Like many traits, the tendency to boredom is somewhat hard-wired. Psychologists talk of people who are “sensation-seeking” — most obviously, your dare-devil cousin who jumps out of planes and goes climbing in the Himalayas. Maybe that same cousin likes physical sensations that loosen inhibitions: new sex partners or activities, drinking, and drugs. We tend to admire sensation-seekers who seek out mental stimulation, the kind who rise up the career ladder, start new businesses, or take up the sax. But all sensation-seekers run the risk of boredom with familiar situations, people, or routine work.
Sensation-seeking falls in a bell-shaped curve, with most people falling in the bell or hump in the middle and fewer at the ends. Studies of identical twins suggest that genes explain about 60 percent of the differences among people in their need for stimulation, possibly based on the number of specific types of brain receptors for dopamine.
In case you never get bored, here’s your cue for empathy: A bored person is dissatisfied and restless. The current situation or activity feels meaningless, time may slow down, and he longs to be somewhere else. Don’t ignore boredom. It can be the push you need to pursue new goals, for example, when your job has grown routine. It could even lead you to be more creative at the office. Problems arise when you rely too often on short-term solutions. People snack out of boredom, since the food is an immediate sensory reward — or binge.
Some research suggests that we use nostalgia to make a boring situation feel more meaningful. A long-married couple that has run out of conversation might reminisce about an exciting vacation years earlier. That’s a good stop-gap but a signal to find current stimulating shared activities.
Boredom may kill marriages more than conflict. Do you mostly sit on the couch with your spouse and watch TV or spend time at the same restaurants with the same friends? In one study, researchers surveyed about 120 married couples who had been together for seven years, asking them whether they felt they “[did] the same things all the time” and “rarely [got] to do exciting things together.” The couples also reported how close and satisfied they were. Nine years later, couples who said that they were in a rut or didn’t have enough fun in the first survey were less satisfied than couples who had more excitement or variety, even if the marriage was harmonious.
Don’t beat up on yourself if you’re in a bored spell — but consider if you could improve the situation by paying more attention. If you’re bored with your husband, perhaps you need to ask a few questions about areas of his life you usually ignore — like his work and hobbies. Parents sometimes say to bored children, “Only boring people are bored.” The goal is to push them to assume responsibility and focus on an activity other than whining. There is evidence that boredom is related to attention problems. Some people are inattentive out of apathy; others try to engage but struggle to focus, and become increasingly agitated. The second group may suffer from attention deficit disorder. Many of us experience “agitated boredom” when we’re anxious. It can be painful.
Feeling this way often can mess up your life, if you drop out of school, say, or change jobs frequently, or ditch good marriages. Boredom-proneness also can be a sign of other problems like chronic anxiety and depression or even paranoia. The Serbian psychiatrist Sasa Brankovic has even suggested that patients with psychotic illnesses may stop taking their medication out of boredom; psychotic episodes seem exciting.
If you tend to need a fair amount of stimulation, focus on picking up new skills or interests, or delving deeper into an area you already know and love. “The best way not to be bored is to do what you like doing, typically something you’re good at,” says Irving Biederman, PhD, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles who studies boredom. Some people say they most enjoy familiarity, a favorite restaurant and meal. Biederman argues that repetition is a way of reducing anxiety and that even people who resist will be happier if they try a new sauce on their pasta.
June 30, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA