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.
“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.”
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Some theories emphasize the role of the situation, some emphasize the role of the person, and some emphasize the interaction between situation and person in causing boredom. The present study examines these models by determining whether boredom propensity (person) and/or experimental condition (situation) independently or in interaction affected state boredom. The study also examined the relative contribution of behavioural activation and inhibition to state boredom. Boredom propensity and condition significantly and independently predicted state boredom, as did the interaction between behavioural inhibition and condition. Implications are discussed, including the possibility of two distinct causes of boredom.
If he can maintain his concentration, Goetz intends to continue his own research into understanding the nature of boredom. He wants to measure physiological signs of arousal, which could one day add a new component to wearable health trackers. He’s also interested in investigating whether specific boredom types correspond to different age levels and cultures. “There are many important questions to be answered related to the boredom types,” he says.
The French loanword ennui comes from the very same Late Latin word that gave us annoy — inodiare ("to make loathsome"). We borrowed ennui several centuries after absorbing annoy into the language. Ennui deals more with boredom than irritation - and a somewhat specific sort of boredom at that. It generally refers to the feeling of jadedness that can result from living a life of too much ease. The poet Charles Lloyd described it well in his 1823 Stanzas to Ennui when he referred to that world-weary sensation as a "soul-destroying fiend" which visits with its "pale unrest / The chambers of the human breast / Where too much happiness hath fixed its home."