom more neutrally — as simply an important signal that we need to change up what we’re doing, and become more effective and engaged in the world.
His name is James Danckert, and he’s a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology, as well as the co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom. We begin our conversation with how boredom has been thought about in history and philosophy, and yet largely ignored by psychologists. We then discuss what it really means to be bored and what types of people are most prone to boredom. James explains how boredom is related to our sense of agency and the role constraints play in increasing it. We then get into how people’s propensity towards boredom changes across the lifespan, and at what ages you’re more and less likely to experience it. We end our conversation with the negative effects of being boredom prone, including the way boredom may increase political extremism, and the more positive and adaptive ways to deal with being bored.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Why has psychology ignored the human experience of boredom?
- How did 20th century existentialists shape how we see boredom today?
- How is boredom defined? How is it different from apathy?
- Are there personality traits more linked with boredom than others?
- How can two people have the same experience and have different boredom responses?
- What about external factors of boredom?
- Is there an evolutionary benefit to feeling bored?
- Is it true that boredom drives creativity?
- How boredom changes over the course of one’s life
- Are there any positives to being boredom-prone?
- How can boredom be re-framed?
- What can parents say to their bored kids?
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- Boredom: A Lively History
- The Existentialist’s Survival Guide
- Why Boredom is Good for You
- The Pleasure of Limits and the Uses of Boredom
- Trout Fishing, Boredom, and the Meaning of Life
- What Do You Want to Want?
- Take the One-Month “Do Something New Every Day” Challenge
- How to Increase Your Personal Agency
- Sources of Existential Angst
Connect With James
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When we experience boredom we tend to experience it as uncomfortable and agitating, seek to banish it with some ready distraction like our smartphone, for example, or we try to look at boredom sort of piously, as something we should learn to sit with because it builds character. My guest today would argue that it’s best to see boredom more neutrally, as simply an important signal that we need to change up what we’re doing and become more effective and engaged in the world. His name is James Danckert and he’s a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology, as well as the co-author of the book, Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.
We begin our conversation with how boredom has been thought about in history and philosophy and yet largely ignored by psychologists. We then discuss what it really means to be bored and what types of people are more prone to boredom. James explains how boredom is related to our sense of agency and the role constraints play in increasing it. We then get into how people’s propensity towards boredom changes across their lifespan and at what ages you’re more and less likely to experience boredom. And we end our conversation with the negative effects of being bored prone, including the way boredom may increase political extremism, and we also talk about the more positive and adaptive ways to deal with being bored, as well as what to tell your kid when they say: “Dad, I’m bored.” After the show’s over check out our show notes at aom.is/boredom. James joins me now via clearcast.io.
James Danckert, welcome to the show.
James Danckert: Great to be here.
Brett McKay: So you are a psychologist and you are the co-author of a book called “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom”. What I think it interesting, boredom has been explored by philosophers, theologians, writers for millennia. Yet, you note in the book, you and your co-author note that psychology has pretty much ignored it. They’ve written about it a bit, but hasn’t really done a deep dive. Why do you think psychologists have ignored pretty much this ubiquitous human experience?
James Danckert: It’s hard to answer that really, because it’s a sociological question. What makes something a sexy topic in science? And there are many factors, I guess, but one thing that’s possible is that we just sort of treat boredom as a kind of trivial experience, and so why study it, right? You can see that in the response that many parents have to their kids, when the kid comes to them and says, “I’m bored.” You say “Well, get over it. Go do something.” You know? “There’s a million things you could be doing. So just go and do one of those things.” Well what we’ve learned over the last three or four decades is that being prone to boredom, so experiencing it a lot, actually has a wide range of pretty negative consequences, and so I think we’re starting to get to it now and treat it more seriously, and it’s getting the research due that it needs.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about the history of boredom. Do we have any written accounts of boredom from 1000, 2000 years ago? When do we first see humans talking about being bored?
