Mr. Doldrum: Men & the Experience of Boredom

boredom depression positive action quality of life Feb 09, 2022

In the olden days, sailors got used to dealing with hardships like pirate attacks, scurvy, and mutiny. It was just part of the job. But just short of capsizing, there was one thing sailors hated more than anything…the doldrums.

The doldrums happened if your ship sailed into an area without enough wind to propel the vessel forward. You’d be stuck there floating in circles, sometimes for weeks. This lack of progress drove sailors into a state of despondency, a term later coined as the doldrums.

Perhaps you’re not a 19th-century sailor, but you’ve likely experienced your own version of the doldrums at some point in your life.

In landlubber terms, we call this boredom.

What is Boredom?

Let's first clarify that boredom is not a clinical diagnosis. Boredom is a name that encapsulates a state of feeling unstimulated, unsatisfied, or uninterested by activity or experience. Boredom can be associated with feeling low or sometimes agitated. While it can correlate with other symptoms related to mental health issues, it’s not just another name for apathy or depression.

So, where does boredom come from? A 2006 study pinpointed five different kinds of boredom. The following list helps us see the potential origins of boredom as well as the various outward expressions of it. The six types are:

  1. Indifferent: a calm sense of withdrawal from external stimuli
  2. Calibrating: feeling slightly unpleasant. Open to anything that might cure the bored feelings, but not yet in a state of exploration.
  3. Searching: an increased sense of negative feelings, where the individual is actively looking for something to do.
  4. Reactant: an intense feeling of negativity, where the bored individual starts indicting other people, places, or things for their own boredom. They’re sour about their situation and ready to blame anything else for it.
  5. Apathetic: someone in this situation is actually experiencing low arousal. The individual does not skew positive or negative. Instead, they are immersed in a certain sense of helplessness or depression.
     

Based upon these five kinds of boredom, we learn how boredom can look completely different from one person to the next. For example, someone whose boredom is apathetic might lay on the couch staring out the window while mindlessly eating an entire bag of Tootsie Rolls. It's not that they don't have the energy to do something; they just don't haven't found an activity that entices them into action yet. 

However, someone in a more reactive state could feel absolutely tortured by the lack of stimulation and will do anything to find relief from their boredom – even if the activity they choose is an unhealthy one.

 

The Science of Boredom.

Science has yet to determine why boredom occurs, but we know it's a western luxury. (It's hard to feel bored when your entire day is dedicated to survival). It is thought that as human cognition developed, we increased the amount of information our senses are continually picking up and processing throughout the day. So then, when stimulation ceases or slows down, boredom is one way our brains respond to the absence of sensory stimulation.

Scientists have also identified that dopamine is released as our brains respond to joy, excitement, or new activities. As a result, some people who naturally have lower levels of dopamine – who are also considered high-risk, boredom-prone people – require more frequent and higher levels of novelty to stimulate their brains.  

 

Why Some Men Experience Boredom

Men typically have a lower tolerance to boredom than women. One reason is they find it more uncomfortable to be alone with their thoughts. So, left alone to contemplate their feelings, they'll often seek all manner of distractions.

In 2014, psychologists at the University of Virginia conducted a simple experiment to showcase the power of the human mind. Participants in the study were placed into a room by themselves for about 10 minutes. Also in the room was a machine that would deliver an electric shock to the participants, but only if they chose to do it to themselves.

Most subjects became bored while sitting in the room, but what surprised researchers most was a significant number of men opted to shock themselves, some more than once, rather than doing nothing. Conversely, only about 25 percent of the women chose to shock themselves.

To a greater degree than women, men tend to have a thrill-seeking nature and desire increasingly stimulating activities. This is why they’re more apt to engage in extreme sports and other reckless behaviors. But, conversely, a lack of stimulation and engagement can lead some men to alcohol and drug abuse, unhealthy sexual behaviors, gambling, or other illegal activities - just about anything to shake things up, even if it lands them in a bad situation. This is the shadow side of boredom.

