Department of Philosophy
University of Louisville
andreas.elpidorou [at] louisville.edu
Abstract. I argue that the state of boredom (i.e., the transitory and non-pathological experience of boredom) should be understood to be a regulatory psychological state that has the capacity to promote our well-being by contributing to personal growth and to the construction (or reconstruction) of a meaningful life.
Target Presentation by Andreas Elpidorou
1. Boredom: a tale of two constructs
In recent years, boredom has become the topic of an active interdisciplinary research program. What is, at least partly, responsible for this surge of interest in boredom research is the development and validation of various ways of conceptualizing and measuring boredom. Two such measures focus on job boredom (Grubb, 1975; Lee, 1986), one examines the ability to cope with boredom (Hamilton et al., 1984), one assesses leisure or boredom during free time (Iso-Ahola & Weissinger, 1990; Ragheb & Merydith, 2001), one appraises sexual boredom (Watt & Ewing, 1996), one investigates academic boredom (Acee et al., 2010), and yet another considers purposelessness, under-stimulation, and boredom in cancer patients (Passik et al., 2003). Despite the availability of such measures, most of them are limited in scope: they measure boredom only in specific contexts. Two existing measures that are not subject to such a shortcoming are the Boredom Proneness Scale (BPS) (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986) and the Boredom Susceptibility Scale (ZBS) (Zuckerman, 1979). Out of these two scales, only BPS is a full-scale measure of boredom; ZBS is a subscale of the Sensation Seeking Scale (Zuckerman, 1979; Zuckerman et al., 1978). On account of its full-scale character, BPS is to date the most commonly used measure of boredom.
BPS is designed to “assess one’s proneness toward experiencing boredom” and as such it is a measure of trait boredom — viz., the propensity to experience boredom frequently and in a wide range of situations (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986, p.5). Its use has allowed researchers to study the correlates of boredom proneness (i.e., the construct that BPS operationalizes and measures and which is thought to correspond to trait boredom) and to document its profoundly harmful effects. For example, boredom proneness has been found to be positively correlated with anger and aggression (Gana & Akremi, 1998; Gordon et al., 1997; Mercer-Lynn et al., 2011; Rupp & Vodanovich, 1997), depression (Ahmed, 1990; Goldberg et al., 2011; Malkovsky et al., 2012; Farmer & Sundberg, 1986), anxiety (Fahlman et al., 2009; Fahlman et al., 2013), hostility (Dahlen et al., 2004; Vodanovich et al., 1991), apathy (Goldberg et al., 2011), loneliness (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986), and hopelessness (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). Within an educational context, boredom proneness has been linked to poor grades (Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993) and early dropout rates (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986; Larson & Richards, 1995). Within the workplace, boredom has been associated with lower job satisfaction (Abdolahi et al, 2011; Kass et al., 2001) and job involvement (Seib & Vodanovich, 1998), increased accident rates (Kass et al., 2010; O’Hanlon, 1981; Weinger, 1999), and increased job stress (Wan et al., 2014). In everyday life, boredom proneness is related to poor performance on tasks that require sustained attention (Malkovsky et al., 2012; Seib & Vodanovich, 1998; Watt & Blanchard, 1994). It is also related to a propensity to make mistakes in completing common tasks (Carriere et al., 2008).
In turn, boredom proneness has been found to lead to poor interpersonal and social relationships (Leong & Schneller, 1999; Tolor, 1989; Watt & Vodanovich, 1999). It is also associated with a lower life satisfaction (Famer & Sundberg, 1986) and boredom prone individuals have a harder time finding meaning in life than those who are not prone to boredom (Fahlman et al., 2009; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011; Vodanovich & Watt, 1999; Watt & Vodanovich, 1999; Weinstein et al., 1995). What is more, boredom prone individuals experience impulse control deficits (Dahlen et al., 2004; Leong & Schneller, 1993). Looking for something to excite them, they are more likely to engage in risk-taking behavior, such as reckless driving (Dahlen et al., 2005; Kass et al., 2010), and are more prone to binge eating (Stickney & Miltenberger, 1999; see also Ganley, 1989), drug and alcohol abuse (Lee et al., 2007; LePera, 2011; Paulson et al., 1990), and problem gambling (Blaszczynski et al., 1990; Mercer & Eastwood, 2010).
Much of boredom research can thus be seen as an attempt, on the one hand, to understand the nature of trait boredom and its correlates and, on the other hand, to explore ways in which the effects of trait boredom can be mitigated. Still, not all of boredom research concerns itself with trait boredom and it would be a mistake to suggest so. Recently, boredom researchers have begun to explore the nature of the state of boredom, a construct distinct from trait boredom. Unlike trait boredom, which is a personality trait, the state of boredom is a transitory, aversive experience that signals a failure to engage with one’s environment in a desired manner despite one’s desire to do so (e.g., Danckert & Merrifield, 2016; Eastwood et al., 2012).
An adequate account of the state of boredom—viz., a description of its antecedents, effects, experiential profile, and its neurophysiological correlates—turns out to be crucial for our understanding of the phenomenon of boredom. First, the idea of the state of boredom is conceptually prior to the idea of trait boredom. That is, the actual experience of boredom is presupposed both by our notion of trait boredom (after all, trait boredom is a propensity to frequently experience boredom) and by the manner in which trait boredom is being measured (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986; see also Fahlman et al., 2013). Thus, without an adequate understanding of state boredom (to which I will subsequently refer simply by the term “boredom”), it is unclear whether we can have a good grasp of the notion of trait boredom.
Second, as a transitory affective state, boredom appears to be ever-present. It affects both healthy individuals and patient populations (Binemma, 2004; Eastwood et al., 2007; Hamilton et al., 1984; Newell et al., 2011; Seel & Kreutzer, 2003; Vodanovich, 2003). It affects individuals of all genders and from all cultures (see, e.g., Musharbash, 2007; Ng et al., 2015; Sundberg et al., 1991; Vodanovich et al., 1997; Weinstein et al., 1995). And it is also experienced in a wide range of situations (Acee et al., 2010; Belton & Priyadharshini, 2007; Fisher, 1993; Game, 2007; Grassian, 2006; Grubb, 1975; Iso-Ahola & Weissinger, 1990; Larson & Richards, 1991). Therefore, any attempt to come to terms with our affective existence needs to study and understand the state of boredom.
Third, there is strong evidence in support of the claim that boredom is an emotion (or at least, an affective state) in its own right and as such ought to be distinguished from other related affective states. For example, Van Tilburg and Igou (2012) found that boredom has a unique experiential content (study 1) and that manipulation of the state of boredom did not affect other emotional states (anger, sadness, or frustration) (study 4). Furthermore, using structural equation modeling, Goldberg and colleagues found that boredom is distinct from apathy, anhedonia, and depression—all of which are taken to be phenomenologically akin to boredom (Goldberg et al., 2011).
Last, it has been recently proposed that the state of boredom could serve an important function in our mental economy. Specifically, it has been suggested that boredom acts as a regulatory state that keeps one in line with one’s projects (Bench & Lench, 2013; Elpidorou, 2014 and 2015a; Sansone et al., 1992; Smith et al., 2009; Pekrun et al., 2010; Van Tilburg & Igou 2012). The state of boredom can motivate one to pursue a new goal when the current goal ceases to be satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful. As such, boredom can help to promote the restoration of the perception that one’s activities are meaningful and congruent with one’s overall projects.