James Danckert: Well, the word itself doesn’t really come into the English language until Charles Dickens writes about it in his book “Bleak House”. But we… As you point out, we know from other kinds of accounts that boredom’s been with us for millennia. So one of the stories that we tell, it actually comes from a book by Peter Toohey called “Boredom: A Lively History” that he put out some years back. He did a dive into a Roman philosopher, Seneca, who talks about day following night, and night following day and everything being the same and monotonous and routine, and that at the end of all of that sort of monotony and routine, he feels nauseous. And it doesn’t take much of a stretch to suggest that that’s a pretty good description of the outcome of monotony leading to boredom. And Toohey also sort of dug up a story of a Roman Town that immortalized somebody who saved the entire town from boredom. So there’s some sort of a stone there that says General “Such and Such” was a great guy ’cause he saved us from our boredom. We have no idea how or what that meant, but at least it sort of highlights that, yeah, the experience has been with us for a long, long time. And we suggest also in the book that it’s really something that’s selected for in our evolutionary past. So you can demonstrate boredom in animals, and if animals can experience boredom, then it probably serves some sort of function and was selected for for a reason.
Brett McKay: And the other people you highlight in the book that really thought a lot about boredom, or what we call boredom, were monks. They called it… It was actually a sin, they called it “acedia”. Right?
James Danckert: Yeah, acedia, it’s sort of neglectfulness in your duties towards God. But not just a neglectfulness, sort of a neglectfulness with respect to being sort of slothful and not really getting up and getting into your duties and your responsibilities to God. The interesting, sort of, take on that too is that acedia was reported by monks in cloistered living arrangements, most often when they were doing things like work on math and arithmetic, which, if we jump forward to our present day, there’s some great work from a guy called Reinhard Pekrun looking at boredom in schools, and Math tends to be the subject that most kids report finding boring. But yeah, it’s sort of… The monks also referred to it, not just as acedia, but that was the first use of the term the Noonday demon, which… It might be a term that you’ve heard before, that people used to refer to depression, but it wasn’t first used to refer to depression, it was refered more to boredom, of finding yourself in the midst of a day that was the same as any other day with things that you had to do, so duties that you had in front of you, but just no motivation to do them, or maybe a motivation to do something else.
Brett McKay: And then the other group of philosophers that thought and wrote a lot about boredom were the existentialists, the 20th century existentialist. How did they think about boredom and how did that shape our perception of boredom?
James Danckert: Yeah, so their take on boredom is really in the context of the existential philosophy, focusing on our search for and our need for meaning in life. How do we make sense and how do we find meaning in our lives? And so, Arthur Schopenhauer, a progenitor of existentialism, said the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom, and he explicitly had these two enemies align up with different socio-economic strata. So, pain was the province of the poor, because they had difficult lives that they had to struggle through, and boredom was the province of the rich. They had so much available at their fingertips that they got bored with everything that they could do, because nothing really seemed like it was novel enough, I guess. But really what they’re doing is they’re casting boredom as, in the first instance, a lack of meaning, so things are cast as being boring because they don’t mean much to you, they’re not particularly relevant to you in some way, but then also that boredom is a sort of search for meaning. When you’re bored, you don’t take it lying down, you start looking for ways in which you can overcome the boredom and in their hands, that means finding something that is more meaningful in your life.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. Let’s talk about… So we talked about what philosophers have been talking about boredom, but as a psychologist, how do you describe boredom? I think everyone knows what it feels like to be bored, but how… As a psychologist you had to make that very explicit. So how are you describing boredom?
James Danckert: Psychologists often refer to a guy called William James, he’s like the Father of Psychology, and the annoying thing about William James is that he rarely did any experiments, but he did a lot of writing and got a lot of things right anyway. And he’s got this quote that sort of starts, everybody knows what attention is, and then he goes on and describes what he thinks that means. But you could do the same thing that you just did. Everybody knows what boredom is until you have to buckle down and define it really tightly. So in the book, John and I describe boredom as an unmet desire to be engaged in something meaningful. So the uncomfortable feeling that you get when you want to be engaged in something meaningful, but you can’t satisfy that desire. A quote from Leo Tolstoy captures it more succinctly, it says that boredom is the desire for desires. You want something, but you don’t want anything that’s currently in front of you. You want something else, and you don’t know what that something else might be. So yeah, that’s the best way that I can capture boredom.
Brett McKay: And how… Would you describe it… Is boredom an emotion, a feeling? How would you describe it in those terms?
