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Researchers seek to answer: Can we be ‘bored to death’?

Posted on 06-04-16 in Mental Health, Research

Researchers seek to answer: Can we be ‘bored to death’?

No one likes to be bored, but we’ve all been there. Everyone has experienced boredom at some point in their lives, whether it was while sitting in traffic, at work or school, or at home alone on a Friday night.

Boredom is an uncomfortable experience that is often triggered by a lack of stimulation, engagement, arousal or meaning. As boredom can be unpleasant, many of us try to avoid it. Nowadays, we often keep our minds constantly engaged and comfortably entertained with inexpensive and easily accessible stimuli such as games, social media like Facebook and Instagram, books, music and YouTube videos. While we are very much living in an electronic world, reliance on the seemingly endless list of distractions can actually make us more susceptible to experiencing boredom in the long run.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying to spare ourselves from being bored — researchers say that people will do nearly anything to avoid being present and to distract themselves from the monotonous and mundane activities in their lives. Researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University found that people have difficulty spending as little as six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do. In fact, people preferred mundane activities and administering electric shocks to themselves over boredom.

The relationship between boredom and attention

School-aged children who complain about being bored may be more likely to have difficulty paying attention in classroom settings or might start fights with parents to get attention when they are bored. Young people who use electronic devices, video games and television shows to alleviate their boredom may actually be doing themselves a disservice by relying on external stimuli, as children who rely on external stimulation are less likely to rely on their own internal resources or create activities to reduce their boredom.

Researchers have suggested that boredom oscillates between low- and high-arousal states —sometimes people may become lethargic when they are bored, while other times they may feel agitated and restless. Given the close relationship between attention and boredom, it makes sense that people with attention problems such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have difficulty on tasks requiring sustained attention and are more likely to experience boredom. At the same time, people who are bored may also be more likely to have difficulty sustaining attention and concentrating on a mundane task.

Boredom and mental health

Despite being a universal experience, very little is known about the consequences of boredom on our mental health. Researchers have also found an association between boredom and depressive disorders and ADHD. James Danckert, Ph.D., a professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of psychology at the University of Waterloo, and his colleagues investigated the relationship between boredom, sustained attention and adult symptoms of ADHD, and found that individuals who were prone to experiencing high boredom were more likely to perform poorly on measures of sustained attention and had increased symptoms of ADHD.

Interestingly, Danckert and his colleagues found that individuals who were high in boredom proneness were also more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Researchers have suggested that boredom may lead to depression through the disengagement from satisfying activities, which help to promote an internal focus and rumination. When people ruminate, they tend to replay a problem repeatedly in their minds — repetitively thinking about the causes, factors and consequences of a situation that is upsetting to them.

Furthermore, people with clinical depression may experience the hallmark symptom of anhedonia — the inability to experience pleasure from normally enjoyed activities. These individuals may be more likely to withdraw from the outside world and from activities that would typically help someone feel less bored.

Boredom and physical health

Annie Britton, Ph.D., a reader and senior lecturer in epidemiology, and Martin J. Shipley, both from the department of epidemiology and public health at University College London, investigated the validity of the expression “bored to death.” They used a sample of 7,524 men and women to investigate the consequences of boredom on physical health. The participants were civil servants living in London who were aged from 35 to 55 years old.

Britton and Shipley found that people who reported being bored were more likely to die younger than those who were not bored at all, and people who reported being bored quite a lot or a great deal were more likely to die from cardiovascular disease. In addition, women, younger people, those with worse health, lower employment grades and lower levels of physical activity were more likely to report that they were bored quite a lot or a great deal.

Substance abuse and boredom

A recent study used longitudinal data from 2,580 adolescents with substance abuse as they progressed from eighth to 11th grade. The researchers investigated the relationship between adolescent substance abuse and trait boredom (i.e., typical level of boredom no matter what the situation) and state boredom (i.e., situational boredom). They found that adolescents with higher trait boredom were more likely to use substances. In addition, prototypical adolescents used more substances when they had higher state boredom. This study indicated that adolescent substance abuse may be more likely to occur when young people use substances to make a situation less boring.

An earlier study also found that teens with high stress or who were frequently bored were more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and use illegal drugs. According to the results of the 2003 National Survey of American Attitudes on Substance Abuse VIII: Teens and Parents by CASAColumbia at Columbia University, teens who were highly stressed were twice as likely to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs compared to teens with low stress. In addition, teens who were often bored were 50 percent more likely to smoke, drink, get drunk and use illegal drugs compared to teens who were not often bored.

Boredom in recovery

Many people may drink and use drugs because when they are bored. In fact, boredom is one of the biggest challenges that may blindside people who are early in recovery. Developing skills to cope with anxiety, depression, boredom and stress as well as making a plan for when boredom (and other triggers) strike can make a huge difference for people in recovery and greatly reduce the risk of relapse.

At Sovereign Health, people in recovery for substance abuse and dependence receive comprehensive aftercare programs after their treatment programs to help them stay sober and deal with triggers in life after treatment. The Sovereign Health Group is a leading provider of behavioral health treatment services for people with mental illnesses, substance abuse and dependence and co-occurring disorders. For more information about Sovereign Health’s treatment programs, please contact our 24/7 helpline.

About the author

Amanda Habermann is a writer for the Sovereign Health Group. A graduate of California Lutheran University, she received her M.S. in clinical psychology with an emphasis in psychiatric rehabilitation. She brings to the team her background in research, testing and assessment, diagnosis and recovery techniques. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at