Bored? Now you know why

Boredom feels more intolerable, these days, because there’s so much stimulation to be had

American researchers just published what they’re calling “the most comprehensive empirical account of the experience of boredom” ever conducted. And they’ve solved the mystery of what causes boredom: people feel bored, they concluded, when they’re doing boring things! Which is a less boring finding than it seems, since it puts paid to one of the favourite admonishments of teachers and parents everywhere: “There are no boring things, only boring people.” (Or, as GK Chesterton originally said, “There is no such thing on Earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”) Psychologists have tended to agree, attributing boredom largely to a personality trait, “boredom proneness”. But of course there are boring things. “Studying” and “doing nothing in particular” came top in this study; boredom proneness played only a minor role. Here are some others: completing your tax return; learning PowerPoint; attending workplace safety seminars. I could spend the rest of the column listing even more, but you’d find that boring – and not because you’re a “boring person”. (You might be, of course. Separate issue.)

More specifically, boringness seems to be relative: things are painfully dull to the degree that they’re less engaging than other things you might be doing. Boredom feels more intolerable, these days, because there’s so much stimulation to be had. “Your life is lived with the kind of excitement that your forebears knew only in battle,” as the author Mark Helprin puts it. “They, unlike you, were the prisoners of mundane tasks. They wrote with pens, they did addition, they waited endlessly for things that come to you instantaneously.” But it’s not simply that we’re free to choose more exciting lives. It’s that, whenever we interact with a social network, app or website, there are – to quote Tristan Harris, who runs Time Well Spent – “a thousand people on the other side of the screen” whose job it is to keep you hooked. To make sure, in other words, that almost everything else you could be doing seems boring by comparison.

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Guardian Health and Wellbeing - Fri, 02 Jun 2017 14:00:26 GMT

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