Why Do We Get Bored?

by | Sep 10, 2018


Dunbar (from Catch-22) on Boredom

One of the main characters in Catch-22, Dunbar, thought being bored made him live longer because time passed slower. From the book: “Dunbar loved shooting skeet because he hated every minute of it and the time passed so slowly. He had figured out that a single hour on the skeet-shooting range with people like Havermeyer and Appleby could be worth as much as eleven-times-seventeen years.” – Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Dunbar’s full discussion of boredom and time with Clevinger (very thought provoking): Catch 22 Boredom Discussion

What is Boredom?

There is no universally accepted definition of boredom, but yet it is a universal experience as we all feel bored from time-to-time (except for my mother). It’s hard to define, but much like Potter Stewart’s definition of “pornography”, we all know boredom when we experience it.

Boredom is not depression or apathy. Rather, it is more a lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity. It is usually accompanied by allowing your mind to wander but you would rather be doing something else. There is dissatisfaction (if you are satisfied it is no longer boredom), weariness and restlessness. It is an unpleasant mental state from which you crave relief. Dr. John Eastwood, in a recent research paper, defined boredom as “a state in which the sufferer wants to be engaged in some meaningful activity but cannot, characterized by both restlessness and lethargy.” 

Why do we get bored?

From an evolutionary psychology point of view, our mental states and emotions evolved for a reason – each one has a purpose. So, why do we get bored?

The likely evolutionary explanation for boredom is that being bored spurs us to action. It motivates us to seek out new experiences – it may have motivated our ancestors to explore unknown territories. A researcher at the University of Southampton explained in Nautilus: “Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

Andreas Elpidorou, a professor at the University of Louisville from his article The Bright Side of Boredom:

Boredom helps to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful or significant. It acts as a regulatory state that keeps one in line with one’s projects. In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a “push” that motivates us to switch goals and projects.

The Upside of Boredom

Boredom has been shown to spur creativity. Those given very boring tasks for 20 minutes were more creative than those who performed less boring tasks prior to being assessed. From Nautilus:  “You could say that boredom is an incubator lab for brilliance. It’s the messy, uncomfortable, confusing, frustrating place one has to occupy for a while before finally coming up with the winning equation or formula.”

Want to become bored pretty quickly so you can be more creative? The below video was created by Colleen Merrifield at the University of Waterloo in Canada for her doctoral thesis. The purpose of the video is to put subjects into a state of boredom for research purposes (its not long – about 4 minutes – I challenge you to watch it all the way through):


The Downside of Boredom

A big downside to boredom is that it is unpleasant, almost painful. In fact, some studies have found that people would rather experience pain than be bored. In a study at the University of Virginia, 18 out of 42 subjects gave themselves electric shocks when left alone in a plain room for 15 minutes rather than suffer boredom.

Some people are just more predisposed to boredom than other people. High levels of boredom can be an indication of an underlying medical condition. People prone to boredom have also been found to be at greater risk of depression, binge-eating disorders, substance abuse and gambling.   

How to Battle Boredom

First, as mentioned above, boredom has its upsides and maybe we shouldn’t strive to quell our boredom. Due to having our phones with us everywhere we go we are less likely to experience boredom as we were in a prior age. Maybe we should put our phones down and just let our minds wander and sit in our discomfort a bit. Maybe it will lead to a brilliant idea.

A key aspect of boredom is wanting to be somewhere else or doing something different. That wanting and dissatisfaction is a key element of boredom. A trick I’ve found when traveling to battle boredom is to recognize my discomfort and then tell myself that there is no place I’d rather be. “Oh, we now have a 3 hour delay at BWI, great, I now get 3 hours of uninterrupted reading, or I can walk, or connect with colleagues. Fabulous – there are no demands on my time.” Don’t think about where you’d rather be or what else you want to be doing. Focus on the moment and tell yourself (over and over if you have to) that this moment is special and you want to be “here.” I’ve found it works in a lot of situations other than just travel.

P.S. Elon Musk’s The Boring Company is pretty interesting. Especially if you’d like to own a flamethrower.


  1. I would have hung the clothes, emptied the dishwasher and mowed the lawn in the time it took him to hang a pair of jeans, inside out nonetheless! Bru-tal.

  2. I made it to the clothes pins in the video but could go no further


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