“The two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom,” observed Mark Twain, America’s most revered writer. Though Twain (nee Samuel Clemens) was no psychologist but trained in journalism, his insights into human personality have endured for more than a century. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyerand other novels, Twain depicted the emotionally stultifying effects of small-town 19th-century American life upon its restless youth. From school and church to the anti-saloon efforts of the “Cadets of Temperance” for which they were recruited, Tom Sawyer and his friends were painfully bored with their social world. For the writer Herman Melville, too, boredom was a major theme—especially inMoby Dick—but also in his earlier stories in settings quite different from New England whaling expeditions. But lest you think that boredom was a uniquely American phenomenon, it’s useful to know that the word was actually popularized by Charles Dickens in his 1852 novel Bleak House—describing the mental state of wealthy Londoners.
The psychiatrist Otto Fenichel—a protégé of Sigmund Freud—was among the first psychoanalysts to develop an extended theory of boredom. Titled On the Psychology of Boredom,it was published in German in 1934. Distinguishing between what he called “normal” and “pathological” boredom, Fenichel explained that normal boredom emerges when we can’t do what we want to do—or when we must do what we don’t want to do. In either situation, Fenichel asserted, something expected or desired doesn’t happen. But in pathological boredom, “[the behavior] fails to occur because the [person] represses his instinctual [desires] out of anxiety.”
The rise of humanistic psychology in the 1960s brought a more sophisticated view of boredom. Emphasizing personality growth and authenticity, theorists led by Abraham Maslow saw boredom as almost inevitable when we stifle our higher needs for learning, creativity, and contributing to create a better world. For example, in an influential article titled “The Need to Know and the Fear of Knowing,” Maslow described a case of informal counseling he had conducted some 25 years before—during the Great Depression—with a brilliant young woman who had sought his guidance. Her complaint? Intense boredom with life and physical boredom expressed in a variety of symptoms including insomnia, lack of appetite, and low libido. Though gaining a well-paying job as an assistant personnel manager at a New York City chewing-gum factory, she felt that (in Maslow’s description) she was “wasting her life” in this work and “profoundly frustrated and angry” about not applying her intellect and talent in psychology. Maslow recommended that the young woman continue her graduate studies at night, after work—and as a result, “she became more alive, more happy and zestful, and most of her physical symptoms ‘disappeared’ by their last counseling session.” In Maslow’s view, boredom disappears when we pursue personally meaningful knowledge or skills.
Rollo May was another co-founder of humanistic psychology. He argued that the mental state of feeling bored originates when we’re very young—and though unpleasant, it’s necessary in learning how to live creatively and zestfully. “If you’re going to avoid boredom as an adult,” he observed, “You have to learn to face it as a child…Boredom pulls you into your own imagination. You have to learn to be alone, to use your imagination on a deeper level.” In May’s view, failure to deal effectively with boredom during childhood has important consequences for our adult years—leading to both conformity and stagnation.
Today, there’s growing scientific evidence that chronic boredom is behind many types of addictive behaviors—ranging from alcoholism and drug abuse to excessive gambling and over-eating. For example, in a pioneering study involving more than 1,300 participants in the UK, Dr Glenn Wilson found that boredom was a major cause of over-eating, especially among women. Based on this finding, Wilson opined that, “The importance of monotony as a motivator for eating in women may be connected with the housewife lifestyle which is widely recognized as unrewarding compared with the more typically male career pattern.” More recently, an experimental study led by Dr Remco Havermans at Maastricht University in Holland showed that people obliged to watch a monotonous 60-minute film segment ate approximately twice as many chocolate candies as those who watched an interesting documentary. The researchers concluded that, “Boredom is a powerful emotional state motivating food consumption.”
Pathological or problem gambling has also been linked to boredom. In an oft-cited Australian study, a team led by Dr Alex Blaszcynski found that persons receiving treatment for uncontrollable gambling urges and behavior scored significantly higher on boredom proneness (as well as depression) than a matched control group. On the basis of such studies, Blaszsynski and his colleagues have argued that several distinct personality types are likely to develop difficulties involving gambling, particularly those who plunge quickly into boredom. As the researchers noted, “Not only [are] these individuals chronically bored, but even the action provided by gambling [becomes] boring unless it [is] novel, varied, and capable of producing increasing levels of arousal.”
Much of the health research on the dangers of boredom has focused on adolescents. A seminal study led by Dr Seppo Iso-Ahola at the University of Maryland found that teenage substance abusers were significantly more bored with leisure activities than non-substance abusers. According to a 2003 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, teenagers who reported that they were frequently bored increased their likelihood of substance abuse by 50% compared to those who said they were rarely or never bored.
Studies in countries as different from the USA as South Africa and the UK have likewise found a strong link between boredom and teenage substance abuse. In a survey of over 1,000 adolescents, the British charity Drinkaware found that 8% of 16 and 17-year-olds drank alcohol at least once a week simply because they were bored, and 29% reported that they had imbibed at least once due to boredom. In a study involving over 1,000 South African adolescents, leisure boredom (measured by such survey items as “Free time is boring” and “Free time drags on and on”) significantly predicted usage of alcohol, cigarettes, and marijuana during the previous four weeks. Even more strikingly, a one-unit increase in self-reported boredom was associated with a 14% increase in the likelihood of drinking alcohol, a 23% increase in the likelihood of cigarette smoking, and a 36% increase in the likelihood of using marijuana during that time.
Overcoming Boredom: A Guided Activity
How can you best prevent yourself from becoming bored? Nearly everyone gets bored from time to time, but chronic boredom is a serious obstacle to daily wellbeing. If your workplace or home hours aren’t stimulating you sufficiently, here’s a useful activity:
Select a country that you’ve never visited, but which you’re curious about. Over the next three weeks, learn about its history, culture including traditional and current music and arts, cuisine, industry, language, politics, and natural environment. Keep a separate notebook to jot intriguing topics from your web explorations and a folder for downloads. You’ll undoubtedly gain new knowledge and generate further interests. When you feel ready, decide if you’d like to plan a visit—and what most whets your curiosity.
Dr Edward Hoffman is an adjunct associate psychology professor at Yeshiva University in New York City. A licensed clinical psychologist in private practice, he is the author/editor of more than 25 books in psychology and related fields. Dr. Hoffman is the recent co-author with Dr. William Compton of Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing, and serves on the editorial boards of the Indian Journal of Positive Psychology and the Journal of Humanistic Psychology. You can write to him at email@example.com