The Good, The Bad, and The Bored

Boredom is a common emotion that most of us have probably experienced at one point or another. It is usually unpleasant and involves the feeling that current activities (or lack thereof!) are without any purpose. In fact, the philosopher Kierkegaard once famously described boredom as “the root of all evil” and Sartre dramatically proclaimed that boredom is a “leprosy of the soul.” Are these claims justified? Is boredom really so horrible? A superficial glance at the scientific literature seems to confirm this picture: people who tend to get bored easily are more likely to be depressed, anxious, aggressive, irresponsible, eating unhealthily, dangerously impulsive, pathological gamblers, and so on…

But is that really true? Are these unpleasant correlates, and there are many of them, all there is to boredom? Or can boredom in some way be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’? My experimental work at King’s College London in collaboration with Dr Eric Igou (University of Limerick) sheds some light on the issue: Rather than boredom being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it is better to think of boredom as psychologically functional: it encourages people to search for more meaningful engagement. This search for meaning that boredom triggers can have various outcomes, both good and bad. For example, bored people are more likely to express hostility towards outgroup members and they become more extreme in their political orientations. On the other hand, boredom can foster nostalgic reverie, which usually makes people feel pleasant, connected to their loved ones, and boosts creativity. What each of these responses to boredom has in common is that it offers people a sense of purpose. Perhaps the creative thinking resulting from boredom that Dr Sandi Mann (University of Central Lancaster) talks about is another expression of this ‘quest for meaning’ that boredom triggers.

So, is boredom ‘bad’? It can be… Is boredom ‘good’? It can be… Above all, boredom serves a psychological function: it helps people disengage from activities that seem to serve no purpose in favour of behaviours that offer them a sense of meaning. In that sense, boredom can make life meaningful.

Written by:

Dr Wijnand van Tilburg

Dr Wijnand van Tilburg

Lecturer in Psychology

Department of Psychology, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience

Feeling like some more boredom? Here is some further reading:

Mann, S., & Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal, 26, 165-173. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2014.901073

Moynihan, A. D., Van Tilburg, W. A. P., Igou, E. R., Wisman, A., Donnelly, A., & Mulcaire, J. (2015). Eaten up by boredom: Unhealthy eating alleviates a lack of sensation and aversive self-awareness under boredom. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00369

Van Tilburg, W. A. P., & Igou, E. R. (2011). On boredom and social identity: A pragmatic meaning-regulation approach. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 37, 1679-1691. doi: 10.1177/0146167211418530

Van Tilburg, W. A. P., & Igou, E. R. (in press). Going to political extremes in response to boredom. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Van Tilburg, W. A. P., Igou, E. R., & Sedikides, C. (2013). In search of meaningfulness: Using nostalgia as an antidote to boredom. Emotion, 13, 450-461. doi: 10.1037/a0030442

Van Tilburg, W. A. P., Sedikides, C., & Wildschut, T. (2015). The mnemonic muse: Nostalgia fosters creativity through openness to experience. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 59, 1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2015.02.002