What is Boredom, and is it Functional?

boredom and its function

Boredom: An unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest.[1]

The state of boredom itself is often considered to be a negative experience, and many associate it with feelings of apathy and depression. When one experiences boredom, they are faced with nothingness, or the void, outlined by absurdist philosophers like Camus, who suggests that we seek pursuits and develop habits as a means of avoiding the realisation that we exist in an apparently meaningless universe.[2] However, a general disinterest in one’s environment characterised by boredom isn’t inherently negative. Boredom can have a function, it can be a strong motivator for change, encouraging us to seek out activities that are satisfying or meaningful. The bored individual finds no satisfaction or meaning in their environment, but their emotional state in response suggests that satisfaction and meaning is to be found elsewhere.

For boredom to arise in the first place, an individual must be energised or psychologically aroused to some degree. The feeling of boredom then comes from having no satisfactory channel or output through which to expend that energy. A bored individual will experience a lack of engagement in what they’re doing and see no meaning or purpose for themselves in their circumstances.

Boredom can be a problematic state, in that if a person were able to take action against their boredom, they would. Being bored, then, implies a lack of control, or powerlessness over one’s environment. This sense of powerlessness can lead to feelings of irritation and frustration, even anger. Anger, left unexpressed, can become sadness, which could, over time, develop into depression. Feeling as though one has no control over their life or their environment can develop into the belief that one is helpless, unable to take any action to alleviate their negative feelings. Such a belief is a major contributing factor in the onset of depression, emphasising the problematic nature of boredom.

German researchers Thomas Goetz, Anne C. Frenzel, et. al,  conducted a study on boredom and identified five main types: Indifferent, Calibrating, Searching, Reactant, and Apathetic.[3]

 

Indifferent Boredom

This type of boredom is associated with a low state of arousal, and minimal aversiveness, or positive valence, to one’s situation. A person experiencing indifferent boredom may at the same time feel relaxed and generally indifferent to their environment, with no strong desire to take action to change it.

 

Calibrating Boredom 

This type of boredom is characterised by a slightly higher, but still relatively low, state of arousal. There is some aversiveness, or negative valence. As the name suggests, an individual experiencing this type of boredom is attentive to potential means of reducing the feeling, but is not particularly active in changing their situation.

 

Searching Boredom

Unlike the previous types, searching boredom is associated with a higher state of arousal and greater negative valence. In this type of boredom, individuals tend to experience restlessness and are more active in the search for stimuli than the previous two types.

 

Reactant Boredom

This type of boredom constitutes the highest arousal and greatest level of negative valence. Participants in Goetz’s study reported feelings of restlessness and aggression associated with this type of boredom[4], as well as significant and persistent focus on alternative situations. This type of boredom was reported to be highly unpleasant and was found to be a strong motivator in changing one’s current situation.

 

Apathetic Boredom

The fifth, unanticipated type of boredom was also discovered. This was labelled apathetic boredom and is characterised by a lack of both positive and negative affectation. Instead, an individual experiencing this type of boredom will be generally apathetic to their circumstances and present a seeming inability to be emotionally aroused.

 

Boredom as an Adaptive Function

Boredom can be considered to have an adaptive function. It has been suggested that boredom facilitates the pursuit of alternative goals when current goals are not fulfilling. As humans, we are inclined to seek meaning and purpose in our goals and pursuits[5]. If an activity fails to engage us or produce a sense of meaning, boredom ensues, and motivates us to seek out new methods of achieving meaning or purpose.

Emotions are temporary; they tend to fade over time. If they did not, they would hold no significance and our lives would be stagnant, with no motivation for change or growth. Once an emotion has arisen and been fully experienced, boredom eventually ensues and acts a signal to move on, to seek out new goals and pursuits.[6]

 

Sources:

[1] Fisherl, C., 1993. Boredom at Work: A Neglected Concept. Human Relations, 46(3), pp.395-417.

[2] Plato.stanford.edu. 2020. Albert Camus (Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy). [online] Available at: <https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/camus/> [Accessed 18 May 2020].

[3] Goetz, T., Frenzel, A., Hall, N., Nett, U., Pekrun, R. and Lipnevich, A., 2013. Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion, [online] 38(3), pp.401-419. Available at: <https://www.researchgate.net/publication/261214289_Types_of_boredom_An_experience_sampling_approach> [Accessed 18 May 2020].

[4] ibid.

[5] Barbalet, J., 1999. Boredom and social meaning. British Journal of Sociology, 50(4), pp.631-646.

[6] Bench, S. and Lench, H., 2013. On the Function of Boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), pp.459-472.

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