The word ennui literally describes “boredom.” Ennui is a kind of listless apathy in which one has lost all motivation or interest. Nothing satisfies. I'm reminded of the theme in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes: “vanity of vanity...all is vanity.”
Boredom has become one of the plagues of our age. And, if you haven't thought much about it before, I want to alert you to the dangers. Boredom, particularly in its more chronic manifestations, is worse than you might think. Research has linked extreme boredom to everything from depression to alcoholism. In fact, I would suggest that boredom is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to many of our modern psychiatric conditions. Perhaps it ranks up there with such other notables as guilt and shame. Let's talk about why it's such a concern and what we can do about it.
Philosophers and social commentators have acknowledged the life-sapping problem of boredom since the ancient Greeks. But only in the last fifty years or so have they tried to study it scientifically. Among the most groundbreaking research was that of Farmer and Sundberg who, in the 1980s, not only studied boredom in real people but also developed important theoretical constructs underlying it. It was these two researchers who also designed a way to measure boredom. It's probably the most famous boredom test: the Boredom Proneness Scale. Here is what it looks like:
Boredom Proneness Scale
1 – Highly Disagree
2 - Disagree
3 – Somewhat Disagree
4 – Neither Agree nor Disagree
5 – Somewhat Agree
6 - Agree
7 – Highly Agree
_____ 1. It is easy for me to concentrate on my activities.
_____ 2. Frequently when I am working I find myself worrying about other things.
_____ 3. Time always seems to be passing slowly.
_____ 4. I often find myself at "loose ends", not knowing what to do.
_____ 5. I am often trapped in situations where I have to do meaningless things.
_____ 6. Having to look at someone's home movies or travel slides bores me tremendously.
_____ 7. I have projects in mind all the time, things to do.
_____ 8. I find it easy to entertain myself.
_____ 9. Many things I have to do are repetitive and monotonous.
_____ 10. It takes more stimulation to get me going than most people.
_____ 11. I get a kick out of most things I do.
_____ 12. I am seldom excited about my work.
_____ 13. In any situation I can usually find something to do or see to keep me interested.
_____ 14. Much of the time I just sit around doing nothing.
_____ 15. I am good at waiting patiently.
_____ 16. I often find myself with nothing to do, time on my hands.
_____ 17. In situations where I have to wait, such as a line I get very restless.
_____ 18. I often wake up with a new idea.
_____ 19. It would be very hard for me to find a job that is exciting enough.
_____ 20. I would like more challenging things to do in life.
_____ 21. I feel that I am working below my abilities most of time.
_____ 22. Many people would say that I am a creative or imaginative person.
_____ 23. I have so many interests, I don't have time to do everything.
_____ 24. Among my friends, I am the one who keeps doing something the longest.
_____ 25. Unless I am doing something exciting, even dangerous, feel half-dead and dull.
_____ 26. It takes a lot of change and variety to keep me happy.
____ 27. It seems that the same things are on television or the movies all the time; it's getting old
_____ 28. When I was young, I was often in monotonous and tiresome situations.
66% of adult population scores between 81 and 117. About 2% score above 135 or below 63.
So, what do the answers mean? Here are some guidelines:
· Higher scores on: 6,10,19,21,25,26,27,28 This suggests that you are “understimulated” and therefore prone to boredom. It probably means you have a lot more capacity than you are using. So, for example, question 6 says something about being bored during someone’s home movies. What does that have to do with stimulation levels? It means you get restless just sitting there watching someone else’s “stuff.” You could be out doing something yourself but you are not.
· Lower scores on 1,7,8,13,14, 18 22. Experts call low scores on these statements “forced efforts.” People who score higher on these statements essentially demonstrate that they are bored because they are “overstimulated” already and are, for want of a better term, “tired.” Thus, question 7 tries to determine if you have trouble concentrating. Those who do are probably distracted by other things and therefore, what appears as boredom or apathy may actually be too much stimulation in other areas.
· Higher scores on 2,4,5,9, 11, 12, 15,17: Resistance. This one means you are probably trying to avoid some other responsibilities or being told what to do by someone in authority.
Before I go further you might wonder why I was even interested in this topic. Well, I'll tell you right now it's because I have a tendency to be bored. And when I get bored, I find that I am much more prone to discouragement and even depression. So, I was literally trying to figure myself out when I bumped into this topic. And, the more I read, and the more I looked around me, I the more I realized what an epidemic of boredom exists in this country. I am not going to say that boredom is at the root of all our current ills, but I will suggest it's near the bottom. It's that big a deal. But, unlike the experts, as a Christian mental health professional, I have some very different explanations for its origin and cure. I'll get to those in due course.