James Danckert: Yeah, so my co-author John, who’s a clinical psychologist by training, which is not what I am, I’m a cognitive neuroscientist, he would describe boredom as a feeling state, so he differentiates that from an emotion in this way, I think. When you’re bored, you’re sort of thinking about your own thinking. You’re thinking about what’s going on in your head, it is a very self-focused kind of feeling state where you’re thinking, “I want something but I can’t figure out what I want, and it feels uncomfortable and I hate it and I’m bored,” and you keep ruminating on those sorts of thoughts. So it has an affective component, it has an emotional component to it, that is that we feel it to be negative, it’s uncomfortable, we don’t like it, but as a feeling state, it’s very directly focused on the thoughts that you’re having and the desire that you have to find a goal to launch into. So it’s probably a little bit more nuanced than it needs to be, but it’s both an affective state and a sort of cognitive experience.
Brett McKay: How would you differentiate boredom from apathy?
James Danckert: So we published a study a while ago where we statistically differentiated it, and that was really just based on what we call questionnaire studies, survey studies. So you can ask people to respond to an apathy questionnaire, a boredom questionnaire, and then statistically you can determine how much they overlap. And they don’t. So apathy… But sort of more colloquially, apathy is the absence of motivation, you don’t actually care. That’s the classic couch potato, you’re lying around on a couch and you can’t be bothered doing anything. The key thing that differentiates boredom from that is that you are bothered, you’re motivated to do something, you just can’t satisfy that motivation as easily as you’d like. So motivation is the thing that really differentiates those two experiences.
Brett McKay: So okay, boredom is… Basically it’s the desire for desire. You want… You’re not currently mentally engaged with whatever is in front of you, you want to be mentally engaged with something, something meaningful, but you can’t figure out what it is. So it’s sort of this conundrum, you want something, but you don’t know what you want. Why do we have that conundrum? Why is it that even though cognitively we might know, like our kid might know, “Oh, I could go read a book.” It’s like, “Well, I don’t wanna do that.” Why do we have this conundrum you call the conundrum of boredom?
James Danckert: I’d love to have a really clean and quick answer for you, but it’s one of the things that is part of the ongoing research that we’re doing on boredom, is to try and figure out why is it that people… Particularly people who are boredom prone, why is it that they fail to launch? They recognize the signal is telling them that they want something, so it’s not that they don’t understand that signal. It’s like, “Yes, I want to be doing something and I wanna be doing something meaningful,” and it’s also not that they can’t see potential options. Like you raise the example of the bored child. A kid comes to you and says that they’re bored, most of us as parents will say, “Well, why don’t you do this? Why don’t you do that?” and we give them all kinds of options, every one of which they dismiss, because they’ve seen those options too. They know that those options are out there, they just don’t want them right now. But that still begs the question of why.
And so there’s a number of possible options, one is that perhaps people who are prone to boredom are just not willing to exert the effort needed to engage, and we have some data that we’ve collected recently that shows that that might indeed be the case, that when you make people bored, they tend to take the easy option instead of the more challenging option, which is sort of self-defeating in some ways, because the easy option is also gonna be the more boring option. It could be that people who are prone to boredom just don’t recognize or see value in the same way as people who are not prone to boredom. So that is that the things that are in front of them are sort of tarred with the same gray brush, they just don’t really see them as being viable options of, they just doesn’t seem to be rewarding enough.
And I raise that in part because we’ve done some work in individuals who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, and they tend to report higher levels of boredom, and the part of the brain that’s typically injured there is known as the orbitofrontal cortex, but it’s important for representing value and reward. And so what I think is happening for those people who have suffered those brain injuries is that their threshold for what counts as enjoyable, pleasurable, fun, has been raised, and so now it’s harder for them to engage and see value in things because of that raising of the threshold. And that could be true for people who are high in boredom proneness regardless of whether or not they have a head injury.
So there’s at least those two options and there’s potentially lots more that might explain why people when they’re bored or the boredom prone prone individual tend to fail to launch, but it’s still an open question.
Brett McKay: So you’ve been mentioning throughout this conversation that some people are more boredom prone than others, so you talked about… So specific example, someone who has a brain injury, some part of the brain gets damaged where they can’t measure reward or value as well, but there’s other people who don’t have a traumatic brain injury that are also more prone to boredom, have we figured that out like what sort of personality types are more prone to boredom?
James Danckert: There are a range of things that we know are associated with being prone to boredom, so one that we’ve looked at prominently is the capacity for self-control, so this is your ability to marshall your thoughts and your emotions and your actions in the pursuit of a goal, how well do you put that goal in your headlights and go for it? And people who struggle with self-control tend to be more boredom prone. We’ve also known that people who are a little bit neurotic, so people who have higher levels of anxiety and concern for day-to-day life, they also tend to be a little bit more boredom prone. And when I mentioned earlier that boredom is this self-focused experience where you kind of ruminate on your thoughts that you’re having, and you ruminate basically on your failure to engage, that’s very similar to ruminating on things that make you anxious as well, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that those two things are related.
There’s a few other relations that I think are interesting, but they’re not quite as prominent, so we know that a certain type of narcissism is associated with being boredom prone as well. We talk about two different kinds of narcissism, overt narcissism, which is the person that brags about how wonderful they are, and then covert narcissism, and covert narcissists are the people who think the world is just failing to recognize their brilliance, “Everything would be better if only people could see how wonderful I am.” And those are the kind of people who are prone to boredom. The overt narcissist is not because they think they’re brilliant, and they tell everybody they’re brilliant and they don’t feel boredom, but the covert narcissist does.
So there’s some associations like that that we think are interesting. Also studies have shone that people who are low in self-esteem tend to be more boredom prone, and what we think that’s about is that the lower self-esteem is probably related in the first instance to people not believing that they’re very effective agents in the world. And so what I mean by that is that we have a need to see ourselves as being effective actors. When we choose to do something it normally works, or when we choose to engage with the world, we can see and anticipate that the effects are gonna be what they’re gonna be. We’re going to be able to pursue a goal and have it come to fruition. And if you don’t believe that and you don’t see yourself as a very effective human being, then I think you’re more prone to being bored as well. And so that’s another aspect of the boredom personality that we’re pursuing at the moment.
Brett McKay: And so these are all internal factors that contribute to boredom. And I think you made this point in a really great way, a story you told to show that two people can have the same experience and have vastly different boredom responses. And the experience you gave was two astronauts in space. And one astronaut, he was a Russian just talking about how bored he was. I think he was like in… Was he in Skylab? He was there forever?
James Danckert: Yeah, so he had about 212 days, I think, Valentin Lebedev when… In the space station. And at that time, it was in the 80s, I think at that time it was a record.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so he… At first he was kind of excited ’cause you’re in outer space and after a while he’s like, “Gosh, this is so boring, I just can’t take this. Can’t wait to get home. What are people doing on Earth?” And then the other one was Chris Hadfield, right? Is that his name?
James Danckert: Yes.
Brett McKay: Yeah and he… Same, he was in there up in space for a long time, but a completely different experience.
James Danckert: Yeah, and I think when we talked earlier about the role of meaning in boredom, Chris Hadfield is just able to see meaning in anything that he was doing while he was up there on the space station. So he made YouTube videos about how to fix the plumbing in a space toilet. And you sort of think here’s this highly trained guy with huge amounts of qualifications and they’ve got him fixing a toilet, but you can’t really call a plumber when you’re up there. So he made videos about these mundane things that he had to do on the space station but to him, they weren’t mundane, he was able to see value in them and meaning in them and so on. And he also talks about at every quiet moment that he had on the space station, he would go to the portal and have a look out because he was… He reveled in the awe that he felt when he looked out at space. To be fair to the Russian cosmonaut, Valentin Lebedev, he too would report feelings of awe, and he too was engaged by the mission that he was on and so on. But he talks a lot about anxieties and a lot about boredom, and so something about the differences in their personalities and how they approach their jobs meant that they found the experience to be different.
And one of the key things about Lebedev’s story that I found interesting is that he often reported those feelings of anxiety and boredom in instances where he felt like he wasn’t in control. So he talked a lot about the ground control people doing these useless tests or getting them to do these useless tests because he didn’t see any value in them, and he talked at some point too about being a slave to the instruments. We’re not doing the work the instruments are doing the work. In both of those instances, what he’s expressing is he’s not the master of his own domain, he’s not the person who’s making the choices of what to do next, and that was what was causing him to feel a little bit bored.
