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Fighting Boredom? Read This

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While we may complain about having too much stress, we often fail to consider that the flipside is something universal to us all: boredom. And too much boredom — or too little stress — comes with it’s own negative consequences.


Psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University (Ontario, Canada) and colleagues at the University of Guelph and the University of Waterloo define boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity,” which arises from failures in one of the brain’s attention networks.

Eastwood expands on the definition of boredom to include three specific factors:

  • Difficulty paying attention to the internal information (e.g., thoughts or feelings) or external information (e.g., environmental stimuli) required for participating in satisfying activity
  • Awareness of the fact that we’re having difficulty paying attention
  • Belief that the environment is responsible for our aversive state (e.g., “this task is boring,” “there is nothing to do”).


While we may consider boredom an unpleasant state, and whether we attribute it to the environment or not, what we often fail to consider is just why it happens. On a fundamental level, “not having anything to do” is the same as “not needing to do anything.” It is being challenged  that captivates our attention.

Having to pay attention, it seems, happens because we have to – that is because the stress of not paying attention is greater than keeping our focus on the task at hand. To be sure, the result of losing focus in a fast paced game of racquetball might be a ball to the head, while not paying attention to what you are cooking for dinner might lead to some burnt meatloaf – considerably less aversive.


But looking at boredom can teach us something else – that failure to experience engagement leads to serious long term problems. On a behavioral level, boredom has been linked to problems with impulse control, leading to overeating and binge eating, drug and alcohol abuse, and problem gambling. Boredom has even been associated with higher rates of mortality (Roberts,, 2015).


Even animals appear to be affected by boredom. One study separated captive mink into two groups – one in small, bare cages, and the other in large “enriched” cages enhanced with water for wading, passageways for running, objects to chew and towers to climb. The researchers then presented both groups with stimuli ranging from appealing treats to neutral objects to undesirable things, such as leather gloves used to catch the animals. The results replicate something we know intuitively: the mink in confined, empty spaces ate more treats, even when given as much food as mink in enriched environments.


And while we may consider boredom relatively common – and therefore somewhat innocuous – research done by Thomas Goetz and Anne Frenzel, two researchers who specialize in boredom, has uncovered a particularly pernicious type of boredom: apathetic boredom.

Apathetic boredom, unlike the four other subtypes of boredom (indifferent, calibrating, searching, and reactant), resembles learned helplessness or depression. Learned helplessness is a depression-like state that occurs when people or animals fail to take opportunities to improve their condition – even when they are readily available. Interestingly, it is also associated with low levels of arousal – that is, not being challenged.

In attempting to understand just how apathetic boredom affects a person, Goetz, Frenzel and a team of fellow researchers followed 63 German university students and 80 German high school learners for two weeks. In a real time data collection, participants had to complete digital questionnaires through the course of a day detailing their activities and experiences. While apathetic depression was experienced at an alarming rate – 36 percent of high school students sampled – it was also highly linked to the real-life situation in which it is experienced.


Feeling apathetic, it seems, is not just about the intensity of our feelings, but rather, the intensity of our surroundings. Environments that don’t challenge us enough don’t just leave us bored, they leave us feeling disinterested – and less likely to do something to change them. But perhaps even more importantly, they don’t lead to innovation – especially when it comes to our strengths.




Roberts, S., O’Connor, K., Aardema, F., Bélanger, C. (2015). The impact of emotions on body-focused repetitive behaviors: Evidence from a non-treatment-seeking sample. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 2015; 46: 189

Meagher, R., Mason, G. (2012). Environmental Enrichment Reduces Signs of Boredom in Caged Mink. PLoS ONE, 2012; 7 (11): e49180

Goetz, T., Frenzel, A., Hall, N., Nett, U., Pekrun, R., Lipnevich, A., (2013). Types of boredom: An experience sampling approach. Motivation and Emotion, 2013



Claire Dorotik-Nana is the author of Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards. For more information on Claire or her work, just visit







Photo by QuinnDombrowski

Fighting Boredom? Read This

Claire Dorotik-Nana, LMFT

Claire Dorotik-Nana LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in post-traumatic growth, leveraging adversity, and other epic human achievements. Claire has written multiple continuing education courses for Professional Development Resources, Zur Institute, and International Sport Science Association. Claire has also authored multiple books, including:
Leverage: The Science of Turning Setbacks into Springboards and On The Back Of A Horse: Harnessing The Healing Power Of The Human-Equine Bond. For more information about Leveraging Adversity or Claire, visit

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APA Reference
Dorotik-Nana, C. (2016). Fighting Boredom? Read This. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Sep 2016
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