For something as commonplace as boredom, the surprising reality is that psychologists know very little about it. As Kirsten Weir reports in Monitor on Psychology (July/August 2013), that’s precisely what’s initiated a lot of recent research into the subject.
One of the leading researchers on the subject is psychologist John Eastwood, Ph.D., from York University in Toronto. Piecing together common threads from prior research, Eastwood and his colleagues came up with an accepted definition of boredom—an essential starting point for constructive research that had yet to be established. As Eastwood summarizes it, “In a nutshell, it boiled down to boredom being the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity.”
With that definition established, Eastwood and other psychologists were able to focus their research on the causes and potential consequences of that unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity, and the results thus far have been surprising. For instance, based on Eastwood’s definition, boredom is now recognized as a potential byproduct of high arousal, in addition to low arousal. The new definition has broadened the traditional idea that boredom only happens when you don’t have anything to do, and now suggests that it’s equally as likely to occur for some people who have too much stimulation. This has led researchers to suggest that boredom can be particularly dangerous for those with thrill-seeking personalities, and may push them toward even more dangerous or risky behaviors. Researchers have also begun to connect boredom with the overstimulation we experience in our technology-driven society, suggesting that the more gadgets we use to occupy our time, the less able we’ll be to engage our minds independent of technology, and the more likely we’ll be to become dissatisfied and bored. This is especially troubling for children, researchers say, but the danger of boredom for everyone, Eastwood believes, is that it may be a risk factor for depression, though more research is needed in that area.
But there’s good news, too. As Weir points out, the preliminary research into the causes of boredom has also led to a better understanding of how we might be able to prevent it, especially among the elderly and others who are more prone to boredom’s damaging effects.