In this paper, my aim is to offer an in-depth and critical examination of boredom’s role as a regulatory state and present both its nature and its potentially beneficial effects. Although the present article is not the first study to propose a relationship between boredom and self-regulation, it goes beyond the findings and claims of extant articles in at least two important respects. First, it articulates clearly the relationship between the state of boredom and self-regulation. It does so by emphasizing boredom’s distinctive capacity to move us out of uninteresting, unfulfilling, or meaningless situations and relates this capacity to the locomotion aspect of the Regulatory Mode Theory (Higgins et al., 2003; Kruglanski et al., 2000). Second, it makes a novel case for the importance of boredom in our lives. Whereas extant studies on boredom and self-regulation conclude by defending, proposing, or simply noting a link between boredom and self-regulation, the present article takes a further step: it shows how boredom’s capacity to keep us in motion is beneficial to our well-being. To put it rather simply and in a manner that passes over many of the complexities that will be addressed later on, this article makes the following argument: boredom promotes movement; movement is essential to well-being; ergo, boredom promotes well-being. As agents with projects, goals, and interpersonal relationships, we are much better off having the capacity to be bored than lacking it.
This article does not argue that our well-being is promoted by the chronic or frequent experience of boredom. Nor does it, in any way, suggest that we should strive to be bored. I have already presented some of the many detrimental effects (or at least, correlates) of boredom proneness. Still, there is value in boredom when it is experienced occasionally by healthy individuals. To see where its value lies, it is instructive to draw a parallel between pain and boredom. Although the sensation of pain is unpleasant, the capacity to feel pain is good for us. Just consider what happens in cases where the capacity to feel pain is missing. Subjects with congenital insensitivity to pain live difficult and often short lives. Their lives contain harmful and dangerous stimuli and their bodies become injured easily and often severely (Bar-On et al., 2002; Baxter & Olszewski, 1960; Nagasako et al., 2010; Swanson, 1963; Thrush, 1973). Yet, they cannot sense harm done to them and thus cannot protect themselves. Pain is a mechanism that both signals the presence of harm and motivates us to change our behavior in order to protect our selves (Eccleston & Crombez, 1999; Koster et al., 2014; Van Damme et al., 2007). As such, pain is valuable to us.
Something similar holds for boredom. Or so this article will show. Boredom protects us from certain situations. It does so by informing us of the presence of situations that are not in line with our interests and desires, and by motivating us to do something else. If we were to lack the capacity to be bored, we would not notice when we are faced with an unsatisfying, non-stimulating, or monotonous situation. Nor would we do something to get out of it. So, the main claim that this article will defend is that boredom (in its non-pathological, state form) is valuable to us precisely because its presence helps us to keep moving and in doing so, it brings us closer to what is in line with our desires and goals. It is not news to state that there is a place for negative emotions and affective states in our well-being (Diener & Seligman, 2002). It is news, however, to propose that 3. boredom can be an element of the good life.
3. Describing boredom
What is state boredom? Here is not the place to provide a systematic and exhaustive review of the literature on the state of boredom—others and I have done so elsewhere. Still, in order to be in a position to argue for the claim that boredom is a regulatory state that has the potential to benefit us I need to present, at least in broad outline, the character of boredom. For ease of explication, I follow a component processes account of emotions (e.g., Kleinginna & Kleinginna, 1991; Scherer, 1984) and hold (a) that emotions consist of a set of interrelated components and (b) that the task of characterizing a given emotion amounts to that of specifying its different components. Thus, in order to describe boredom and to separate it from other related affective states, we have to present its affective, cognitive, physiological, and volitional components.
Affective character: Boredom is an aversive state (Harris, 2000; Hartocollis, 1972; Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993; Pekrun el al., 2010; Todman, 2003). It does not feel good to be bored. Bored individuals report feelings of constraint or a perceived lack of agency (Eastwood et al, 2012; Fahlman et al., 2011; Fenichel, 1951; Geitwitz, 1986; Hill & Perkins, 1985; Todman, 2013; Vodanovich & Kass, 1990a). Furthermore, individuals who find themselves in a state of boredom comment both that they feel tired and lethargic and also that they experience feelings of restlessness and irritability (Harris, 2000; Martin et al., 2006; O’Brien, 2014).
Cognitive character: It is integral to the experience of boredom that one is both disengaged and dissatisfied with one’s environment (Anderson, 2007; Fahlman et al., 2009; Fenichel, 1951; Goldberg et al., 2011; Greenson, 1953; Passik et al., 2003). Bored individuals experience difficulties in concentrating and maintaining attention (Ahmed, 1990; Hamilton, 1981; Hamilton et al., 1984; Damrad-Frye & Laird, 1989; Eastwood et al., 2012; Fisher, 1993; Gordon et al., 1997; Harris, 2000) and they often engage in mind-wandering (Game, 2007; Harris, 2000; Martin et al., 2006).
Furthermore, qualitative studies have found that bored individuals experience an altered passage of time (Martin et al., 2006): during a state of boredom, time appears to move more slowly (Gabriel, 1998; Greenson, 1953; Hartocollis, 1972; Tze et al., 2013; Wangh, 1975). When completing a tedious task high boredom prone individuals perceived time as passing more slowly than low boredom prone individuals (Watt, 1991). This finding is consistent with a recent study by Danckert & Allman (2005) which reports that individuals who are prone to boredom are likely to make mistakes in judging the duration of perceptual events.
Finally, boring situations are ones that are perceived as being non-optimal for the subject (Damrad-Frye & Laird, 1989; De Chenne, 1988; Mann & Robinson, 2009; Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993). Often subjects report that boring situations are meaningless or trite (Barbalet, 1999; Fiske & Maddi, 1961; Perkins & Hall, 1985; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012), that they lack a sense of challenge (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012), or even that they are too challenging (Daschmann et al. 2011; Goetz et al., 2006; cf. Pattyn et al., 2008).
Physiological character: Currently, there is no agreement as to whether boredom is a state of low or high arousal. Indeed, in the literature one finds proposals that describe boredom as a state of low arousal (Hebb, 1955; Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993; Russell, 1980), as a state of high arousal (Bench and Lench, 2013; Berlyne, 1960; Fisher, 1993; Harris, 2000; Hill & Perkins, 1985; London et al., 1972), or even as a state that can be both (Bernstein, 1975; Eastwood et al. 2012; Fahlman et al., 2013; Fenichel, 1953; Fiske & Maddi, 1961; O’Brien, 2014; Van Tilburg & Igu, 2012). Qualitative studies on the phenomenological character of boredom and studies on the physiological correlates of boredom are consistent with all three proposals.
For instance, bored individuals not only describe boredom as a low-energy or apathetic state, but also as one that contains feelings of restlessness, anxiety, and irritability (Goetz & Frenzel, 2006; Harris, 2000; Martin et al., 2006). Furthermore, boredom has been associated with both a decrease and an increase of physiological arousal (Barmack, 1937; Braby et al., 1992; Geiwitz, 1966; London et al., 1972; Lundberg et al., 1993; Pattyn et al., 2008). London et al. (1972) reported that a boring task can yield an increase in levels of galvanic skin potential (Study I) and heart rate (Study II). However, in a different study, Pattyn and colleagues observed that during a prolonged target detection task—a task that is often described as boring—participants’ heart rate decreased over time (Pattyn et al., 2008; see also Merrifield & Danckert, 2014).
