Have you ever had the experience where one simple sentence has changed the way you see the world?
As a self-confessed book nerd, I’ve had it happen many times.
The first time I read Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor, or Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl, I came across sentences that I’ve read, highlighted and re-read year after year.
One of these quotes that I continue to find meaning in, is from the French writer and mathematician, Blaise Pascal. He said something that I still think about to this day:
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”
This quote is over 300 years old, but in the era of smartphones, social media and Netflix it is truer now than ever. There is no need to worry that you’ll ever be left to just sit in a room alone. Entertainment is only ever a click away.
You would think, then, with all these ways to stay busy, that modern people would be less bored. Unfortunately, the opposite is true.
Think about it: how long does it take for a web page to load before you feel your jaw tense? How many minutes can you sit still in a room and not pick up your phone to check your Facebook feed? How long will you watch a video on YouTube until you decide you’re bored with what you’re seeing and click on something else?
At some point in your scrolling and searching, you’ve probably read a think piece about the ills of modern technology or the tragedy of how quickly we become bored now. It’s easy to nod halfheartedly in agreement and give the issue no further thought. After all, you’re aware of the iron grip your phone has on your life and how merciless you are to the compulsion to ease your boredom.
But what if you become curious? What if you started to ask, “What is boredom? Why do we get bored?” You might be surprised by just how interesting boredom can be.
So if you’ve come to this article and you’re wondering why your life feels so boring, we’re going to take a deep dive into the question.
Why is life so boring?
If you want to blame a single cause for the modern epidemic of boredom, blame your brain. It wants you to be bored. At least, it’s got things it wants you to do, and boredom is one of the tools it uses to get you to do those things.
“But didn’t people get bored less easily in the past?” you might ask. “Couldn’t they read those really long-winded novels and wait weeks just to get a letter about the weather in Topeka?”
While it’s true that we certainly have a shorter attention span now than people did in previous generations, as a psychological phenomenon, boredom has always been with us. As a species, we are novelty seekers.
Scientists have even located a region of our brain that is entirely devoted to the processing of novel stimuli. This region is close to the hippocampus, which is involved in the formation of long-term memories. This might explain why novelty has been linked with improved learning and memory formation.
While this brain system is universal, it is more active for some people than for others. In a February 2012 New York Times article, John Tierney describes healthy “novelty seekers” who exhibit the trait of “neophilia” – a strong affinity for novelty. He cites researchers who see neophilia as “the quintessential human survival skill” and who have linked it to a “migration gene” that developed 50,000 years ago and can now be found in humans all over the world. Basically, if we didn’t get bored and want to seek out new experiences, we wouldn’t have spread to the far corners of the earth.
This research reinforces what we might already suspect: without boredom, we wouldn’t have as many vibrant human cultures or innovations as we do today.
How Our Brains Make Us Bored
You’ve probably heard of dopamine. It’s the Instagram model of the neurochemistry world: sexy, unavoidable, and all about that party lifestyle. It’s what’s rocking out in your brain when you’re eating, drinking, having sex, or listening to music. It’s even activated when you see that someone has liked your latest Facebook status.
But dopamine isn’t just partying all the time. It’s also involved in some of our most essential daily brain functions, including memory formation and learning. It’s active in the brain when we’re processing things that we haven’t seen before, or, that make us feel curious, no matter how simple those things may be.
The flip side is that low dopamine levels make us feel listless. Reduced levels of dopamine are linked to low mood, difficulty thinking, lethargy, reduced sex drive, and anhedonia. Of course, these are also all symptoms of depression. When it’s not severe enough to indicate a mood disorder, this lack of psychological energy, or arousal, is precisely what we’re experiencing when we feel bored.
Boredom and Attention
Many definitions of boredom centre on its relationship with attention. When we’re bored by something, we have trouble focusing on it; when something engages us, it holds our attention, and we don’t feel bored. So it’s no surprise that when we’re paying attention, our brains reward us with the neurotransmitters and hormones that make us feel good.
The weird thing about our brains is that they seem to do everything they can to not pay attention. This is because attention takes energy and there is an abundance of stimuli in any given moment. We tune out people who have a boring speaking style even when they’re sharing essential information. We have to keep re-reading the same page of a book we want or need to read because our minds wander. We doodle at work meetings and forget people’s names right after they tell us.
Fortunately, attention is a trainable skill, by consciously practising focusing, you become better at it, it becomes more pleasurable and uses less energy.