Brett McKay: Okay, so we talked about some internal factors that can contribute to feelings of boredom. So low self-esteem, a lack of agency, narcissism, neuroticism, but have we figured out external factors like whether you’re boredom prone or not, are there things in the external world, if you encounter it will likely lead you to be bored if you encounter that activity or object?
James Danckert: Yeah, what makes a person, an individual bored is a little bit like asking, what makes a person happy. What makes me happy is not the same thing that’s gonna make you happy, and so it is sort of a little bit idiosyncratic, but there are nonetheless some factors that are pretty good producers of boredom. When we first started doing psychological work in the early 1900s on boredom, it was on the basis of, sort of, industrialization of work. So people were now starting to do these jobs on assembly lines where they had a single thing to do monotonously, day after day after day. And psychologists decided to measure what the potential negative outcomes of that might be, and one of them unsurprisingly was boredom. So certainly monotony is a pretty good driver of boredom. But one of the other things that is relevant to us in this past 12 months, I think, is that constraint is a pretty good driver of boredom as well. So when you feel like you are unable to be the master of your domain, when you feel like you’re not freely able to choose what you wanna do when you wanna do it, then that too can be a pretty good driver of boredom.
We sort of asked people recently, about their experiences during the pandemic lock down, and this was data we collected in April and May of last year. And people are reporting higher levels of boredom than before the pandemic and the boredom-prone were more likely to break the rules of social distancing. And what that says to us is that the constraints for those highly boredom-prone individuals were just too much to bear, pushing them to do things that were not in their self-interest, because as you might have guessed as well, these were also individuals more likely to contract COVID because they broke the rules. So I think constraint is a huge driver of feelings of boredom.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned earlier that humans aren’t the only ones that experience boredom, animals, like mice, can… We can tell if a mouse is bored, do we know why? Like why… Evolutionarily speaking, like why… What’s the benefit of feeling bored? Yeah, how does that help with their survival, basically?
James Danckert: Yeah, that’s right. If you’re gonna claim that animals can be bored, and that boredom has been selected for in our evolutionary past, then you start… Then the next thing you have to do is come up with a functional account of it. What’s it for? And I think that the function of boredom is merely to signal that you need to explore your environment for something else to do. And animals need to do this in a range of different ways, they need to balance two drives, that we call exploration and exploitation. If you stay in one drive state for too long, that incurs costs and risks that the animal needs to be attending to. So you sort of have to balance out how much time you spend exploring your environment for resources and how much time you spend exploiting them. So the notion to think about an animal finding a berry bush and just standing in the one place for too long eating berries from that bush, they get to exploit the resources, but they make themselves prone to predation as well, right? So they’ve got to constantly be on the lookout. To balance out those two things.
And for us then, boredom can signal that now is the time to change. Whatever it is that you’re doing, isn’t satisfying in some way, and you need to explore your environment for something else that will satisfy. Or alternatively, you need to double down your efforts and stick out the task that you’re doing and try and make it through. So that’s the function from a human point of view. From an animal point of view, I think the function is really just to manage that balance between exploration and exploitation.
Brett McKay: Well, I think it’s interesting, one thing you note, is that there’s a theory out there that boredom drives creativity, right? You feel bored, and you respond to that by doing something creative, something new, something novel, but when you guys actually did some research on this, you found that boredom actually didn’t increase creativity that much or it was marginal.
James Danckert: Yeah, I think that this is a logic issue, it’s a logic problem. I think for people out there who are listening to this who have creative outlets, they’ll understand that to foster those creative outlets takes work. We have this notion, I think, in our society, that creativity is just natural. Some people have it and some people don’t and because of that, we think not only is it natural, but it comes easy. So people who are really great on guitar or people who are fantastic artists, and you sort of think, “Wow! Look at that stuff that they do that I can’t do, that just must come naturally to them.” And that’s a lot of bunkum. It’s crap. Anybody who has fostered a creative outlet will tell you they had to learn, they had to practice, they have to continue practicing, they have to continue doing their art, doing their creative process of whatever it is.
So the problem of logic is that boredom won’t make you creative. If you are creative in the first instance and you’ve developed those outlets, then you can turn to them when you’re bored, but you can’t hope that boredom will make you creative. And creativity is a very difficult thing, notoriously difficult thing to measure anyway. And so the studies that have been done to measure it are rife with problems, and to my knowledge, there’s nothing that’s been done really that would convince me that if I put you into a bored state, if I make you feel bored right now, that somehow you’ll be more creative. If you have that as an outlet… I play guitar myself, and so sometimes when I’m bored, I’ll go to that, and it works, but I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12. Being bored, didn’t make me a better guitarist.