Although we do not have an adequate picture of the neurological underpinnings of boredom, the following findings are noteworthy. First, Oswald (1962) has reported the presence of alpha waves during the experience of boredom. This finding relates boredom to mental fatigue insofar as studies of the neural correlates of the latter show similar brain activation (Barwick et al., 2012; Fan et al., 2015; Lal & Craig, 2002; Phipps-Nelson, et al., 2011; Schier, 2000; Zhao et al., 2012). Second, there is evidence suggesting that boredom might be correlated with lower beta activity in the left Dorso-Lateral Prefrontal Cortex area (DLPFC) (Tabatabaie et al., 2014). Such a finding about the neurological correlates of boredom, coupled with the observation that a similar activity reduction in DLPFC has been observed in ADHD children (Sangal & Sangal, 2015), provides further support for the claim that attention is an important mechanism of boredom (Eastwood et al., 2012). Third, Danckert and Merrifield (2016) undertook a comparative study of fMRI scans of individuals in three different conditions: during resting state, during boredom mood induction, and during a sustained attention task. A comparison of the scans showed that in all three conditions there is common activation of components of the default mode network (DMN). Such commonality supports the claim that boredom is similar both to the resting state and to the sustained attention task insofar as it is state of disengagement from one’s environment. Having said that, Danckert and Merrifield noted that despite similarities, observed brain activation in the resting state differs from that of boredom in one important respect: only during boredom was there anti-correlated activity in the anterior insular cortex. Danckert and Merrifield propose that activity in that region may indicate a failed attempt to engage with the situation and in this way, the state of boredom differs from the resting state. Even though both are states of disengagement, only the former is one in which individuals were motivated to try to engage with their situation.
Volitional character: The state of boredom is marked by a strong desire to engage in a task other than the one with which one is currently engaged. A state of boredom is a negative, aversive state of discontent. As such, bored individuals wish to be doing something else and will try, when it is possible, to escape a boring situation (Bench & Lench, 2013 Berlyne, 1960; De Chenne, 1988; Fahlman et al., 2013; Fenichel, 1953; Fiske & Maddi, 1961; Greenson, 1953; Hebb, 1966; Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993; Todman, 2003; Van Tilburg and Igou, 2012). The motivational power of the unpleasantness of boredom is strong. In fact, studies that have found that boredom proneness is correlated with risk-taking activities (Dahlen et al., 2005; Kass et al., 2010) are indications of the ability of boredom to motivate individuals to search for situations that will alleviate boredom, even if such situations are harmful to them.
4. Boredom and self-regulation
Some authors have suggested that boredom should be understood as a self-regulatory state (Bench & Lench, 2013; Elpidorou, 2014 and 2015a; Sansone et al., 1992; Smith et al., 2009; Pekrun et al., 2010; Struk et al., 2015b; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011 and 2012). Given the summary of boredom’s character that I just offered, such a proposal is not only reasonable, but also warranted by what we know about the experiential profile of boredom. Boredom is an aversive state from which one seeks escape. During boredom one experiences feelings of weariness and frustration. One is disengaged from and dissatisfied with one’s situation. The situation does not capture the attention of, nor does it interest, the individual. Instead, the individual is moved to consider alternative situations, goals, and actions (Bench & Lench, 2013; Elpidorou, 2014 Fahlman et al., 2013; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012). Lastly, through its physiological features—increase in arousal and the presence of anti-correlated activity in the anterior insular cortex—boredom can facilitate the pursuit of alternative goals and situations.
A synthesis of the above characteristics of boredom strongly suggests that boredom is both an informative and motivational state: it signals that we need to change something about ourselves or about our environment and it motivates us to do so. Specifically, what boredom does is to promote the pursuit of alternative situations (physical or mental) when the current situation ceases to be interesting, engaging, or meaningful. Boredom strives to get us unstuck when we find ourselves stuck (Fahlman et al. 2013, p. 68). It moves us out of non-interesting situations and into interesting ones. For that reason, boredom is best understood as a regulatory state that helps to keep us in line with what we finding interesting and meaningful. Boredom’s function is movement, and through movement, it promotes self-regulation.
4.1. Boredom’s relationship to movement and self-regulation
Self-regulation can be understood to be the set of processes that aim to minimize the discrepancy between an individual’s current state and a desired state. Through self-regulatory processes one becomes aware of such a discrepancy and utilizes the needed resources in order to achieve the desired state (Carver & Scheier 1990; Higgins et al., 2003; Kruglanski et al., 2000; Kuhl, 1985). Self-regulation contributes to the completion of goals and allows individuals to act, think, and even feel in a way that is consistent with their standards and desires (Baumeister & Vohs, 2003). Self-regulation is often hard and requires the exertion of effort (Baumeister et al., 1994) but success in self-regulation has been shown to be associated with positive psychological adjustment, positive interpersonal relations, lower anger, better grades, and fewer impulse control problems (Tangney et al., 2004). Furthermore, in a longitudinal study that followed a cohort of 1000 children from birth to the age of 32, Moffitt and colleagues (2010) found that poor self-control in childhood can lead to poor health, financial issues, and even criminal convictions.
According to Regulatory Mode Theory, a specific model of self-regulation, human behavior is guided by two largely independent components: assessment and locomotion (Higgins et al., 2003; Kruglanski et al., 2000; Kruglanski et al., 2013). Assessment constitutes the comparative aspect of self-regulation (Higgins et al., 2003). It involves the critical evaluation and comparison of different entities (e.g., means and goals) in order to determine which one is most worthy of pursuing. In contrast, locomotion is the aspect of self-regulation that involves the commitment of one’s psychological resources in order to initiate and maintain goal-directed activity (Kruglanski et al., 2000). Locomotion is not characterized by a specific end state but rather by movement itself (Higgins et al., 2003; Pierro et al., 2006), where movement is understood to be any change from one state (psychological or behavioral) to another (Higgins et al., 2003, p.295).
A large body of evidence supports the claim that locomotion is a unique construct. For example, locomotion is conceptually distinct from promotion (Higgins, 2012; Kruglanski, 2016), implementation (Gollwitzer 1990; Scholer & Higgins 2012), and action orientation (Kuhl 1985). Furthermore, studies have obtained significant locomotion effects while controlling for the Big Five personality factors (Kruglanski et al., 2000; Pierro et al., 2011). Locomotion, just like assessment, is a dimension: it varies from low to high, and both individuals or situations can be characterized as low or high in locomotion. It is measured by the Regulatory Mode Questionnaire (Kruglanski et al., 2000) and can be induced experimentally (Avnet & Higgins 2003; Mauro et al. 2009).
