On Boredom

The conclusion of Eastwood et al’s paper in Personality and Individual Difference is that while a

bored person typically complains that the external world fails to engage them, the present findings suggest the underlying problem may be in the person’s inability to consciously access and understand their emotions.

Further,

the bored individual is unaware of emotions and externally-oriented.

This seems to suggest that an internally oriented person wouldn’t be bored much, and that trying to find something “out there” to stimulate you when you feel boredom won’t work:

“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”, they said. Instead the researchers suggest treating boredom as an opportunity to “discover the possibility and content of one’s desires”.

This is a tricky result to interpret, it seems to me, partially because “boredom,” like many affective labels, is maddeningly vague.

Suppose you are in a class in school that is below your ability—you are most likely bored (“Fractions? Again?”) But, according to this result, the solution is not to get into a better class; rather, you should—what?

I think the result actually shows that people who say they are bored aren’t very good at describing their feelings:

Two hundred and four undergrads completed questionnaires about their susceptibility to boredom, and about their emotions, including questions on describing feelings and being externally focused.

They attach the label “bored” to any vague feeling, then cast about for some outside cure for their malaise, which doesn’t work. Big surprise. The conclusion, it seems to me, should be merely that “boredom” is often a proxy for “I feel bad in some way I can’t identify.”

What then is boredom? I’m not sure, but I think maybe some of what we call boredom is actually frustration, where frustration means “I want to get to goal X but can’t.” The greater the desire for X, and the greater the impediment, the more likely frustration turns into anger (I would speculate). Take the example of someone who is “bored” in school or at work—that is, they don’t have meaningful responsibility. This seems to me more like frustration: they know where they want to go but can’t get there from here.

Here’s what Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus said about working in government—for the Planning Commission in Blangadesh:

“My job was a bore,” says Yunus. “I had nothing to do all day but read newspapers.”

After trying and failing to get more meaningful responsibility, Yunus quit. He went back to the Economics Department of Chittagong University, which was more challenging. Ultimately he founded an anti-poverty program that has changed the lives of millions of people. I’d say he was frustrated, not bored. He knew where he wanted to go, but couldn’t get there in the Planning Commission.

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