Brett McKay: Another thing you note throughout the book is that, just as everyone has their different ways that they get bored or not bored, it’s idiosyncratic in that way. But even in a single person, what makes you bored or not bored can change. Like boredom actually changes throughout the life cycle. Can you walk us through the research that you’ve… Guys uncovered there?
James Danckert: Yeah, so boredom does change over the life span. We would like a lot more work to be done in younger people, so we have a little bit of data in young people, but not much. What we do have, shows that boredom tends to rise in the teenage years. And what I think is happening there is that as you get into those teenage years, you’re starting to develop the skills of adulthood, but you haven’t quite got there yet, and you’re also in a situation of constraint. Your parents constrain what you can do, your teachers constrain what you can do, society constrains what you can do. And so the teenager is seeing themselves developing skills they didn’t have before, but not able to deploy them, and so boredom becomes a big issue. There is also a notion that in teens, leisure boredom is a problem. Having too much time on their hands, the proverbial sort of idle hands being the devil’s playground. And so boredom is sort of rising in those early to mid teenage years, we then find that boredom starts to drop in the late teenage, early 20s years. And that gets back to that part of the brain that I was talking about, the frontal cortex.
Your brain doesn’t fully mature until your early 20s, so early to mid-20s, and the last part of the brain to fully mature is that frontal cortex, which is important for all of our most sophisticated skills. It’s important for abstract reasoning, for decision-making, for the ability to control impulses. All this kind of stuff depends on that frontal part of your brain, and so as that part becomes fully mature, we start to see increases in self-control and decreases in boredom. And then that decreasing boredom continues into your 30s, 40s and 50s. The interesting thing about that though, is there was a study by Chin and colleagues where they collected an enormous amount of data from across America, sort of diary data, in a sense. They had people alerted on their phones to say how you’re feeling right now, how bored are you, over the course of about two weeks, and even though boredom diminishes into your 30s, 40s and 50s, it’s still prevalent, it’s still one of the top 10 emotions reported over a two-week period, and so it’s not like a disappears and goes away forever.
One of the reasons why it probably diminishes is that we all gain a suite of responsibilities as we hit those decades. We are raising families, pursuing careers, paying mortgages, these kinds of things that just don’t leave as much time for being bored. And then we find that… And there’s a range of studies that have shown that boredom starts to rise again in our sixth, seventh and eighth decades, and the primary factor there is social networks and social supports. So in the elderly who have strong social supports, boredom doesn’t tend to be a problem. But for the elderly who are more isolated, they tend to report elevated levels of loneliness, as you might expect, an elevated bottom probably as a consequence of that loneliness and that lack of social support.
Brett McKay: So we have been talking about what causes boredom, what boredom feels like. What has the research said about the effects of boredom, particularly… I think when we think of being bored, we think of negative consequences. Like idle hands do the devil’s work, like you said. Has the research borne that out? Are there negative consequences to feeling bored?
James Danckert: Yeah, so I should make a distinction here between in-the-moment feelings of boredom, so the state of boredom, which John and I claim in the book is… It’s neither good nor bad, it’s just a signal, how you respond to it is really up to you, and you can respond in good ways, you can respond with creative outlets, for example. And so we distinguish between those in-the-moment feelings of boredom and the individual trait propensity to experience boredom, so we call that boredom prone, and we’ve talked a little bit already about what that personality might be. There are no positive associations with being boredom prone, it’s all a fairly bleak sort of picture. So people who are boredom prone tend to have other mental health problems, higher rates of depression and anxiety, even things like higher rates of hostility, which is just an externally-directed hostility, “The world is not enough for me,” and that leads to that hostile response to everything. We know also that being prone to boredom is associated with elevated drug and alcohol use. There is some association between being boredom prone and problem gambling.