There are conceptual reasons to think that the state of boredom and locomotion are related. Given its affective, cognitive, volitional, and physiological aspects, boredom is a psychological state that has the capacity to help us achieve movement. Boredom not only signals a dissatisfaction with our current situation, it also acts as a push that motivates us to get out of uninteresting or meaningless situations. As such, the state of boredom contributes to the exercise of locomotion. In line with the characterization of movement assumed by Regulatory Mode Theory (Kruglanski et al., 2013), the movement that boredom calls for and promotes does not have to be physical or behavioral; it can also be mental. That is, in order to alleviate boredom an individual might be motivated to change her situation or she might engage in a different mental activity, such as mind-wandering (Game, 2007; Harris, 2000; Martin et al., 2006).
I should be quick to point out that although boredom promotes locomotion, its proposed function is not movement pure and simple. Boredom aims not simply to move us from one situation to another but to facilitate a type of goal-directed motion—viz., one that takes us from an uninteresting or meaningless situation into one that it is interesting or meaningful. Indeed, boredom would be incapable of playing an integral role in self-regulation if its aim were not this type of goal-directed movement. But why suppose that boredom plays this self-regulatory role by promoting goal-directed movement? I offer three reasons.
First, such a proposal is supported both by phenomenological descriptions of the experience of boredom (Fahlman et al., 2013; Harris, 2000; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012) and by what we know about the affective, volitional, and cognitive aspects of boredom. Although bored individuals have a strong desire to escape their current situation, they do not simply wish to replace their situation with any alternative situation. Clearly, they do not want to move from one boring situation to another. Instead, in a state of boredom, one wishes both to stop doing what one is currently doing and to engage in a more satisfactory task (Fahlman et al., 2013; Harris, 2000; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012). The latter aspect of the volitional content of boredom is necessary because without a desire to engage in some other task, the experienced state would not be one of boredom but perhaps one of apathy. Furthermore, even if the volitional content of boredom is not fully specified, it is still “thicker” than a mere “do something else!” That is to say, even if bored individuals do not know precisely what they want to do, they do know that they want to be doing something that is interesting, exciting, or meaningful (Fahlman et al., 2013). On account of this volitional content, boredom will motivate individuals to seek out a more fulfilling task.
Second, the proposed function of boredom is consistent with the commonplace observation that mere movement is not always capable of alleviating boredom. The act of flipping through channels, for example, constitutes both some type of movement and change—at the very least, we have changed our immediate sensory environment and we are directing our attention to something else. Yet, such a change does not guarantee that boredom will be removed. The same holds for certain types of physical movement. Truck drivers driving through a monotonous desert road experience boredom (Drory, 1982) despite the fact that they are clearly moving and experience some kind of change. If boredom aimed merely to move us, then any state of change or movement would be the result of the proper exercise of boredom’s function. But such a claim opposes what we seem to know about the function of other (negative) emotions. Disgust and fear, for example, dissipate once their function has been fulfilled. More importantly, if boredom’s function were simply motion, it would be hard to make sense of boredom within a functional account of emotions (e.g., Keltner, Haidt, and Shiota, 2006; Keltner & Gross, 1999; Tooby & Cosmides 2008). According to such an account, emotions are solutions to problems of physical or social survival. Pure movement, however, does not seem sufficient in offering such solutions for complex organisms like us. Or, alternatively, if pure movement is capable of solving problems pertaining to physical or social survival, then the need for boredom as a distinct affective state becomes hard to discern. Other affective states or physiological states could serve the same function and do so more efficiently.
Third, the proposed claim about the function of boredom has the additional, theoretical benefit that it allows us to make sense of boredom proneness as the result of a dysfunction of the state of boredom. Boredom may fail to fulfill its function either because it fails to move us or because it moves us into situations that fail to alleviate our boredom—that is, it moves us into situations which are not meaningful or interesting to us. In either case, such a failure of boredom’s function could lead—if it is systematic—to the more frequent or prolonged experience of boredom (i.e., boredom proneness).
In making such a claim about the function and dysfunction of boredom, the proposal leads to empirically testable predictions. For one, it predicts that lack of movement will be a good indicator of boredom proneness—either because one is incapable of moving out of uninteresting situations when such situations arise, or because by remaining stuck in the same situation for a prolonged period of time, one ceases to be interested in the situation. Additionally, the proposal also predicts that having the ability to move from one situation to another will decrease the likelihood of being stuck in unsatisfactory situations and consequently decrease the frequency by which one experiences boredom. The latter prediction is in fact supported by evidence that shows that high locomotion is strongly negatively correlated with boredom proneness (Struk et al., 2015b).
In turn, it has been shown that high boredom prone individuals are more likely to engage in risky behaviors than low boredom prone individuals. Such a finding is prima facie puzzling. If high boredom prone individuals tend to engage in risky behavior, shouldn’t then that tendency reduce the frequency of their experience of boredom? After all, isn’t risky behavior exciting and as such not boring? Unfortunately, this is not an issue that has received sustained attention in the literature. Still, the proposed account of the function (and dysfunction) of boredom allows us to make some progress in accounting for it. Boredom functions optimally when it (a) informs us of the presence of a boring situation and (b) successfully motivates us to pursue a more interesting, fulfilling, or meaningful situation. Boredom proneness could thus be the result of a lack of motion, but it could also be the result of a failure to properly direct the motivating force of boredom. In the case of high boredom prone individuals who engage in risky behavior, it is more reasonable to maintain that boredom proneness is the product of the latter type of failure. In their attempts to escape boredom, such individuals may rely on what situations most readily afford them or on quick fixes of boredom instead of trying to find activities that are in line with their personal interests. Engaging in risky activities is the easy solution and one that in all likelihood will temporarily assuage one’s feelings of boredom. But if such an activity is not one that is in some sense meaningful to the agent and does not promote the agent’s interests, boredom will return.
All in all, we have strong reasons to accept the claim that boredom is a functional emotion. Not only is this conclusion supported by what we know about the character of boredom —its affective, cognitive, and motivational aspects—but it also carries a number of important theoretical advantages. It permits us to account for boredom proneness in terms of the function or dysfunction of the state of boredom; it gives rise to empirically testable predictions; and lastly, it is in line with functional accounts of emotions. By promoting movement, boredom contributes to locomotion. But boredom does more than that. Due to its affective, cognitive, and volitional character, boredom can, when it functions optimally, facilitate goal-directed movement and moves us closer to what we find interesting and meaningful.
4.2. The limits of boredom
The fact that boredom can promote the pursuit of more interesting, stimulating, or meaningful situations does not render it a psychological panacea. Most emotional states are ones that have both beneficial and harmful consequences—fear, for example, protects us from threats and dangers, yet it often forecloses opportunities and possibilities for action. Boredom is no exception and, in this section, I highlight three potential issues with boredom: i.e., three ways in which boredom may cease to be beneficial to us. I argue, however, that the fact that boredom does not always play a salutary role in our lives does not mean that it is not valuable. An understanding of the limitations of boredom is not a demonstration of its uselessness, but a necessary step in seeing more clearly how boredom can be used optimally and to our own advantage.
