Many people are familiar with the French word ennui, which means boredom, but did you know that when they say, “I’m bored,” they actually say, “I bore myself” (Je m’ennuie)? I think that’s very telling, because there’s almost nothing in this world that is boring to every single solitary person on the planet. Something that bores you may fascinate other people. The world is full of interesting things, so why do we get bored?
Boredom is defined by psychologists as an emotional state that occurs when you have nothing particular to do and there is nothing in your immediate surroundings that interests you. For most people, boredom is a transient state; it comes and goes, and doesn’t last very long. Besides lack of interest, people generally also experience difficulty concentrating on whatever they are doing, whether it is watching TV, reading, surfing the web or doing homework. Psychologists say that we experience boredom when we are prevented from doing something we want to do, when we are forced to do something we don’t want to do (even if we don’t particularly have anything better to do at the moment), and when we simply lose interest in whatever activity we are engaged in. The first two are easy to explain: if you don’t want to do something, it’s easy to become bored with it. It’s the third instance, when people inexplicably lose interest in their surroundings, that has scientists baffled: this is chronic boredom.
Because boredom is normally transient, because it doesn’t last long, we tend to think of boredom as a mild irritant, something that we all have to live with once in a while. Some people seem more prone to boredom than others; these are experiencing a a type of attention deficit. Many people are familiar with the term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which is when a person’s mind and body are so busy that they can’t focus on any one thing for long. In the last couple of decades, though, educators and psychologists have realized that hyperactivity is not always associated with attention deficit problems. The term for this is Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). Chronic boredom is associated with depression, physical problems, learning difficulties and social problems.
Educators know that there has to be a happy medium in the classroom. Whatever is being taught, the teacher must attempt to get all of the kids to understand what’s going on at some level. When kids don’t understand, they get bored, tune out, and begin to misbehave. On the other end of the spectrum, when kids understand the lesson too well, they do the same. In other words, teachers must ensure that no one in the class is under- or over-challenged, which is quite a feat when you have 25 or 30 kids in your classroom, with a range of basic intelligence, maturity level, emotional stability and general readiness for school (including, but not limited to having had enough sleep the previous night, having had enough to eat in the morning, and being properly dressed for the weather). It does seem to be a problem that the iconic image of boredom is a student who is bored with school. On the other hand, it’s not so surprising when you consider that schools have to expose kids to a variety of things, and not everybody is interested in everything. As well, most kids would rather be playing or doing just about anything than be cooped up in school (except, of course, when we manage to do something fun and interesting). You could say that about teachers, too. Or businessmen. But I digress…
According to Erich Fromm and other thinkers, boredom is a response to the industrialization of society in which many people do repetitive jobs in huge factories. He used the term “alienated labor” for this: people doing things that they’d rather not be doing, just to make a living. Fromm said that boredom is a “source of aggression and destructiveness” and that our consumer culture is driven by the search for thrills and novelty, which are really only distractions from boredom, rather than a solution to the problem. Fromm’s theory sounds plausible, but today, with more and more factories using automated machines to do the repetitive work human beings once did, I don’t think you can blame industrialization for everything. It seems true, however, that much of popular culture is characterized by a desperate search for something to entertain us out of our state of boredom.
In 1986, psychologists came up with a test to measure how prone to boredom a person is. The Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS) is a set of statements that people are asked to rate their agreement with on a 7-point scale, from 1 (highly disagree) to 4 (neutral) to 7 (highly agree.) People who ranked low on this scale tended to perform better in school and in their careers. They tended to be self-starters. People who ranked high on the scale experienced chronic boredom, which can be a symptom of clinical depression. Some scientists have also stated that boredom is a form of “learned helplessness,” in which a person comes to believe that life is unpleasant (whether it really is or not), that the unpleasantness is inescapable and must be endured (whether it really is or not). Researchers have found that some people have chemical imbalances in their bodies that put them at higher risk for depression, anxiety, addiction, eating disorders, hostility, and learning disabilities.
Here is the test that psychologists give people to see who may be dealing with chronic boredom.
The Boredom Proneness Scale
The statements to follow can be answered using a 7-point scale — from 1 (highly disagree), to 4 (neutral), to 7 (highly agree). To take this test, number a piece of paper from 1 to 28. Then write down any number from 1 to 7 for each of the statements below.
- It is easy for me to concentrate on my activities.
- Frequently when I am working I find myself worrying about other things.
- Time always seems to be passing slowly.
- I often find myself at “loose ends”, not knowing what to do.
- I am often trapped in situations where I have to do meaningless things.
- Having to look at someone’s home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously.
- I have projects in mind all the time, things to do.
- I find it easy to entertain myself.
- Many things I have to do are repetitive and monotonous.
- It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
- I get a kick out of most things I do.
- I am seldom excited about my work.
- In any situation I can usually find something to do or see to keep me interested.
- Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing.
- I am good at waiting patiently.
- I often find myself with nothing to do, time on my hands.
- In situations where I have to wait, such as in line, I get very restless.
- I often wake up with a new idea.
- It would be very hard for me to find a job that is exciting enough.
- I would like more challenging things to do in life.
- I feel that I am working below my abilities most of the time.
- Many people would say that I am a creative or imaginative person.
- I have so many interests, I don’t have time to do everything.
- Among my friends, I am the one who keeps doing something the longest.
- Unless I am doing something exciting, even dangerous, I feel half-dead and dull.
- It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me really happy.
- It seems that the same things are on television or the movies all the time; it’s getting old.
- When I was young, I was often in monotonous and tiresome situations.
To score yourself, add up the total of the values you gave each for each question. The average score is 99, and the average range 81-117. If you scored above 117, you get bored easily, and if you scored below 81, you don’t suffer from boredom very often. The highest score possible is 196, which you would get if you gave a score of 7 (highly agree) to all 28 of the statements.
If your score is 99 or below, then you can probably expect to be bored once in a while, but not all the time. Sometimes boredom is an impetus for us to do something different in our lives. If you find yourself experiencing boredom rather often, it may be a sign that you need to shake things up a bit. Perhaps you need to consider preparing for a more challenging career. Maybe you need to surround yourself with more people, or at least, people who are a better match with you in terms of intellect, spiritual beliefs, or general outlook on life. Perhaps a move to a different area is in order: If you live in the country, you may wish to try living in a city If you are a city dweller, maybe life in a small town – or even just a smaller city – would be a better fit for you. If you’re looking for a spiritual path that fits your own, try attending events sponsored by different churches or spiritual communities. If you’re looking for intellectual stimulation, be sure to get out to museums, concerts, and plays, or find a book club whose members are compatible Souls.
A skill that will stand you in very good stead is that of cultivating an interest in things. As I wrote at the beginning of this article, it’s not really the things, people, events and situations outside of ourselves that are intrinsically boring. It’s that we bore ourselves. In other words (unless you have some type of measurable chronic chemical imbalance), it’s up to you whether to be bored or not. Sure, if you’re feeling bored with something, you can always find something else to do, but why not also learn to cultivate an interest in things that may not be terribly interesting, at first? The trick is to ask questions: what? how? why? The more you know, the more questions you may have. Even if you don’t become completely fascinated by it, at least you will have learned something new.
Full disclosure: I wrote this post because I was feeling bored, and I saw a post on Facebook that led to someone’s blog on the subject. I scored 106 on the test, a little higher than average, even though I don’t think of myself as being bored that often. I am retired, which means I don’t have something to do every single day, although I’m starting to get into various interests a little more. Still, it would seem that it is time for a change in my life. 🙂