Many boredom researchers have noted the connection between boredom and arousal. In other words, people who are bored tend to have problems with alertness. Either they struggle to stay alert or they don't want to be alert. There is also an apparent connection between boredom and adrenaline. This shouldn't be surprising. Adrenaline is the “What's Happening?” Chemical of the body. It shoots electro-chemical surges of energy through our system alerting us to danger or novelty. God designed us with an adrenaline-system so that we would be alert to danger and not be caught off guard.
Thus, in primitive situations like battles or hunts, adrenaline becomes our first line of defense against danger, equipping us for self-protection maneuvers like “fight” or “flight.” In God's original design, once the danger had passed the adrenal glands would stop producing the powerful hormone, stress levels would diminish, and we would settle down. Our bodies were not made to handle ongoing adrenaline surges. As helpful and useful as they are in limited doses, adrenaline is a powerful stimulant and too much over too long a period will eventually destroy other body systems. One example of this in our day is Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which, many doctors believe, is directly linked to “adrenal fatigue” and the imbalance of adrenaline in the body.
Stress expert Archibald Hart wrote a prescient little book called Thrilled to Death: How the Endless Pursuit of Pleasure is Leaving us Numb.
I found his research and conclusions quite compelling and convicting. Notice how he links thrill-seeking to the pursuit of pleasure. He also talks quite a bit about the declining capacity to experience pleasure. It even has a clinical label: “Ahedonia” --literally, “without pleasure.” There are a shocking number of people today who seem unable to experience pleasure. Hart believes this is because they have, through adrenaline abuse, destroyed their capacity for pleasure. Thus his title, “Thrilled to Death.”
This has a direct application to my topic of boredom. Boredom is but another manifestation of Ahedonia.
Now, the research, as well as our own experience, tells us that not everyone experiences boredom in the same exact way. For some, it makes them more aggressive. Some, more passive. I won't delve into the neurological reasons for the difference but I will say it has a lot to do with personality traits like introversion and extroversion. I need to press on and talk about the ultimate cause and cure.
The Root Cause for Boredom
I find it practically and theoretically useful to picture various problems as trees. As you know, trees have three main parts: fruits, shoots and roots. The same is true with problems. There are the fruits—the manifestations of the problem we are all too familiar with; there are the shoots—the direct causes, both circumstantial and psychological for them; and there are the roots. The roots are what I think we must eventually deal with. So, while I could spend all day talking about the fruits of boredom, and even the shoots, I want to get to the roots. What causes it?
As suggested in the Boredeom Proneness Scale above, there are various types of boredom with, perhaps. Three general causes:
· Understimulation – The most obvious cause of boredom is the result of having more neural capacity than opportunities to use it. It’s simple math. If you are only using 50% of your neural capacity that means you have 50% of your total potential being unused. What happens to it? There may be ways to store it up or set it aside to some extent. But generally, you’re going to have to expend that capacity in other ways, otherwise you’re going to be bored.
· Overstimulation – As I said above, sometimes we appear bored (or the fruit of boredom, like depression) not because we have too little to do but too much. A case could be made that understimulation and overstimulation are interconnected and not mutually exclusive. Therefore, a person who is overstimulated for too long develops adrenaline-related diseases or conditions and then crashes emotionally or physically. The after effects include heighted need for more stimulation and potential boredom.
· Aversive Stimulation – I call the third cause “aversive stimulation” to underscore the deviant or anti-social characteristics. As mentioned earlier, bored people sometimes do really horrible things, both to themselves and others. The “aversive” part means they learned those forms of behavior or thought from someplace else. That’s what I mean by an “aversive stimulation.” Thus, a bored, restless child learns to deal with his excess capacity by picking fights with others on the playground at school. Over time, it becomes a pattern of life, especially as a form of self-medication when he’s feel frustrated.