From boredom to boredom: Boredom, I argued, serves a two-fold function. First, it informs us of a mismatch between what we desire and what is being offered to us; in doing so, it signals the presence of an unsatisfactory, meaningless, or trite situation. Second, boredom acts as a motivational force that helps us to move out of such unsatisfactory, meaningless, or trite situations. It should be noted that the very state of boredom does not always carry information of what would alleviate our boredom. It is common among bored individuals to have a strong desire to do something other than what they are currently doing without however knowing exactly what that alternative is (e.g., Fahlman et al., 2013). Still, boredom’s motivational force is not aimless: even if boredom itself does not specify what we should be doing, it does motivate us to seek out a more interesting or fulfilling task. However, our pursuit for an interesting or fulfilling task need not always be successful. In an attempt to escape boredom, it is possible that we find ourselves in yet another unsatisfactory, meaningless, or trite situation—one that did not appear to us to be so beforehand. Of course, if boredom is successful in promoting movement, then it should motivate us once again to do something else and, hopefully, this time we will be more successful in finding something that satisfies our need for stimulation and engagement. Having said that, the very possibility that boredom may lead to another boring state highlights the need both for self-knowledge and for knowledge of our possibilities. Motion is good but not when it is purposeless. In order to fulfill its potential, boredom needs our guidance.
The interesting isn’t always beneficial: Boredom may be successful in moving us both out of unsatisfactory and uninteresting situations and into situations that are perceived by us to be interesting, engaging, and stimulating. Nonetheless, the fact that boredom has the ability to do so does not guarantee that the new interesting, engaging, or stimulating situation is one that is beneficial to us. As it was already discussed, individuals who score high on BPS are more likely than low boredom prone individuals to engage in potentially unsafe and dangerous activities (Dahlen et al., 2005; Kass et al., 2010). Such risky behavior is exciting but one that may either harm individuals or fail to promote their well-being.
The boring shouldn’t always be avoided: A subject may experience a situation as boring for a variety of reasons. Often, such a reaction is deemed to be appropriate insofar as it correctly represents features of the situation. Consider, for example, waiting in line to pay for groceries, attending a lecture on a topic that is utterly familiar to us, or having the same conversation over and over again. Such situations are not only boring from the perspective of the agent (insofar as they fail to stimulate her) but they are appropriately boring: we recognize that these are situations in which the agent is not afforded with meaningful or engaging opportunities. However, not all situations that are experienced as boring are appropriate in this sense.
Consider for instance the experience of boredom within an academic context. Students often experience boredom when they are attending lectures or when completing challenging assignments (Acee et al., 2010; Belton & Priyadharshini, 2007; Mann & Robinson, 2009). In one sense, such an experience is a fitting reaction to the situation insofar as the situation is one that has failed to engage the subject. In another sense, however, boredom can be said to be an inappropriate reaction. Assuming that the class is important for the subject, the experience of boredom does not allow the subject to focus on the material, leading potentially to a bad outcome. Classes maybe boring, but often they should not.
If I am correct to emphasize the motivational and aversive character of boredom, the onset of boredom will motivate the individual to do something that alleviates the experience of boredom. In doing so, boredom could lead to harmful results. If one is bored during class, boredom could lead to irrelevant mind-wandering or motivate the individual to engage in an activity that is unrelated to the class. While such actions are often employed as means to alleviate boredom, they are not the only ones available to the agent. For example, there is some preliminary evidence that suggests that boredom can foster creativity (Gasper & Middlewood, 2014; Mann & Cadman, 2014). Thus, as a response to the experience of boredom, individuals could engage in creative thinking about the material at hand or attempt creative or novel solutions to questions or exercises. Furthermore, a number of studies have found that boredom promotes the reestablishment of a sense of meaningfulness (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011 and 2012). Such an attempt to find meaning could allow a student to engage with the material in a different way or to discover something that was not immediately evident to her. Lastly, it is important to emphasize that the fact that boredom promotes movement does not necessarily entail that boredom will promote movement away from the task at hand. Indeed, even though individuals high on locomotion have a preference for multi-tasking, they are capable of remaining focused on a given task (Pierro et al., 2011): They can secure sustained attention on a task by moving from one state of knowledge or understanding to another while engaging in that task.
Lesson: What do the above limitations tell us about boredom and its value? They underline that boredom will not by itself solve our problems. It needs direction and a kind of know-how that allows us to use boredom in the right way. In other words, we need to have the ability to know how to read the situation and how to respond to it. Thus, listening to what boredom tells us when it arises, and being able to use its motivational power in order to promote movement, can help not only to reduce the duration of our current boring experience but also to increase the chances of later finding ourselves in situations that are congruent with our desires and in line with our interests. Such a conclusion might seem to suggest that what is beneficial for us is not boredom itself but knowledge about boredom and its uses. Such a reaction underestimates—severely, I believe—the motivational power of boredom. Boredom is a powerful emotional state that can at once disengage us from uninteresting or meaningless situations and move us away from them. It has been reported, for example, that individuals who are left alone in a room with their thoughts (a situation that is considered to be boring) are willing to shock themselves as a way to stimulate themselves and escape the monotony of their situation (Wilson et al., 2014). Clearly, on account of its motivational character, boredom differs from apathy and other states of disengagement. But it also differs from other related negative states, e.g., frustration. Whereas frustration (at least sometimes) can be understood as a call to persist in what we are doing (Amsel, 1992), boredom can be understood as a call to switch our activity. Boredom disengages us from our current situation, makes salient to us our alternative possibilities, and motivates us to do something else. As such, boredom plays a unique and useful role in our mental economy.
5. Boredom and well-being
So far, I have argued that an important part of boredom’s function is to move us: on account of its character, boredom can move us out of uninteresting situations and into ones that are closer to our desires, goals, and projects. As such, it can regulate our behavior. But if boredom has the capacity to promote motion and in doing so to bring us closer to what can be important, relevant, or exciting to us, doesn’t it also, at least sometimes, have the capacity to promote well-being? In this section, I shall argue precisely for that claim. We do not want boredom to arise. We do not like it when it does arise. Still, its presence informs us that our current situation is not satisfactory to us. More importantly, boredom also offers us an affective force that can motivate us to pursue our goals. Hence, boredom can be valuable even if it is unpleasant.
5.1. Beyond happiness
There is more to living a good life than living a life that is mostly devoid of pain, distress, and physical and mental illnesses. Although this point has been acknowledged for decades now (Jahoda, 1958; Keyes, 2002; Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Singer, 1998), the precise nature of the good life still remains a matter of debate (e.g., Ryan and Deci, 2001). If the absence of pain, distress, and illnesses is not sufficient for well-being, then what is needed in order for an individual to achieve well-being? Current empirical psychology on well-being is divided into two broad camps. On the one hand, theorists who espouse a hedonic view of well-being (Kahneman et al., 1999) hold that well-being consists in pleasure or happiness (e.g., Diener et al., 1998; Diener, 2000). On the other hand, theorists committed to a eudaimonic account of well-being insist that well-being requires more than pleasure and happiness: to live well an individual must be capable of realizing one’s true potential, or, at the very least, an individual must be capable of exercising certain human capacities (e.g., Aristotle, 1925; Fromm, 1981; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Singer, 1998 and 2000; Waterman, 1993).
Ryan and Deci (2001) note that there are findings that suggest that well-being is a multidimensional construct and as such includes aspects of both views of well-being (e.g., Compton et al., 1996; King & Napa, 1998; McGregor & Little, 1998). For example, King & Napa (1998) surveyed lay people about the character of the good life and found that both happy and meaningful lives were desirable. McGregor and Little (1998) conducted factor analyses of a number of diverse well-being measures and found two distinct factors—one for happiness and one for meaningfulness—suggesting that happiness might be disconnected or independent from meaningfulness and that well-being is composed of both.
