GUELPH — Despite the fact boredom is a universal experience, we know very little about it, says Mark Fenske, a professor of psychology at the University of Guelph.
Which is why he collaborated with lead researcher John Eastwood at York University and Daniel Smilek at the University of Waterloo to come up with a definition of the phenomenon.
“We all know what boredom feels like but there are different aspects to it,” Fenske said in a recent phone interview. “Is it a lack of energy or motivation that does it, or too much energy that causes the subject to disengage? Then there’s the emotional part — aversion to a task, or frustration.
“As well, we have to distinguish it from other states, like apathy, depression and anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure.) They are not the same as boredom, but boredom is part of it.”
The three researchers pooled their funds and jointly hired post-doctoral student Alexandra Frischen to help with their work.
After reviewing existing psychological and neuroscience studies, the researchers came up with a definition, which was recently published in Perspectives on Psychological Science by the Association for Psychological Science.
They define boredom as “an aversive state of wanting, but being unable to engage in satisfying activity because of failures in the brain’s attention network.”
Put in a different way, a person becomes bored when: they have difficulty paying attention to internal information such as thoughts or feelings, or outside stimuli necessary to engage in satisfying activity; when they are aware they are having difficulty paying attention; and when they blame the environment for feeling this way, as in ‘there’s nothing to do’ or ‘this job is boring.’
Fenske said there’s a strong link between boredom and depression, problem gambling and substance abuse. How we spend our time during these idle periods to alleviate boredom is a sign of maturity, he said.
“Most people dismiss it out of hand, and it can seem trivial. But it’s not,” Fenske said. “When it comes to mental illness and especially to recovery from substance abuse, boredom factors heavily. The worst trigger for relapse is stress, but the next is boredom.”
Now that there’s a definition and an understanding of the underlying processes, the way is paved for more research on boredom, Fenske said, and that’s exciting.
“For example, we now know that attention is an important part of boredom, and we know a lot about attention,” he said. “That gives us some tools to start with.”
Fenske came to the University of Guelph in 2007 and in 2010 he co-wrote the book The Winner’s Brain: 8 Strategies Great Minds Use to Achieve Success with Harvard Medical School Psychologist Jeff Brown.