On the sunnier side, however, men tolerate boredom poorly because they are doers and problem solvers. They are built to fix things, produce things, protect and provide. These are valuable qualities to possess. As a result, many men simply don’t want to talk about or reflect upon their feelings when it comes to downtime and introspection. They just want to keep the wind in their sails and keep moving forward (to avoid the doldrums).

 

The Potential Relationship Between Boredom and Depression 

No doubt about it, being in a state of boredom is an unpleasant experience. Maybe you’re sick of the monotony of your day-to-day activities, and it feels like you do the same things on repeat. Perhaps you’re feeling cagey, ready to do something new if only you could figure out where to channel your energy. Or maybe you are just too burnt out to feel stimulated – even if in the big picture, you know you’re on the right path.

Boredom does not necessarily lead to depression, but it can lead you to feel powerless or ineffective in your life. If you believe you lack agency over your life and are stuck right where you are, you may also begin to feel angry. Then, if anger is unexpressed, it can shift into sadness and eventually into a state of depression.

 

Six Tactics to Help Overcome Boredom

Let's face it, not everything you do in life will feel like a pique experience. It's not all dirt biking and hang gliding or holding your newborn baby for the first time. Sometimes it’s filling out yet another TPS report, waiting at a red light, and listening politely to the same story your mom already told you twice that week.

Just because life is sometimes boring doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong.  

The excitement of even the most wonderful experiences will eventually wear off, leaving you to seek new ways to stimulate your mind. Boredom is entirely natural, it can even be good for us, and it doesn't have to feel as painful as a sailor stuck out at sea.

The following tactics are designed to help you navigate boredom and transform the experience into a more positive one for you.

 

Tactic 1: Embracing Tedium.

The best way to stop feeling like we're wasting our lives on the minutia is to embrace the monotony. Take some deep breaths and practice acceptance when you're stuck in the minutia, and you start feeling despondent or bummed out about something. Resisting the inevitable makes you feel worse. Instead, try doing something to complete the task more enjoyable. If you have to take many notes, buy really nice pens. If you have to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic, download a good audiobook or make an awesome playlist to entertain you.

 

Tactic 2: Reframe the Way you Think about Boredom.

When you know the actual value of boredom, it becomes easier to sit in the discomfort when it happens. Boredom can offer a period of introspection, which helps you know yourself better and helps you access where you are now and where you want to go next. In that way, boredom can also be an excellent incubator for inspiration. The next time you feel bored, take a moment to scan your mind, body, and emotions to see what they are telling you, and you just might gather meaningful information about yourself.

 

Tactic 3: Do Something Creative.

The relationship between boredom and creativity is fascinating. Yes, choosing a creative activity will indeed relieve boredom, but did you know that some amount of boredom actually increases creativity?

The following study is an excerpt from an article written by Emily Reynolds published in the British Psychological Society, Research Digest.

A 2014 study conducted by the University of Central Lancashire found that boredom increased creativity. Participants were asked to either write something novel or do something undeniably tedious: copy numbers from the telephone directory. All participants then completed a creative task, coming up with as many uses for two polystyrene cups as they possibly could. And those in the boring condition came up with far more benefits than those in the non-boring condition.

So not only could indulging your creativity be a way out of boredom, but boredom itself might also give your creativity a boost.

 

Tactic 4: Change Your Relationship with Boredom

Peeling back the layers on your own boredom and learning how it affects you personally will help you change your relationship with boredom. You may even discover you have some hidden beliefs about productivity and self-esteem. Or perhaps you'll uncover some thoughts or emotions you'd prefer to avoid that only seem to arise when you're bored. 