A conceptual investigation into the notion of well-being favors the eudaimonic view. That is to say, it supports the claim that even though happiness is an important—perhaps even a necessary—component of well-being, it is not sufficient. A vicious and immoral life that is nevertheless filled with pleasure and happiness is not a good life. The same goes for a simulated life such as a life in the matrix. Although such a life might be infused with positive affect and experiences, it is not a good life (Nozick, 1974). It lacks grounding in reality and it is devoid of autonomy, one’s choices and decisions are not one’s own. Whatever else a good life is, it has to be a life that is our own.
Other theoretical articulations of mental health and well-being also support the conclusion that happiness is not the be all and end all of the good life (e.g., Allport, 1961; Fromm, 1981; Jahoda, 1958; Keyes, 1998; Rogers, 1961; Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Keyes, 1995). A good life is one that contains not just happiness or positive affects but also the determination and pursuit of goals. In living the good life one discovers and exercises one’s talents. One grows as a person. One builds his or her social and physical environment. There is no denying that happiness is good and beneficial to us (Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Lyubomirksy & Layous, 2013). But happiness is not equivalent to well-being: the latter requires the former (a good life is a happy life), but the former does not guarantee the latter (a happy life is not necessarily a good life).
5.2. Boredom and psychological well-being
In developing their eudaimonic account of well-being, Ryff and Singer articulated six dimensions of psychological well-being: positive relations with others, environmental mastery, autonomy, personal growth, self-acceptance, and purpose in life (Ryff, 1989; Ryff & Singer, 1998). Accordingly, individuals flourish in life when they have trusting and loving relationships with others; when they are in the position to shape their environment in order to satisfy their desires and accomplish their goals; when they can make their own independent decisions and are internally motivated; when they see themselves as developing and growing; when they are satisfied with most aspects of themselves; and when they perceive their lives to have meaning, coherence, and direction. What such an account makes clear is that living well is a multidimensional dynamic process. It involves movement and progress. It involves the taking up of interests. It requires the expression and exercise of a number of human capacities.
Reflecting on Ryff and Singer’s (1998) psychological well-being account—specifically, on personal growth and purpose in life—allows us to see how boredom can contribute towards our well-being. According to Ryff and Singer, what it means to flourish is to continue to develop one’s potential. A good life is one that is marked by a certain kind of progression: in living such a life one gets better (intellectually, socially, and even morally). One grows as a person by realizing one’s opportunities and talents and by being open to new experiences and challenges (Ryff, 1989; Ryff and Singer, 1998).
The state of boredom can promote personal growth. By moving us out of uninteresting situations, boredom motivates us to pursue what we already find interesting (Sansone et al., 1992; Smith et al., 2009; van Tilburg & Igou, 2011 and 2012). As such, it can help us to realize and practice our talents. By helping us to get unstuck and by promoting movement, boredom can also contribute to the development of our projects and to the achievement of our pre-established goals. Furthermore, boredom promotes the pursuit of interest, and the experience of interest leads to openness to new situations and activities (Cohn et al., 2009; Fredrickson, 2013; cf. Bench & Lench, 2013). Being bored is not good in and of itself. It is an aversive experience that signifies lack of interest and engagement. Yet precisely because of its aversive nature, boredom can help us to get back on track by invigorating interest in one’s projects (Elpidorou, 2014). Although boredom itself is a form of stagnation, it can promote movement if we know how, and are able, to utilize its potential.
In addition to contributing to personal growth, boredom can also help in the construction of a meaningful life. Individuals with personal projects that are consistent with elements of their self-identity report higher levels of meaning than those whose projects are not in line with their self-identity (McGregor & Little, 1998). Such coherence and meaningfulness in one’s life has been shown to be associated with certain aspects of well-being such as self-actualization and vitality (Sheldon & Kasser, 1995; Sheldon et al., 1996). Furthermore, a meaningful life is not only a consistent or coherent life, but also one that possesses a sense of direction or purpose (Ryff, 1989).
If boredom signals a lack of meaning (Van Tilburg and Igou, 2012) and at the same time promotes the pursuit of meaningful activities (Barbalet, 1999; Elpidorou, 2014; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011 and 2012), then boredom can contribute to the buildup of personal meaning. It does that not by being itself a meaningful experience, but by providing the agent with information about her situation and by motiving her to pursue alternative projects when the current projects lose their meaning and significance. Boredom has the capacity to trigger certain self-regulatory processes and such processes are capable of causing a change in one’s behavior (e.g., Fahlman et al., 2013; Harris, 2000; Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993; Sansone et al., 1992; Smith et al., 2009; cf. Csikszentmihalyi, 1975). Ultimately, the state of boredom can help one to establish or reestablish a sense of meaningfulness and coherence, when such a sense is missing (Barbalet, 1999; Van Tilburg & Igou, 2011 and 2011).
6. Connections and further directions
Either in passing remarks or in sustained articulations of its nature, boredom figures in the works of authors such as Dante, Pascal, Novalis, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Pessoa, Heidegger, Russell, and Brodsky. Indeed, discussions of boredom can be traced at least all the way back to the writings of early Christian fathers who were concerned with a type of spiritual boredom (acedia) responsible for neglecting one’s religious duties. Despite its long and intricate history, philosophical and literary discussions of boredom have tended to emphasize its negative character. Although not everyone would agree with Kierkegaard’s pronouncement that “boredom is the root of all evil,” many have argued that boredom is a problem (Kierkegaard 1843/1987, p. 285). Understood as a short-lived state, boredom is a burdensome distraction, unbecoming of our goal-orientated lives. Understood as a prolonged condition, boredom is an existential malaise: a source of unhappiness and an obstacle to the development of one’s capacities.
By synthesizing recent work from the psychology of boredom, I have offered a complementary perspective to predominantly negative articulations of boredom’s character. I have argued that through an investigation of the experiential profile of boredom we can begin to understand boredom’s function. Specifically, I have suggested that boredom is a self-regulatory state capable both of informing us of the presence of an unsatisfactory situation and of pushing us out of such a situation and into one that is deemed to be more interesting, meaningful, or fulfilling. In this respect, the current article is in agreement with a recent trend in boredom literature that takes boredom to be an emotional or affective state that serves a purpose in our everyday lives. However, it differs from existing literature in at least two crucial ways. First, the present account articulates boredom’s function by relating it to a specific aspect of self-regulation (namely, locomotion) and by emphasizing its capacity to move us. Second, it makes a novel case for boredom’s value by describing the ways in which the state of boredom can promote aspects of eudaimonic well-being. As far as I know, no other work on boredom has suggested that boredom can play a role in our well-being.
Although research on boredom is witnessing a growing popularity, many issues regarding its nature, antecedents and effects remain unresolved. For instance, the neurological and somatic correlates of boredom have not been isolated, its connection to mind-wandering, attention, and perception of meaningfulness is still explored, and its potential effects on morality is a topic that only very recently has received empirical attention (e.g., Elpidorou, 2017; Van Tilburg and Igou, 2016). There is even disagreement about the factor structure of the BPS (e.g., Melton & Schulenberg, 2009; Vodanovich et al., 2005; Struk et al., 2015a).
