Why We Get Bored

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Scientists are taking on boredom. No, they aren't working on a cure just yet, but they have written a new definition of boredom and outlined the mental processes behind ennui.

The researchers, led by psychological scientist John Eastwood of York University in Ontario, Canada, define boredom as "an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity," which springs from failures in one of the brain's attention networks.

The findings, detailed in the September issue of the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, may speak to many Americans: In a large survey of high-school students across 26 U.S. states reported in 2007, researchers found two out of three students said they were bored in class every day. A 2003 national survey found 91 percent of young Americans polled said they experienced boredom, according to Eastwood and his colleagues.

And while seemingly benign, though little understood, boredom can be a chronic condition that may lead to issues like binge eating, drug and alcohol abuse and gambling problems. Boredom at work could even cause serious accidents for truck drivers, hospital workers and other employees whose vigilance matters. [7 Thoughts That Are Bad For You]

To get a better handle on boredom and its causes, Eastwood's team looked at past research on attention and boredom.

German psychologist Theodor Lipps proposed one of the earliest definitions of boredom in 1903, saying, "Boredom is a feeling of unpleasure arising out of a conflict between a need for intense mental activity and lack of incitement to it, or inability to be incited," the researchers note in their paper. Other similar definitions suggested bored individuals longed for mental engagement, though these descriptions did not require awareness of the blasé feelings. To be bored, some scientists reasoned, "is to be in a state of longing for activity but unaware of what it is that one desires and to look to the world to solve the impasse," Eastwood and colleagues write.

Attention and awareness, however, seem to be key to this aimless state. The new review suggests we get bored when we have difficulty paying attention to the internal information, such as thoughts or feelings, or outside stimuli required for taking part in satisfying activity; when we're aware of the fact that we're having difficulty paying attention; and when we blame the environment for our sorry state, thinking, "This task is boring," or "There is nothing to do."

Eastwood and his colleagues hope a better definition could lead to a better understanding of boredom, and eventually help along the development of strategies to ease the bored masses.

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Live Science Staff
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