  1. What triggers boredom, and what makes it go away?
  2. Is this boredom longstanding or a relatively new experience?
  3. When was the first time you remember being bored in such a way that you couldn’t stand it?
  4. What does boredom feel like physically?
  5. What's the most challenging part of the experience of boredom: The way it feels physically? The assault on self-esteem? The self-judgment? The impulses to get rid of it? The negative thoughts it causes? What else comes up for you?
  6. What, if any, impulses do the bored parts of you have?
  7. Why is boredom a problem for you? Be very specific about how boredom affects you.
  8. What does your bored part need to feel better?

 

Tactic 5: Keep Active, Even When Boredom Tells You Otherwise.

And, if you've been under a lot of stress, it's likely you have stopped engaging in self-care or have stopped doing the activities that bring you the most joy. And you know what that means… "All work and no play make Johnny a dull boy."  Or, in this case, a bored man.

If you've not taken time to nurture your creativity or enjoy your favorite hobbies lately, chances are you're only doing the perfunctory tasks in life, like going to work, paying your bills, or cleaning your house. These activities may keep you busy all the time, but it doesn't mean you're stimulated by them.

Once boredom sets in, you may even find you have an inertia problem – you know, an object at rest stays at rest. If you wait until you feel motivated to do something, you may wait a very long time for your inspiration to arrive. 

The best solution is to take (healthy) action!

Go ride your bike. Meet up with a friend for coffee. Pick up your guitar and learn a new song. Even before you feel like it, taking action will help reignite your motivation and help you feel more stimulated.

 

Tactic 6: Shift Your Focus on What You Can Control.

If you find your ship stuck in the doldrums, swab the proverbial deck or climb to the crow's nest for a better view. Feeling despondent or irritable when things aren't taking shape or moving forward is expected. But, instead of feeling helpless, focus on the things you can control.

Make a list of small to-do’s and find satisfaction as you cross things off your list. Think about activities you’ve always wanted to try and give one a whirl. To take the focus off yourself while also giving you a sense of accomplishment, do something to help someone else. For example, you could volunteer in your community or simply shift your focus on finding ways to be helpful to others. 

Tactic 7: Assign Meaning to Your Activities

Sometimes boredom creeps in when we forget why the activities we're doing are so important. If you feel your days are filled with meaningless tasks that waste your time, or if you're in a state where everything seems pointless, it's time to return to your value system. First, think about what is most important to you in your life. Then, when you can see how what you're doing supports why you do it, it brings a new sense of purpose even to the mundane.  

Boredom is not a mental health disorder. However, there may be reasons for feeling unstimulated in your life that a professional therapist can help you uncover. Therapy can also address the thoughts and feelings that arise when experiencing boredom. If you are feeling stuck or uninspired, I'd love to help you discover why and help you navigate your way forward.

 

Cheers,

 

Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist specializing in men's mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry. 

Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to directly diagnose and treat any mental health concern. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.

 

References

Barbalet, J., 1999. Boredom and Social Meaning. British Journal of Sociology, 50(4), pp.631-646.

Goetz, T., Frenzel, A.C., Hall, N.C., et al. Types of boredom: An Experience Sampling Approach. Motiv Emot 38, 401–419 (2014). doi.org/10.1007/s11031-013-9385-y

Kim, M. (2021). Boredom’s Link to Mental Illnesses, Brain Injuries and Dysfunctional behaviors. The Washington Post. Accessed, Feb 2022. https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/boredom-mental-health-disconnected/2021/07/16/c367cd30-9d6a-11eb-9d05-ae06f4529ece_story.html

Koerth-Baker, M. (2016). Science Has Yet to Determine Exactly Why Boredom Occurs. Assessed, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-boredom-is-anything-but-boring

Perone, Weybright, E. H., and Anderson, A. J. (2019). Over and over again: Changes in frontal EEG Asymmetry Across a Boring Task. Psychophysiology, 56(10), e13427–n/a. doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13427

Reynolds, E. (2021). How to Deal with Boredom, Digested. British Psychological Society. Accessed, Feb 2022. https://digest.bps.org.uk/2021/02/18/how-to-deal-with-boredom-digested/