Different scholars use different definitions of boredom, which complicates research. Boredom has been defined by Cynthia D. Fisher in terms of its main central psychological processes: "an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest and difficulty concentrating on the current activity." Mark Leary et al. describe boredom as "an affective experience associated with cognitive attentional processes." In positive psychology, boredom is described as a response to a moderate challenge for which the subject has more than enough skill.[full citation needed]
Boredom is similar to mental fatigue and is caused by repetition and lack of interest in the details of our tasks (such as tasks that require continuous attention, waiting at the airport, prisoners locked in cells). Any experience that is predictable and repetitive becomes boring. In general, too much of the same thing and too little stimulation can cause in its victim an absence of desire and a feeling of entrapment (Toohey, 2012).
Thomas Goetz, the lead researcher of the work and a professor at the University of Konstanz in Germany, says the multiple types of boredom can be loosely characterized along two dimensions. First, whether it is associated with a positive (score of 1) or negative (score of 5) emotion, and second, by degree of arousal, from calm (score of 1) to fidgety (score of 5).
The bored antihero became prominent in early 20th century existentialist works such as Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis (1915), Jean-Paul Sartre's La Nausée (1938) (French for 'Nausea'), and Albert Camus' L'Étranger (1942) (French for 'The Stranger'). The protagonist in these works is an indecisive central character who drifts through his life and is marked by ennui, angst, and alienation.
There are three types of boredom, all of which involve problems of engagement of attention. These include times when we are prevented from engaging in wanted activity, when we are forced to engage in unwanted activity, or when we are simply unable for some other reason to maintain engagement in an activity. Boredom proneness is a tendency to experience boredom of all types. This is typically assessed by the Boredom Proneness Scale. Recent research has found that boredom proneness is clearly and consistently associated with failures of attention. Boredom and its proneness are both theoretically and empirically linked to depression and similar symptoms. Nonetheless, boredom proneness has been found to be as strongly correlated with attentional lapses as with depression. Although boredom is often viewed as a trivial and mild irritant, proneness to boredom has been linked to a very diverse range of possible psychological, physical, educational, and social problems.
“To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient, low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly…but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places any more but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airport gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkman, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.”
“Boredom is a flight from what is important. Like workaholism and perfectionism, it is a way of distracting yourself from inner experiences. It occurs when you look outward and do not find anything to engage your attention. Instead of feeling your emotions - becoming aware of the functioning of your energy system - you become bored. Boredom ... is a flight from your higher potential. It is fear of the transformation that wants to occur, and will occur in you, when you explore your emotions. It is your resistance to spiritual growth.”
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Without stimulus or focus, the individual is confronted with nothingness, the meaninglessness of existence, and experiences existential anxiety. Heidegger states this idea as follows: "Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference. This boredom reveals being as a whole." Schopenhauer used the existence of boredom in an attempt to prove the vanity of human existence, stating, "...for if life, in the desire for which our essence and existence consists, possessed in itself a positive value and real content, there would be no such thing as boredom: mere existence would fulfil and satisfy us."
One more key element of boredom is control. Boredom often occurs when you have little control over your situation. Waiting rooms, lectures, and airline gates are all places where you have little control over your situation. Normally, we react to unpleasant situations by changing the situation. If you don’t like a book you are reading, for example, you close it and do something else. Boredom happens when you are unable to change the situation.
The French term for boredom, ennui, is sometimes used in English as well, at least since 1778. The term ennui was first used "as a French word in English;" in the 1660s and it was "nativized by 1758". The term ennui comes "from French ennui, from Old French enui "annoyance" (13c.), [a] back-formation from enoiier, anuier. "The German word for "boredom" expresses this: Langeweile, a compound made of lange "long" and Weile "while", which is in line with the common perception that when one is bored, time passes "tortuously" slowly.
Boredom also has its benefits. It is important to see boredom as a “call to action” (Svendsen, 1999). Nietzsche suggested that men of rare sensibility value boredom as an impetus to achievement. Boredom can be a catalyst for action. It can provide an opportunity for thought and reflection. It can also be a sign that a task is a waste of time—and thus not worth continuing.