And there’s some… Finally, some really great work coming out of a lab by a guy called John Elhai, at the University of Toledo, and there’s a few labs in China that are doing the same sort of work looking at boredom and our relationship to our smartphones. And what they find is that for some people… And you don’t want to catastrophize this, the some people is about 4% to 6%, depending on the study you look at, but for some people, their relationship to their smartphone and social media becomes a very addictive relationship as a function of being boredom prone. They’re sort of turning to their phones and turning to social media when they’re bored, as a kind of pacifier for boredom. And then it starts to have many of the features of addiction. So they keep ramping up their use of their smartphone, like you might ramp up the use of a drug if you become addicted to it. They report feelings of anxiety and distress when they’re not with their phone, if they’re phone is not on. So that those two things start to… Are very characteristic of an addictive relationship to something. So yeah, there’s not a lot of positive news for being a boredom prone individual.
Brett McKay: So you mentioned… So there’s typically maladaptive responses, what would be an adaptive response to boredom? So that if you feel that moment boredom, that-in-the-moment feeling of boredom what would be like an adaptive response to that where it would actually make you better in the long-term?
James Danckert: Ultimately, I think there’s two potentially adaptive responses, now two classes at least, and so one of them is what we sort of call reframing, and that is just to say, Okay, think a little bit about, “Why do I think this particular experience I’m having right now? Why do I think it’s boring? What is it about it that’s boring?” and then see if you can reframe it. Turn it into something that’s not boring. The best example I can come up with for that, is again, to return to assembly line work. There are… Most of us, if we think about assembly line work, particularly if we have never done it before, we would think it’d be pretty boring. You get different kinds of widgets passing you on an assembly line and you do the same action to them over and over and over and over and over again. But some assembly line workers report that they just use ways to reframe it to make it a sort of personal challenge. So they say to themselves, “Alright, I’ll see if I can better my last hour’s performance or if I can better my personal best for the week.” And so now, the task is not boring because it’s a personal challenge. It’s been imbued with some sort of meaning. So if you can find ways to cognitively reframe what you’re doing to make it less boring then that’s a good response.
The other response… And that allows you to double down and continue to focus on the task at hand and try to push through and get it done. The other response I think is to just do something else. Just think about something else that would be more meaningful to you and launch into it, and don’t hesitate. Try not to spend a lot of time ruminating on what that might be. And also in that context, we’ve talked a little bit about meaning and that boredom arises when you’re lacking meaning and you start seeking meaning, I think that that sometimes pushes us to look for something grand to engage in, some big project, something that somehow we think is important to the world. I don’t think that that’s useful. So you could launch into something that on the face of it seems trivial, but it’s not trivial to you, and so that can alleviate your boredom.
My example on that front is pretty early on in the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself a little bit bored, so I decided I was gonna make a cake that I used to make when I was a kid with my mom. So I called her up, I got the recipe, and baked the cake. There’s nothing grand about that, there’s nothing really particularly meaningful to anybody else, but it was something that in that moment was meaningful to me. Now, that isn’t gonna work every single day or every single time that you’re bored, but finding things like that that are doable, practical, that have outcomes at the end that you can see, you can see the fruits of your labor, I think those are good approaches to being bored.
The last thing, I guess, if I was to think of a third thing. I don’t think that there’s a lot of research out there at this moment, but I suspect that people who engage in a solitary physical activity; runners, people who cycle, cyclists, people who go to the gym and do workouts, I suspect that that can be an outlet to alleviate boredom. I don’t do that kind of stuff, and when I look at it from the outside, I think that would bore me. I think running, I would find boring. But for the people who do it a lot, I think that they can engage in those kinds of actions when they feel bored. And the outlet of using up your physical energy is something that sort of alleviates the boredom. Because when you’re bored, in part you’re feeling like you’ve got these unspent resources, and I’ve been talking about it in terms of unspent cognitive resources, but perhaps you could just have some sort of physical outlet that releases that energy as well. So we don’t know much about that from a research point of view, but I think it’s certainly a possibility.
Brett McKay: Well, to that second point you were talking about, so when people have a lack of meaning, they try to get meaning in a grand level, and you guys have done research that a typical response to that is people go to political extremes or they embrace tribalism, and in fact, they’re trying to soothe boredom. They feel like what they’re doing has no meaning, they feel bored, and so they’re trying to do something grand and great so they can have meaning and not feel bored.
