No one is quite as bored as a twelve-year-old boy who cries “I’m bored” every fifteen minutes. He is in a seemingly never ending search for stimulation. But you don’t have to be an adolescent to experience this common human experience. Psychologist John Eastwood studied boredom and found that a bored person doesn’t just have nothing to do. They want to be stimulated but are unable to achieve stimulation. Boredom is an unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity and occurs when you are unable to change the situation.
Some people are more prone to boredom than others. There are two types of people that experience boredom. The first group of people tend to be highly anxious. The world is a fearful place so they rarely step outside their comfort zone. They are often more likely to experience a lack of interest, decreased concentration, fatigue, and slouched body posture. It takes more stimulation to get them going than other people. The second group of people tend to be naturally impulsive. They are constantly looking for new experiences. For them, a stable lifestyle just doesn’t hold their attention. They are under-stimulated.
Boredom can be a risk factor for depression, smoking, overeating, substance abuse and other impulsive or compulsive behaviors. If people don’t have the inner resources to deal with boredom in a healthy manner, they might do something unproductive or unhealthy.
So how can someone be bored in this age of technology gadgets such as texting, social media, games, videos, and news at our fingertips? We are constantly bombarded with stimuli. These electronic devices may distract us, or even numb us for a short time, but at the end of the day we still feel empty. The more we see, read, and try, the less surprising everything feels. Boredom results from surface skimming, rather than fully immersing our attention and interest.
The antidote to boredom is surprise. Tania Luna and Leeann Renninger wrote “Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected.” They say that we feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not. Of course, not all surprises are good. Too much surprise causes fear and dread. Too much predictability leads to boredom. A balance between predictability and surprise is ideal.
Are you risk aversive, or are you a risk taker? One of the authors did an experiment with children in which she presented a large black box with a hole cut into the center. In a flat voice she said, “Would you like to put your hand in this hole to feel what’s inside?” She was measuring how long it took the kids to reach in. Many of them never did. The mystery box is a metaphor for life. Would you choose not to reach inside and stay where things are predictable, or would you reach inside where surprises await? The authors make the point that curiosity is even more important to quality of life than happiness. Curiosity is stimulating, enjoyable, and the fuel that leads to learning, creativity and innovation.
To open ourselves to life’s surprises we have to become skilled in embracing the unpredictable. We have to be confident in our ability to handle the surprises that come our way and resilient if surprises entail hardship.