Perhaps the most pressing issue within the psychology literature on boredom is the question of how to alleviate the harms associated with boredom proneness. The relationship between locomotion and the function of boredom as proposed in this article has the potential to help. A suggestion that naturally emerges out of the present discussion is that the effects of repetitive induction of locomotion on boredom ought to be experimentally investigated (Struk et al., 2015b). Specifically, it is expected that if boredom proneness is low when locomotion is high, then the repetitive induction of a locomotion orientation should reduce scores on BPS (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986). Such a suggestion is consistent with findings that show that high boredom prone individuals are unable to initiate action (e.g., Blunt & Plychyl 1998; Farmer & Sundberg, 1986; McGiboney & Carter 1988;) and feel stuck in their situations (Fahlman et al., 2013; Fenichel, 1951; Todman, 2003). Given boredom’s relationship to attentional difficulties (Eastwood et al., 2012), the suggestion is also in line with studies showing that high locomotors can stay focused and resist distractions (Pierro et al., 2011).
7. Conclusion: the value of negativity
There is much discussion about the benefits of positive states (e.g., Cohn et al., 2009; Fredrickson, 1998, 2000, and 2001; Fredrickson & Joiner, 2002; Garland et al., 2000; Lyubomirsky et al., 2005; Lyubomirksy & Layous, 2013) but very little mention of how negative states have the capacity to enhance our lives and help us to flourish. This is unfortunate. To restrict our attention to positive states and feelings (e.g., pleasure, joy, interest, hope, trust) would be to miss out on the full potential that lies within our rich psychological worlds. States of discontent might be unpleasant, but they are powerful, moving, and instructive.
There is a place for negative emotions in well-being (e.g., Baumeister et al., 2001; Diener & Seligman 2002). Such an assertion does not mean that we should pursue negative emotions. Well-being is not being promoted by the chronic or frequent experience of those negative emotions. Still, the ability to have those emotions and the fact that we can react to them in the right way is valuable to us. Negative experiences and emotions are unavoidable. Yet, how we are going to react to them depends to a certain extent on us. Articulating boredom’s function allows us to discover what it can do for us. And knowing what boredom can do for us is the first step in being able to use boredom to our advantage.
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 Most emotions involve an affective component that amounts to the phenomenology or felt quality of the emotion; a cognitive component that consists of the effects of the emotional state on perceptual and cognitive processes and vice versa; a physiological or somatic component that includes the physiological and neurological correlates of the emotional state; an expressive component that consists of the associated facial and bodily expressions; and lastly a volitional component that is composed of the actions, thoughts, and desires prompted by the presence of the emotion.
 In my presentation, I ignore the expressive component of boredom. This is a topic that has received very little attention. In one of the few investigations on this topic, Wallbott (1998) reported that bored individuals tend to lean their head backwards (i.e., to raise their chin), to collapse their bodies, and to restrain from movement.
 Attentional failures seem to be an important mechanism of boredom (Eastwood et al., 2012; cf. Leary et al., 1986; Skowronski, 2012). Such a judgment is corroborated by findings that show that manipulation of attention can affect the experience of boredom (Damrad-Frye & Laird, 1989). Furthermore, it has also been reported that tasks that require sustained attention are often perceived as boring (Malkovsky et al., 2012; Pattyn et al., 2008; Scerbo et al., 1992).
 I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting that I discuss in more detail the volitional content of boredom.
 To be clear, the claim that boredom proneness is the result of a dysfunction of the state of boredom does not mean that the mere disposition to experience boredom is dysfunctional. Sometimes the disposition to experience boredom can have salutary effects. For example, it can promote escape from an unsatisfactory situation (Bench & Lench, 2013; Elpidorou, 2014), help to establish a sense of meaningfulness (Van Tilburg & Igou, 2012), or even bolster creativity (Gasper & Middlewood, 2014; Mann & Cadman, 2014). At the same time, however, if one is disposed to experience boredom often and in a wide range of situations, as this is the case for individuals who score high on BPS, then such a disposition will be harmful. Understanding boredom as a functional emotional state that may malfunction allows us to make sense of how boredom can be both good and bad for us. I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer for helping me see the value of distinguishing between state boredom, boredom proneness, and the disposition to experience boredom.
 Boredom does not seek merely to promote movement but to contribute to the realization of goal-directed movement. This aspect of the function of boredom is reflected, I suggested, in its volitional character: boredom motivates one to engage in a task that is more stimulating, interesting, or meaningful than the current one. Thus, boredom would not be alleviated unless one succeeds in finding and engaging with such a task.
 The history of boredom does contain some dissenting voices. Most notably, these include Russell (1996), Heidegger (1983/2001), and Brodsky (1997). Brief and sometimes enigmatic remarks about the value of boredom can also be found in Nietzsche (2001, p. 57), Sontag (2012), Higgins (1981) and in novels by D.F. Wallace (The Pale King) and E. Levé (Suicide). Elpidorou (2015b) uses Sartre’s theory of emotions to propose a function for boredom.
Invited Comments by Zac Irving (Berkeley, Virginia)
Commentary On Elpidorou’s The Good of Boredom
UC Berkeley, University of Virginia
Elipdorou’s “The Good of Boredom” is explores an under-celebrated emotion: boredom. In a slogan, Elipdorou argues that boredom promotes movement: that is, boredom motivates us to move our body or thoughts towards something more interesting than whatever we are currently doing. My commentary presents a problem that arises when we consider Elipdorou’s theory alongside Kurzban et al.’s influential model of mental effort. Prima facie, Kurzban et al. ascribe the same function to mental effort as Elipdorou ascribes to boredom. But boredom and effort seem opposed: paradigmatically, we feel bored when things are too easy and effort when things are too hard. I consider three ways forward. First, we can reject one of Elipdorou or Kurzban et al.’s theories. Second, we can collapse the commonsense distinction between boredom and effort. I favour a third option: we can present a more detailed view of the function of boredom that explains how these emotions are distinct. I end my commentary with a sketch of such a view, centered on an account of how each emotion relates to mind-wandering.
1. Elipdorou’s Theory of Boredom
Elipdorou holds that boredom is a self-regulatory state. In general, self-regulatory states are those that represent that a current state of affairs is sub-optimal to the subject and thereby motivate the subject to improve that state of affairs. Consider a toy case: hunger. Hunger is plausibly a self-regulatory state, in that it represents that we have not eaten enough, and therefore motivates us to eat more. Likewise, Elpidorou argues that boredom represents that what we are currently doing is undesirable or uninteresting, and thereby motivates us to do something more desirable or interesting. In this way, boredom might motivate one to do something as extravagant as hang gliding or as mundane as mind-wandering (Game, 2007; Harris, 2000; Martin, Sadlo, & Stew, 2006).
Elpidoru’s theory tempers a widely-held view in empirical boredom research: that boredom is harmful. Many adverse outcomes are indeed correlated with the trait of boredom proneness: that is, “the propensity to experience boredom frequently and in a wide range of situations” (Elpidorou, 2017; cf. Farmer & Sundberg, 1986 p. 5). For instance, boredom prone individuals tend to be more reckless drivers (Dahlen, Martin, Ragan, & Kuhlman, 2005), to have poorer grades (Mikulas & Vodanovich, 1993), and to have lower overall life satisfaction (Farmer & Sundberg, 1986) than peers who are not prone to boredom (cf. Elpidoru, 2017, p.2 for other harms associated with boredom proneness).
