Why Being Bored Can Be Hazardous to Your Health

Scientists say this common experience plays a role in everything from drug addiction to academic failure.

Carla Cantor
November 08, 2019

Sartre called it the “leprosy of the soul.” Kierkegaard saw it as the root of all evil. And, Schopenhauer went even further, citing boredom as proof of life’s emptiness and lack of value.

Whatever it is—an emotion, a personality trait, a chemical imbalance (and no scientific consensus exists)—clearly boredom is unpleasant. 

 “It is such a universal, human experience,” said Jacqueline Gottlieb, a neuroscientist at Columbia’s Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute who recently convened a group of leading scholars in the field for a discussion.  “Yet, there is a lack of knowledge about boredom. Until recently, scientists paid it little attention.”

Now researchers are taking a closer look at this state that leaves people craving relief—and how it affects decision-making, relationships and behavior.

To be sure, some studies suggest that boredom, particularly when it is transitory, can have positive outcomes, sparking creativity and productivity by allowing our minds to wander. But at this point, the majority of research finds boredom does more to hinder our lives than to help.   

Here are 10 takeaways:

  1. Sixty-three percent of American adults experience boredom at least once every 10 days. A study, based on research at Carnegie Mellon University, found boredom more prevalent among men, youths, the unmarried and those of lower income.  
  2. Many of us would take pain over boredom. A team of psychologists at the University of Virginia discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than be left alone in an empty room for 15 minutes.
  3. While seen in many cultures, boredom is more common in North America and Western Europe than in Asia. Researchers theorize that Asians put more value on calm and relaxation and North Americans on excitement and adventure.
  4. Boredom exists on a continuumPsychologists use a "boredom proneness scale" to distinguish between people who experience transient boredom, which is situational and temporary, and those who are prone to chronic boredom, which lasts an extended, indefinite period of time.
  5. Chronic boredom is associated with impulsivity and risky behavior, including careless driving, compulsive gambling, drug and alcohol abuse, reckless thrill-seeking and other self-destructive behaviors.
  6. People who are bored easily are susceptible to depression, anxiety, anger, academic failure, poor work performance, loneliness and isolation.
  7. Individuals with ADHD get bored faster and may have more difficulty than others tolerating monotony. In fact, many with ADHD feel understimulated, which may arise from failures in one of the brain's attention networks.
  8. Boredom is common among people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and may even affect their recovery. Some people with TBI often begin to indulge in riskier activities after their accidents.
  9. Boredom is a top predictor of addiction relapse. In a study of 156 addicts ranging in age from 24 to 68 at a methadone clinic, overcoming boredom was the only reliable factor that predicted whether they would stay on course.
  10. Religious people are less likely to get bored. In a study of 1,500 participants, who included agnostics, atheists, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, non-religious people subjected to a mundane task—transcribing an instruction manual about lawn mowing—tended to report higher levels of boredom. They were also more likely than religious people to say they wanted to do something of greater significance.

The symposium, “Boredom: Behavioral and Clinical Implications,” was hosted by the Research Cluster on Curiosity with support from the Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute. Participants included Jacqueline Gottlieb, Zuckerman Institute, leader of the Research Cluster on Curiosity (introduction); James Danckert, professor of psychology and cognitive neuroscience research, University of Waterloo; Wijnand van Tilburg, lecturer in psychology, King's College London; and  McWelling Todman, associate professor of clinical practice, The New School.