Meaning Research

Boredom & Meaning

Geoff Thompson
Geoff Thompson, Ph.D.

The study of boredom is becoming quite fascinating. The American Psychological Association’s Dictionary of Psychology defines boredom as ‘‘a state of weariness or ennui resulting from a lack of engagement with stimuli in the environment” (VandenBos, 2007). Sufficient research has been published to indicate that boredom is a specific state of mind and not merely a version of depression or apathy.

For such a common emotion, however, it’s remarkable that psychologists are only recently paying attention to it. The relatively few psychological studies there are on the topic suggest adolescents are more bored than adults. Those who lack self-awareness and those who lack education seem to be more bored than their self-aware and educated neighbors. Research has found participants get bored with repetitive tasks that are either too easy or too difficult. Those who are extroverted or suffer from attention problems are more easily bored than the rest of us. Some brain scientists associate boredom with lower levels of dopamine stimulation, leading the bored to seek out excitement.

Attempting to make sense of boredom, psychologists have developed two general types of instruments to measure boredom. Farmer and Sundberg (1986) developed their Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS), which focused on a person’s habits and personality. The BPS measures trait boredom, the susceptibility to boredom. Others are interested in state boredom, the intensity of boredom in a given situation. The Multidimensional State Boredom Scale (MSBS; Fahlman, Mercer-Lynn, Flora, & Eastwood, 2013) makes 29 statements on immediate feelings arising from a situation, such as “I am stuck in a situation that I feel is irrelevant.” This instrument is more about feelings in the moment. It appears that trait boredom and state boredom are separate constructs.

The MSBS, interesting as it is, seems to include many people who are only temporarily bored; that is, they are bored with the situation. I suspect it is this situational boredom that has led any number of bloggers to suggest that we should cultivate boredom because it propels us to action. Even Nietzsche, in his autobiographical Human, All Too Human suggested that those of “rare sensibility” value boredom as a catalyst for achievement. It can provide an opportunity for thought and reflection. And it can also be a sign that a task is a waste of time—and thus not worth continuing.

The BPS is perhaps a more intriguing instrument because it measures something in the person. Those who are bored in the moment look to remedy their uncomfortable state by doing something more meaningful. Yet such a strategy would likely not be all that successful if the person was prone to boredom, regardless of the situation.

So, one of the curious issues is why some are more bored than others, regardless of their situation. Perhaps a key piece to the puzzle lies in the argument that boredom is a modern phenomenon. Spack (1996) wrote the history of boredom as presented in literature. She makes a convincing case that boredom did not exist before the late 18th century, as the age of Enlightenment was giving way to the Industrial Revolution.

The author suggested that before this transition, people were engaged in constant activity to feed, clothe, and house themselves. In a sense, they were too busy to be bored. But it seems more likely that the reason for this lack of boredom had to do with their sure belief that God was in Heaven and there was a plan for us all. Westerners increasingly challenged the traditional notion of God in the 19th century, and Nietzsche declared in 1872 that we have killed God—a death that replaced an absolute with an anxiety-provoking void.

Today, boredom appears to be on the rise. Some hypothesize that it is the direct result of a metaphysical void in the West. Others blame our inability to deal with free time, such as people who pursue activities merely to fill the time—watching a lot of television comes to mind. Others say the loss of personal control is the real issue in boredom: doing work and play that has little personal meaning.

Goodstein (2005) proposed that boredom has an existential quality. She proposed that it “corresponds more precisely to the French ennui, an existential perception of life’s futility. Ennui is a consequence of unfulfilled aspirations.” Coughlan, Igou, van Tilburg, Kinsella, and Richie (2017) argued that boredom, “a state associated with a sense of meaninglessness, leads to a psychological search for meaning in life” (p. 455). Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek (2012) also pointed to an existential component of boredom. “An inability to know what will make one happy can lead to a more profound existential boredom. Not knowing what we are searching for means that we lack the capacity to choose appropriate goals for engagement with the world.”

Perhaps Frankl had sensed that some people were more easily bored than others when he wrote that boredom was the hallmark symptom of the existential vacuum, of a life that lacked personal meaning.



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Eastwood, J. D., Frischen, A., Fenske, M. J., & Smilek, D. (2012). The unengaged mind: Defining boredom in terms of attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482–495. Doi: 10.1177/1745691612456044

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Farmer, R., & Sundberg, N. D. (1986). Boredom proneness—The development and correlates of a new scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 50(1), 4–17. Doi: 10.1207/s15327752jpa5001_2

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Spack, P. M. (1996). Boredom: The literary history of a state of mind. University of Chicago Press.

van Tilburg, W. A. P., & Igou, E. R. (2012). On boredom: Lack of challenge and meaning as distinct boredom experiences. Motivation and Emotion, 36(2), 181–194. Doi: 10.1007/s11031-011-9234-9

VandenBos, G. R. (Ed.). (2007). APA dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.