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We need boredom to live better lives. But social media is destroying it

When boredom creeps in, many of us turn to social media. But that may be preventing us from reaching a transformative level of boredom.
Credit: Syda Productions / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • Boredom, referring to a “mental state of weariness, restlessness, and lack of interest in something to which one is subjected,” is generally thought of as universally bad.
  • But when we are profoundly bored, it can cause us to reassess our lives, leading us to take up new hobbies, find more satisfying jobs, and learn novel skills.
  • By distracting us, social media may be preventing us from becoming profoundly bored, ultimately making us delay actions that would alleviate the causes of our boredom in the first place.

It’s never been easier to distract ourselves. With social media providing a constant stream of news, entertainment, and chatter, boredom can be held at bay. But in a study published November in the journal Marketing Theory, researchers from the University of Bath and Trinity College Dublin question whether this is really a good thing.

Boredom, referring to a “mental state of weariness, restlessness and lack of interest in something to which one is subjected,” is generally thought of as universally bad. Essentially the opposite of a “flow state,” in which we are intensely focused on and fulfilled by an activity, boredom is to be avoided at all costs.

Two types of boredom

The authors of the recent research question that notion. Citing influential 20th century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, they note that there are likely two types of boredom: superficial and profound.

When superficially bored, “We are held in limbo by a situation that restricts us from doing what we want to be doing, while simultaneously being left empty insofar as the situation does not satisfy us.” Think of being stuck in a useless work meeting or trapped inside on a rainy day.

When repeatedly exposed to superficial boredom, we can reach profound boredom, defined as “a deep state of indifference towards oneself and to the world” leading to “an existential discomfort in which people struggle with their sense of self.”

Modern society tees us up for superficial boredom, the study’s authors say. When we are always connected technologically, previously segmented social, work, and home lives blend together, bringing constant disruption and leaving little time to focus on a single activity. At the same time, the pace of life is accelerating, imparting a “sense of busyness and rush amidst compressed time, and the corresponding desire to escape these feelings,” the authors add. This confluence of factors leaves time for brief bouts of boredom, ones that are now swiftly assuaged through social media or other internet pursuits, thus preventing us from reaching profound boredom.

Profound boredom changes lives

As painful as profound boredom can be, it can also lead to reassessment of one’s life and spur action to remedy the ultimate causes of one’s boredom. As part of their research, the authors interviewed 15 subjects aged 20 to 60 in England and Ireland about the experience of lockdown during the COVID pandemic. Invariably, they spoke of boredom and being in limbo, and mentioned frequently turning to social media to pass the time, an act which many said left them feeling empty.

But social media couldn’t hold off subjects’ profound boredom forever. “I felt empty, an emptiness that was difficult to escape from,” one of the interviewees, Richard, told the authors. “The longer I was bored, the worse I felt about myself. Like, who am I and what do I want to do with my life?”

But when Richard and many of the other subjects became profoundly bored, they cited their listlessness as an impetus for reinvention. “Cumulatively, during lockdowns, our participants explored plant propagation, learnt to bake bread, played musical instruments, cycled long distances and adopted new exercise regimes,” the researchers wrote.

As awful as the COVID lockdowns were, they provided “ideal” conditions for profound boredom, the authors said, which ultimately pushed many to discover new passions. The much discussed Great Resignation, in which employees are now leaving their unsatisfying jobs in far greater proportions than has been seen over the past two decades, could very well have been galvanized by profound boredom during the pandemic.

Co-author Timothy Hill, an associate professor of management marketing, business, and society at the University of Bath, is grateful that the pandemic’s gradual ebbing is reducing boredom overall (along with all the malaise and death), but thinks that we also should still allow more profound boredom into our lives by resisting the siren songs of social media.

“This research has given us a window to understand how the ‘always-on,’ 24/7 culture and devices that promise an abundance of information and entertainment may be fixing our superficial boredom but are actually preventing us from finding more meaningful things. Those who engage in ‘digital detoxes’ may well be on the right path,” he said in a statement.


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