Our Brains On Auto-Pilot
As we go through the daily routines that bore us, we often find ourselves on “automatic pilot.” We daydream as we’re driving our cars or taking a shower. The complicated suite of action and knowledge these tasks require occurs at an “automatic level of attentional processing.” This is a feature of our brains, not a bug: we tend to perform tasks that involve complex motor skills better when we don’t have to think about them.
One way our brains get around having to enlist our conscious attention is through schemas. These are mental maps that tell us what to generally expect when we are in certain situations or see something that fits into a predefined category. Our brains have to readjust and process when something defies our expectations, which is why the most surprising experiences we have are often the most memorable.
For example, when you lean over to sniff a flower, you expect to smell something sweet if you smell anything at all. When you sniff a flower that smells like hot garbage, you’re shocked into much more vivid awareness as you try to integrate this new experience. You might be disgusted, confused, or curious—but you’re definitely not bored.
We Literally Don’t See What’s Right in Front of Us
Our mental maps allow us to respond to familiar scenarios more efficiently, but they also trip us up on a regular basis. “Inattentional blindness” is what happens when something occurs in our field of vision but we literally don’t see it.
The main reason we don’t see something is because we’re not paying attention to it. The other is that it’s not what we expect. Our schemas tell our brains to screen things out because they doesn’t fit.
One famous example of inattentional blindness is the “invisible gorilla” experiment. Participants watched a video and were instructed to focus on a game being played by two teams. The people focused on counting passes didn’t notice when an actor in a gorilla costume walked across the screen.
This is a purely cognitive version of the general psychological phenomenon known as habituation. Basically, the more we’re exposed to something, the less it lights up our brain. A sudden noise startles us the first time we hear it, but a few minutes later, we don’t notice it anymore. In other words: things that were interesting at first quickly become boring.
One problem with the modern world is that after being exposed so frequently and so casually to intense and novel stimuli, everything becomes habituated and it’s tough to find something that can hold our brain’s attention.
Two Types of People Who Are Prone to Boredom
There are many factors that affect how often we get bored. One factor identified by researcher John Eastwood is how easily our brains become aroused. What’s interesting is that people on opposite ends of the arousal spectrum are equally likely to be bored.
First, people who have difficulty achieving a state of cognitive arousal are prone to boredom. If you’re this type of person, you’re probably a thrill seeker. It takes so much to get your brain going that you’re willing to risk it all to escape the boredom that always threatens to return.
According to Eastwood, people whose brains are easily aroused are also likely to suffer from chronic boredom. If you’re one of these “highly sensitive people,” you are likely to experience symptoms of anxiety. You may find the stimulation of everyday activities like going to the grocery store to be completely overwhelming. As a result, you may recover from these stressors by secluding yourself in soothing environments that are inherently boring. The price you pay for not feeling anxious is feeling bored.
Both types are at risk of developing compulsive behaviours or becoming depressed.
Why is MY life so boring?
Are you depressed?
Boredom and depression both arise from a state of low psychological arousal and are linked to low levels of dopamine. They can become two parts of a vicious cycle: people who can’t overcome boredom become depressed and people who are depressed often feel bored.
One of the major distinguishing factors between a typical state of boredom and the anhedonia of depression is how hard each is to overcome. When we’re bored, we can usually find something to do to re-engage with the world and feel pleasure. When we’re depressed, however, it’s hard to find anything to bring us out of our bleak, grey mood.
This is what makes depression so dangerous. When we try to feel better and fail, again and again, we start to feel hopeless. Others’ repeated attempts to help can alienate them from us when we don’t respond. For this reason it’s important to reach out for help when we become depressed. Professional intervention, whether through talk therapy, medication, or other approaches, is specifically targeted to break this cycle.
Are you lonely?
One way to understand loneliness is to think of it as a specific type of boredom caused by a lack of social stimulation. Just as our brains drive us to seek new experiences, they drive us to seek connection with others. And similarly to how we may feel bored in a stimulating environment, we can feel lonely even when we are surrounded by other people.
Feelings of loneliness can arise even more sharply when we feel like we are failing at attempts to connect or feel like other people don’t understand us. Both depression and loneliness feed on a cycle of negative thoughts in which we see events and social interactions in a negative light. Chronic loneliness puts the brain into a “self-preservation mode” that makes it easier for us to feel threatened and withdraw from others.
Loneliness has been shown to carry significant health risks. Just like depression and anxiety make it hard for us to seek or find relief from boredom, they make it hard for us to break the painful cycle of loneliness. We have to reach out and risk being vulnerable, which requires us to move out of our comfort zone.
No matter what our minds tell us when we’re in a depressed state, we’re never as alone as we think we are. Once we do the courageous thing and reach out, we will find a way to connect again.
