What actually happens to us when we get bored? Or, more importantly: What happens to us if we never get bored?
In our always-connected world, boredom may be an elusive state, but it is a fertile one. Watch paint dry or water boil, or at least put away your smartphone for a while. You might unlock your next big idea…Manoush Zomorodi
Manoush Zomorodi is the host and managing editor of Note to Self, “the tech show about being human,” from WNYC Studios. Through experiments and conversations with listeners and experts, she examines the new questions tech has brought into our lives. Topics include information overload, digital clutter, sexting “scandals” and the eavesdropping capabilities of our gadgets.
Boredom has, paradoxically, become quite interesting to academics lately. The International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference gathered humanities scholars in Warsaw for the fifth time in April. In early May, its less scholarly forerunner, London’s Boring Conference, celebrated seven years of delighting in tedium. At this event, people flock to talks about toast, double yellow lines, sneezing, and vending-machine sounds, among other snooze-inducing topics.
What, exactly, is everybody studying? One widely accepted psychological definition of boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”  But how can you quantify a person’s boredom level and compare it with someone else’s? In 1986, psychologists introduced the Boredom Proneness Scale,  designed to measure an individual’s overall propensity to feel bored (what’s known as “trait boredom”). By contrast, the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale,  developed in 2008, measures a person’s feelings of boredom in a given situation (“state boredom”). A German-led team has since identified five types of state boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, reactant, and apathetic (indifferent boredom—characterized by low arousal—was the mellowest, least unpleasant kind; reactant—high arousal—was the most aggressive and unpleasant.)  Boredom may be miserable, but let no one calls it simple.
Boredom has been linked to behavior issues including bad driving,  mindless snacking,  binge-drinking,  risky sex,  and problem gambling.  In fact, many of us would take pain over boredom. One team of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sitting alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.  Probing this phenomenon, another team asked volunteers to watch boring, sad, or neutral films, during which they could self-administer electric shocks. The bored volunteers shocked themselves more and harder than the sad or neutral ones did.