Bored to Death

In which bored children result in a review of the scientific literature on the topic. 

Things are getting tough in the Green household. My daughter has been off school for a week now and the dreaded cry has been heard in our house: 'I'M BORED!'. This is even more painful, as I know from bitter experience there are only two outcomes to this: either I embark with my daughter on a long, complex yet ultimately futile game of her own creation or put up with 'I'm bored', 'won't you play?', 'it's not fair', 'I'm bored', etc, for hours—not much of a choice.

The only person who thinks this situation is amusing is my mother. When I look for sympathy, she happily relates how I as a child reported to her I was bored every 30 seconds from the age of 5-15. She without fail would reply 'i wish I had time to be bored, why don't you do some ironing.' Ah, it was such a happy childhood.

Now my daughter is tied to a stake in the garden. That will take her a good three hours to chew through while I do a bit of research into the psychology of boredom. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly there isn't a huge literature on this emotional state. Research grants and volunteers are tough enough to find for 'sexy' topics, but finding $1 million to invest in boredom is always going to be a tough sell.

One interesting if slightly worrying result for those of us prone to boredom is that it may reduce your life expectancy. Researchers combined data from the Whitehall II study and death records and found high levels of boredom correlated strongly with early death. The researchers accept that this is just a correlation and that boredom may be a marker for all sorts of causative factors. See here for the paper in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

The experience of boredom is not a consistent one, it can be experienced as apathy and withdrawal from the world or as a restless irritable state. One thing worth noting for anyone who falls foul of the law; a study found jurors were harsher on guilty defendants when bored. Keep that in mind and at least be entertaining in court.

 Another thrilling day in the life of Russian souvenir sales   Photo by Adam Jones

Another thrilling day in the life of Russian souvenir sales

Photo by Adam Jones

There also seems to be a link between people at the extremes of risk taking. Both thrill-seekers and the over-cautious find themselves at risk of increased boredom. Perhaps given the link between attention and boredom those with ADHD also report high levels of boredom.

At a more philosophical level the philosopher Schopenhauer saw boredom as the inevitable consequence of striving for happiness; once we get what we want it loses it's value. He saw this as the futility of striving for happiness. 

As boredom is not only unplesant but seems to carry health risks can anything be done to avoid it? Well, enter Hollywood, Candy Crush and QI. The whole function of the entertainment industry in all its forms is to help us live longer. Who knew!

Here's a bit of British humor to make you healthier. Enjoy!