Do you have enough meaning in your life?
Existential boredom arises when an inability to feel excited by life is paired with the belief that life is meaningless. Someone suffering from existential boredom might ask “What’s the point of life?”. This more philosophical mood is also known as ennui, a state of weariness with the world.
If you’re feeling ennui, you’ll see attempts to alleviate boredom as futile and inauthentic. Your boredom is more deeply-rooted than you not having something fun to do. In your philosophical funk, you find even the concept of fun suspicious. You see people who are always looking for the next bit of entertainment as trying to avoid truths about life that you’re staring in the face—especially the truth that life is absurd.
While this perspective can be caustic, it has a silver lining: it can drive a search for meaning. When we try to alleviate feelings of depression, loneliness, or boredom with superficial entertainment, we rarely experience deep or lasting resolution. Meaningful experiences, on the other hand, can lead us to life-changing shifts in perspective and the discovery of a personal sense of purpose.
How to Overcome Boredom
For mild cases of boredom, relief might be as near at hand as a few runs through a mobile game or an episode of a favourite show on Netflix. For more severe or chronic cases of depressive boredom or ennui, more is needed.
The key to overcoming any type of boredom is training your attention. You can make anything more interesting if you convince your brain to pay attention to it. The brain is easy to trick; a short period of sustained focus is all it takes, and suddenly, the most boring thing you’ve ever seen is deeply fascinating.
Psychiatrist Judson Brewer pegs curiosity as the essential ingredient in this transformation. When we practice mindfulness – being attentive to whatever is happening in the moment – we break free from compulsive inattention, and we experience dopamine flooding through our systems.
Late Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa also recommended training the mind, specifically through meditation, as a way to overcome boredom. He taught his students to make boredom itself an object of focus during meditation and learn how to relate to the experience of boredom in a different way. The result is what Trungpa called “cool boredom”: a calming type of boredom stripped of any feeling of aversion to it.
The best way to resolve deeper states of boredom, especially ennui, is to seek meaning. Research shows not only that a sense of boredom and a lack of life meaning are closely related and predictive of one another, but that we naturally take action to create meaning when we feel bored, reconfiguring boring objects in our mind to align them with something that has more personal meaning. This is what we are doing when we see faces in clouds. This deeply human tendency reflects our creative capacity, one of our most powerful tools for conquering boredom.
The Power of Creativity
When our brains are quiet—and bored—the “default mode network” kicks in. This pattern of brain activity is associated with “daydreaming, imagination, and self-referential thought.” Artists, writers, and other creative types are deeply familiar with it, as letting the mind wander is an important early stage of the creative process.
The writer Brenda Ueland calls it “moodling,” which she defines as “long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, and puttering… the dreamy idleness that children have, an idleness when you walk alone for a long, long time, or take a long, dreamy time at dressing, or lie in bed at night and thoughts come and go, or dig in a garden, or drive a car for many hours alone, or play the piano, or sew, or paint ALONE.”
Nietzsche wrote that artists “require a lot of boredom if their work is to succeed. For thinkers and all sensitive spirits, boredom is that disagreeable ‘windless calm’ of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds. They have to bear it and must wait for its effect on them.”
“Our boredom often contains the seeds for our brilliance. It’s in our so-called boredom that we travel to those liminal spaces, unpaved roads, and uncharted waters, where everything is an unknown and anything is possible. This is the place where our most provocative, resonant and impactful work emerges.” – Srinivas Rao
Flow States: The Antidote to Boredom
Srinivas Rao also notes that depth, or an “intensity of focus” achieved through removing distractions and training the mind, “is the precursor to flow.”
“Flow,” a term coined by positive psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is a state in which you are so engaged by a challenging task and so profoundly focused that your sense of self and the chatter of narrative thinking fall away. In other words, the default network gets incredibly quiet.
There are steps you can take to increase the chances of entering a flow state, which is most common during athletic or creative activity. These include making sure the task is something that gives you immediate feedback and that allows you to set clear goals.
Just as boredom arises from being unable to pay attention, flow arises from having our attention captured fully by what we’re doing. Whether we’re pushing ourselves to excel physically in a fitness routine, engaging in a complex creative activity, or practising a meditative discipline, there are countless ways to get our brains to engage. This natural focus is enhanced when we find a sense of purpose and meaning in these activities.
It’s true that we can fight boredom by seeking distraction, but we need other, deeper alternatives to keep from falling into a destructive pattern of craving and compulsion. By finding goals to pursue that mean something more than just “fun,” we can not only beat boredom but build a life that matters: one that is satisfying, creative, and fully engaged with the world.