Boredom — that dreaded, mind-numbing feeling — is a universal fact of life. For some, it’s a fleeting feeling that prompts positive action. But for those with boredom proneness, frequent intense boredom can lead to mental health effects like elevated anxiety, depression, and aggression.
James Danckert is a clinical neuropsychologist at the University of Waterloo who studies boredom. He summed up the latest research on the feeling in his recent book Out of my Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.
According to Danckert, it is possible to leverage boredom to your advantage. You may never fully escape it, but you can use moments of boredom as opportunities to become more engaged in your life.
“Boredom is a signal,” Danckert tells Inverse. “It’s something that tells us that whatever you’re doing right now is failing to satisfy you in some important way.”
In the moment of being bored, we are “disengaged with the world around us,” Danckert says. It’s that feeling of being stuck in an “eye gougingly” boring work presentation or a lengthy line at the DMV.
“Boredom feels uncomfortable because as a primary drive for humans, we want to be engaged. We want to be interacting with people around us and the world around us in purposeful ways,” Danckert says.
This week, Inverse explores what to do when you get bored, how to avoid its sneaky side effects, and how to live a more engaged life.
I’m Ali Pattillo and this is Strategy, a series packed with actionable tips to help you make the most out of your life, career, and finances.
A threat to your sense of agency— When Danckert tells people he studies boredom, they often chuckle. He reasons that’s because many people think of boredom as a trivial feeling that has few real-world implications.
However, his own experiences, as well as those of his patients, say otherwise. When Danckert was 19, his older brother suffered a motor vehicle crash and a traumatic brain injury.
“At some point during his recovery, I remember him telling me he was bored all the time,” Danckert says.
Later in life, while training as a clinical neuropsychologist, Danckert came across patients like his brother — people who were also healing from traumatic brain injuries. When he was taking their histories, he’d ask: “Do you feel like you’re more bored now than you were before your head injury?” They’d emphatically reply yes.
No one had ever bothered to ask them before, the psychologist recalls, even though this was a critical part of their post-injury experiences.
Danckert went on to become one of the foremost experts on the psychology of boredom. After years of research, he’s come to a critical understanding: Much of what we thought we knew about boredom is actually wrong.
“As a primary drive for humans, we want to be engaged.”
Contrary to some popular misconceptions, boredom isn’t laziness or a lack of motivation. It isn’t apathy or the absence of desire. It doesn’t have anything to do with fortitude or capability.
“Boredom is characterized by a desire that’s going unmet,” Danckert says. “What boredom is really pushing you to try and do is to find something that’s satisfying, not just occupying.”
When people get bored, they often turn to their smartphone, to drugs and alcohol, gambling, or Tetris —things that occupy their time but don’t satisfy their desires.
“Boredom is a threat to your sense of agency,” Danckert explains. In this case, agency is this sense that your actions and your goals flow from desires within you; desires you’ve created, he explains.
“You’re making things happen and you’re having an influence on the world,” Danckert says. But when you’re playing Candy Crush or scrolling Instagram, you lose that sense of agency.
“It feels uncomfortable because it’s highlighting in that moment that you’re not being a very effective human being, you’re not engaging with the world in ways that are meaningful and purposeful to you.”
A better way of being bored— Even with the world at our fingertips, it’s easy to get bored. So when that sleep-inducing, frustrating feeling sets in, what can we do?
While the data isn’t clear on the best way to handle boredom, Danckert says there are three major steps that can help:
- Keep calm: If you stay stuck in the restlessness and agitation that comes with boredom, finding a clear path forward is going to be challenging, Danckert says. A helpful first step is calming yourself and remembering this is just boredom. I can work my way through this.
- Reflect on the present moment: “Think about what it is about this situation that you think is boring,” Danckert suggests. If you reflect on that, you might be able to find ways to reframe what you’re doing so that it becomes less boring.
- Look toward the future: Think about what your goals are in life and what are the most important things to you. Danckert advises: “Even if you can’t immediately launch into them, think about your goals and ask what am I doing in my life at the moment to reach towards those steps?”