Neural Capacity and the Solution for Boredom
Not surprisingly, the most effective solution for boredom depends on the specific type we’re dealing with. While it’s true that some bored people just need to “get busy” and do something, that’s only true if they are currently understimulated with excess capacity they are not using. Conversely, if someone is in the throes of adrenal fatigue, feeling overwhelmed and listless (and appearing to be bored with life) it isn’t necessarily advisable to prescribe a bunch of things to do. Do you see what I mean? So, let’s talk for a couple minutes about the three various solutions:
· The Solution for Understimulation – As you probably can anticipate, if a given person’s boredom is due to excess capacity (understimulation) he needs to channel all that capacity into something useful. This is what our moms told us when we were driving her crazy in the kitchen. It’s still true when we’re adults driving other people crazy. Sometimes we just need to get involved in some meaningful activity. We need to use that excess capacity. If we don’t we will likely succumb to boredom. This may sound so obvious that it doesn’t need emphasis, but I will anyway: the solution for understimulation is not merely stimulation. To paraphrase an old phrase, “not all stimulation is created equal!” This is how bored people get into trouble. Mom sends Junior out to play to get him out of her hair but doesn’t direct him into something useful (like picking up his toys or doing his chores) so he goes outside and torments his sister.
Adults are constantly at risk of getting into similar trouble when we’re bored. This is probably the biggest reason for men getting involved in Internet pornography or the various forms of sexual addiction. It doesn’t start as an addiction. It starts as a solution for boredom and restlessness. You probably know the familiar Bible story of King David and his adultery with Bathsheba, his neighbor’s wife. It started because David was bored out of his mind, prowling around on his rooftop in the middle of the night, looking for something to deal with his boredom.
So, I repeat, the solution for understimulation and excess capacity boredom is worthwhile activity. As Christians we have no trouble understanding why this is so important. Nor should we have trouble figuring out what God says is “worthwhile.” Jesus said it simply, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matthew 6:33).
· The Solution for Overstimulation – If you are overstimulated and fall into the boredom trap the solution is much more challenging to uncover. It isn’t simply a matter of doing something. Sometimes it’s a matter of doing nothing. Really? Yes. In fact, God made it that way. I’m thinking of the concept of “Sabbath.” From the first days of creation God established the principle of rest: six days shall you labor…the seventh day you shall rest.” Just as God did at the creation itself (Genesis 2:2). This is complicated for victims of boredom because it often forces them to face things they don’t want to face. Constant activity can be a great short term diversion from trouble. But it isn’t always healthy.
I remember visiting a drug halfway house years ago. One of the most difficult things for the patients was the enforced inactivity. I’m not sure I agree with the specific way the staff designed it, but they insisted that new patients not do anything for a time so they could be “alone with their thoughts” and think about their life. I don’t agree with the “alone with your thoughts” part of it but I do think withdrawing the typical diversions was good—no TV, no radio, no cell phone, no sports. What I would have preferred, and what I think would be more meaningful, would have been to fill the emptiness with eternally significant things like conversation, corporate worship or reading. Be that as it may, you see the point. People who are overstimulated need to find rest—not just inactivity but true peace. God’s model for this is the Sabbath.
I love the work of Richard Swenson, MD, who wrote the time management book, “Margin.”
He doesn’t emphasize the Sabbath-principle as much as I would like but he does touch on it. Part of God’s creation design was rest. Rest is as necessary as work. This is what he meant by margin. And when we don’t have enough margins in our daily life we are more vulnerable to sickness and instability.
· The Solution for Aversive Stimulation – In some ways this third solution is a hybrid of the first two. Someone who is reacting to boredom through antisocial or deviant patterns of action is both over and understimulated. He is overstimulated with the wrong things and understimulated with good things. Here’s a simple example we can all relate too: sugar. I ran into a guy a few months ago who functioned on Mountain Dew soda. He must have consumed several cans a day just to keep going. He told me he couldn’t make it through the work day without it. Tragically, the more he relied on the artificial stimulation of sugar (and caffeine) the more damage he did to his adrenal glands, and the more Mountain Dew he needed to keep going. You undoubtedly know how this works. In his case, the “aversive” part of the stimulation didn’t result in pathological behavior (not that I know of) but it easily could have, especially if instead of soda he resorted to alcohol or some kinds of drugs. But it was definitely aversive for his own body.
So, what should I guy like that do? He needs to find new sources of stimulation (no more Mountain Dew) and stop relying on the aversive one. I know this is much easier said than done but that doesn’t change the truth. As with any kind of substance abuse, this is likely to require a process of “detoxification” where he weans himself away from the bad substance and replaces it with new.
What if the manifestation of the aversive stimulation is something like pornography or violence? The truth remains the same. The old manifestations are similar to chemical addictions. They are forms of self-medication and, as such, must be replaced. As the saying goes, “nature abhors a vacuum.” You can’t just stop doing bad things. Usually you have to replace bad things—thoughts, feelings, actions—with good ones in order to succeed.