James Danckert: Yeah, that’s right. And adhering to or latching on to a strong identity or a strong ideology is a pretty good way of giving you meaning, but if you don’t think that carefully about it, then that won’t necessarily always be positive. And so that’s work that comes out of the UK from a guy called Wijnand Van Tilburg, he asked people, What’s your political affiliation? Do you support left progressive or right-wing conservative policies? And then he made people bored, and he did that by having them write out long lists of concrete references, which is just a bit bizarre. And then afterwards said, “Okay, what’s your political allegiance now?” And he found that after he’d made people board, they had adhered to whatever political extreme they said at the outset, they adhered to that even stronger. So if you said you were left-leaning to begin with, then you were more left-leaning after you were bored, and the same for the right-leaning politics. And, yeah, ultimately it gives you a sense of identity, it gives you a sense of purpose too, but it might also make it a bit challenging to listen to the other.
Brett McKay: So what do you hope people take away after reading this book? Like what do you hope… This is written for a popular audience, what do you hope they walk away thinking about after they finish Out of My Skull?
James Danckert: A couple of things. I hope that they walk away from it understanding that it’s not a trivial experience, that it plays a role in our lives, it plays a function in it… Has a function in our daily lives, and that that function is important. And particularly for people like parents and maybe educators and other sorts of professions, if you can come to that point of thinking about boredom in that way, then maybe your responses to people who are bored will be different as well. And then the other thing, I guess, is that the main point that John and I were pushing in the book is that boredom is this threat to your sense of agency. It’s showing you at this moment that you’re not being very effective. And if we can understand boredom in that way, then we can start to shape our responses to it in a more sort of conscious way. We can think carefully about how we want to do something to alleviate that boredom, rather than just sort of latching on to the first thing that we see or the easiest outlet closest by to us. We can think, “Okay, what I really want here is something that’s meaningful to me, that establishes my sense of agency. What could that be?” And so those would be the kinds of main messages I’d hope people would take away from the book.
Brett McKay: Don’t turn to your smartphone right away. Maybe it’ll make you… It’ll pacify you in the short term, but in the long term, you’re just digging yourself into a hole.
James Danckert: Yeah. Absolutely, but in that context, I think it’s important for me to say too that, going to your smartphone every once in a while to zone out, play Candy Crush or dive down the Instagram rabbit hole, whatever it is that you wanna do, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you’re consciously choosing it. As long as you’re sort of saying, “Okay, I’m just zoning out for a while here, this is what I’m gonna do.” If you’re not conscious about that, then it’ll start to become a problem, and it’s not a great response to boredom.
Brett McKay: And after all your research, you’re also a parent, have you figured out the best way to respond when you have a kid that says, “Dad, I’m bored.”? What’s the best response?
James Danckert: So at the moment, my kids are too much on screens because of the pandemic and the sort of the rules that we had pre-pandemic have gone out the window. My eldest says he never gets bored, but I think that that’s not true. I think that he just, when he gets bored he goes out for a run, or he goes and plays basketball. So I think that I’ve not had to deal with it with him. What I would say for parents is that if you… You want there to be opportunities for the kid, but if they come to you and say that they’re bored, I think the best response is to say, “Oh well.” Just let them try and figure it out on their own. Because if you are always solving their boredom for them, then you’re not allowing them to figure out how to establish agency, and that’s what they need to learn to do. They need to learn to figure out, “Okay, I’m actually the one in control here, I get to decide what’s meaningful and what’s not and I get to decide what I should launch into.” The challenge, of course, is that you can’t just let kids free run, you’ve got to have some guidance and supervision over them.
Brett McKay: Well, James, this has been a great conversation. Is there some place people can go to learn more about the book and your work.
James Danckert: They can go to my website, which is just my name, all no spaces or anything and no caps, dot com. And so they can go there and there’s… They’ll see links to some of the other news pieces that I’ve done, but they’ll see also links to the actual science and the papers that we’ve published. And then John and I are also doing a blog about once a month on Psychology Today, so they can go there and see some of the more up-to-date thoughts on boredom.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, James Danckert, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
James Danckert: It was my pleasure, too.
Brett McKay: My guest today was James Danckert. He is the co-author of the book, Out of My Skull. It’s available on amazon.com and book stores everywhere. You can find out more information about his work at his website, jamesdanckert.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/boredom, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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