By Alex Fradera
“The truth is that everyone is bored,” according to Albert Camus – but a new article in the journal Emotion gets beyond sweeping statements in the most comprehensive study of everyday boredom to date. The nationally-representative sample of 4000 American adults used an iPhone app to record their mood every waking half-hour, with boredom turning up in only three per cent of entries. When boredom was present, it was often mixed with other negative emotions, like loneliness and sadness, and rarely with positive ones. Surprisingly, boredom had a strong relationship with anger, which goes against the idea that boredom, itself low-arousal, cannot mix with more intense feelings.
The survey also broke down boredom demographically, and found people with lower income and less education were, on average, more likely to be bored than others, whereas women and married people were less likely to be bored.
These group differences might seem to back up the assertion of another author, GK Chesterton, who said “there are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people”. But Alycia Chin, collaborating with a team from Carnegie Mellon University, found that a large chunk of the differences were explained by how different groups used their time. For instance, 30 per cent of the difference in boredom levels between men and women was accounted for by how much time they spent doing what turned out to be less boring activities – sports, exercise, personal grooming, time with friends and family – versus activities where boredom rates were higher, like study, working, and interacting with strangers. In other words, boredom may reflect what a person does with their time rather than being intrinsic to them.
In fact, looking at the full range of variability in boredom levels recorded in the study, only 17 per cent of this variance was between participants, the rest was down to fluctuations in individual participants’ boredom from one moment to the next, reinforcing the idea that boredom is much less about who you are than about what you do. On the whole, it looks like we’re pretty good at keeping away from the shrugging, yawning side of life, but we do even better when free to do the things we want to do.