Only in the last decade has there been much scientific research looking into the nature of boredom. In 2006, a study classified boredom into four different types, with a follow-up study published this month in the journal Motivation and Emotion adding a fifth kind of boredom, called apathetic boredom, to the list. The researchers involved in the study had 63 university students and 80 high school students answer smartphone-based surveys about their activities and experiences over the course of two weeks.
Erich Fromm and other thinkers of critical theory speak of boredom as a common psychological response to industrial society, where people are required to engage in alienated labor. According to Fromm, boredom is "perhaps the most important source of aggression and destructiveness today." For Fromm, the search for thrills and novelty that characterizes consumer culture are not solutions to boredom, but mere distractions from boredom which, he argues, continues unconsciously. Above and beyond taste and character, the universal case of boredom consists in any instance of waiting, as Heidegger noted, such as in line, for someone else to arrive or finish a task, or while one is travelling somewhere. The automobile requires fast reflexes, making its operator busy and hence, perhaps for other reasons as well, making the ride more tedious despite being over sooner.
These authors suggest that attention plays an important role in creating boredom. In particular, there are a few conditions that need to be met for people to feel bored. First, people need to have a reasonable level of psychological energy or arousal to feel bored. When people have low arousal and there is not much happening in the world, then they often feel relaxed. When they have high arousal, though, they have energy they would like to devote to something, but they cannot find anything engaging.
This example leads to another key aspect of boredom. As Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek point out, bored people become aware of their difficulty concentrating. As a result, bored people often try to amuse themselves by daydreaming and letting their mind wander. Interestingly, while mind wandering helps people to keep their minds occupied, studies suggest that the more your mind wanders, the more bored you feel. The idea is that you recognize that this daydreaming is meant to occupy your mind, and so you realize that the situation is boring.
“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.”
“Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing. The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament—the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana—is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea. The same applies to the seder at Passover, which is obviously modeled on the Platonic symposium: questions are asked (especially of the young) while wine is circulated. No better form of sodality has ever been devised: at Oxford one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials. The tongue must be untied. It's not a coincidence that Omar Khayyam, rebuking and ridiculing the stone-faced Iranian mullahs of his time, pointed to the value of the grape as a mockery of their joyless and sterile regime. Visiting today's Iran, I was delighted to find that citizens made a point of defying the clerical ban on booze, keeping it in their homes for visitors even if they didn't particularly take to it themselves, and bootlegging it with great brio and ingenuity. These small revolutions affirm the human.”
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.
Flow is a state of total immersion in a task that is challenging yet closely matched to one’s abilities, akin to “being in the zone.” Flow occurs when a person’s skills match the level of challenge presented by the environment and when a task includes clear goals and immediate feedback. Tasks that are too easy are boring. In contrast, tasks that people perceive to be too difficult lead to anxiety.