Although the trait of boredom proneness has costs, Elpidoru argues that the self-regulatory state of boredom is crucial for wellbeing:
Boredom protects us from certain situations. It does so by informing us of the presence of situations that are not in line with our interests and desires, and by motivating us to do something else. If we were to lack the capacity to be bored, we would not notice when we are faced with an unsatisfying, non-stimulating, or monotonous situation. Nor would we do something to get out of it (Elpidorou, 2017 p. 5).
The analogy to hunger is again instructive. Suppose that empirical researchers identify a trait of hunger-proneness, which is correlated with harmful outcomes including obesity, early mortality, and low overall life satisfaction. Clearly, the self-regulatory state of hunger would still have benefits: without hunger, we would starve. Likewise, empirical research on the costs of boredom proneness is compatible with the benefits Elpidoru ascribes to the self-regulatory state of boredom.
Elpidorou’s account of boredom is not only plausible, but also important, insofar as it highlights the benefits of an emotion that is too often maligned in the empirical literature. Yet it is difficult to square Elpidorou’s work with another plausible theory: Kurzban et al.’s opportunity cost model of mental effort.
2. The Worry: Boredom Versus Mental Effort
Kurzban et al. (Kurzban, Duckworth, Kable, & Myers, 2013) argue that mental effort represents the opportunity cost of continuing to perform one’s current task, relative to switching tasks. At the center of their model is an unconscious mechanism that compares the costs and benefits (i.e. the expected value) of one’s current task to alternative tasks that one could perform instead. One experiences mental effort when one’s current task has less expected value than another alternative. In turn, mental effort motivates one to switch tasks and pursue a better alternative.
Let’s make this theory less abstract with an example. Suppose you’re in a technical philosophy colloquium, struggling to follow the argument. You try to pay attention, but you have to exert a great deal of mental effort not to check your smartphone or let your mind wander. Kurzban et al. (2013) argue that your effort is a signal that following the talk has less expected value than your alternative tasks––checking your phone or mind-wandering (admittedly, unconscious processes might be wrong about what’s actually valuable for you. Effort is therefore a signal of what is subjectively valuable, as determined by the mechanisms in question, not objective expected utility). Likewise, your experience of effort motivates you to pursue an alternative course of action, such as checking your phone or mind-wandering.
Elpidorou and Kurzban et al.’s theories of boredom and mental effort are remarkably similar, once we translate them into the same conceptual vocabulary. Both emotions are said to represent that what we are currently doing (i.e. our current task) is uninteresting or undesirable (i.e. has less expected value than what we could be doing). Both emotions are thereby said to motivate one to do something more desirable or interesting (i.e. to perform a task with higher expected value).
But boredom and effort seem opposed. Phenomenologically, we feel restless when we are bored and exhausted when we exert mental effort. Paradigmatically, we feel mental effort when we are working too hard and feel boredom when we are not working hard enough. Common sense therefore speaks against theories that run boredom and mental effort together. Common sense can of course be mistaken, but it provides a defeasible reason to worry about whether Elpidorou and Kurzban et al.’s theories are consistent.
I will now consider three ways forward. First, we could reject either one of the two theories in question. Second, we could collapse the commonsense distinction between boredom and mental effort. Finally, we could clarify the functions of boredom and effort in a way that explains how they are distinct. I favour this last option, and will sketch an account of the distinct functions of boredom and effort.
3. First Option: Reject A Theory
The first way forward is to reject one of Elpidorou or Kurzban et al.’s theories. In particular, Elpidorou could argue that boredom gives us reason to adopt a model of effort other than Kurzban et al.’s.
Consider a limited resource theory of mental effort. According to such a theory, you feel mental effort when you have depleted a resource like the blood glucose that neurons use for energy (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007), just as you feel physical effort when you have depleted a resource like the adenosine triphosphate that muscles use for energy. Limited resource models of mental effort contrast with Kurzban et al.’s opportunity cost model. According to limited resource model, you feel mental effort––and are thereby motivated to switch tasks––when and only when you have taxed the resources in question. In contrast, Kurzban et al. hold that you feel mental effort––and are thereby motivated to switch tasks––when and only when the expected value of your current task is less than your other alternatives.
In contrast to Kurzban et al., limited resource theories easily delineate the functions of boredom and mental effort. Boredom represents that one’s current task is uninteresting or undesirable and thereby motivates one to switch tasks. Mental effort represents that one’s current task has taxed one’s cognitive resources and thereby motivates one to use less of those resources. Other models of mental effort might offer similarly natural explanations of how boredom and effort differ. Elpidorou could argue that this is a major benefit of these models.
If Elpidorou and Kurzban et al.’s theories are inconsistent, we must reject (at least) one. Which one is beyond the scope of this commentary; that question would hinge on a comparison of the explanatory costs and benefits of both theories, as well as rival accounts of boredom and mental effort. For the remainder of this commentary, I will therefore consider whether we can reconcile Elpidorou and Kurzban et al.’s theories.
3. Second Option: Collapse the Boredom/Effort Distinction
Another way forward is to collapse the commonsense distinction between boredom and mental effort. Indeed, boredom and effort sometimes come hand in hand. Suppose you’re sitting in a tedious lecture on material that you already know well. You’d likely feel bored. Now suppose that you’re trying hard to pay attention to that lecture out of a sense of collegial duty. Doing so would likely require mental effort. Based on cases like this––where boredom and effort come together––one could advance the revisionary view that “boredom” and “effort” are really two names for the same thing: the aversive experience you feel when forcing yourself to attend to something uninteresting.
I find this view implausible because there are cases where boredom and effort come apart. Suppose you start a conference filled with energy and excited to learn. Yet the first talk is tedious and has no apparent point. After a short while, you stop trying to pay attention and thus exert little mental effort. Yet you still feel mind-numbingly bored. You desperately want to do something, anything, to engage your mind. Here, you seem to experience boredom without mental effort. Later in the conference, you attend a talk that’s fascinating, yet punishingly technical. It takes great effort to focus on the slides, not because they bore you in the slightest, but rather because it’s exhausting to absorb such technical material. You desperately want to disengage, to let your mind rest. Here, you seem to experience mental effort without boredom.
These cases are important for two reasons. First, the cases suggest that boredom and effort are doubly dissociable, and therefore speak against collapsing the distinction between these emotions. Second, the cases suggest that boredom and effort have different motivational roles. Boredom motivates you to do mentally engage with something, anything, of interest. Mental effort motivates you to mentally disengage, to let your mind rest. In the final section of my commentary, I will expand upon the idea that boredom and effort have distinct motivational roles. Specifically, I will sketch a view grounded in how these emotions relate to mind-wandering.
4. Third Option: Boredom, Effort, and Mind-Wandering
Here’s the view I want to sketch, from afar (these ideas are from an ongoing collaboration with Chandra Sripada; cf. Sripada, 2016). Both boredom and mental effort motivate us to switch what we’re doing and pursue a more desirable activity. But to distinguish these emotions, we must consider what kinds of alternative activities they motivate us to pursue. Elpidorou takes a step in this direction when he says that boredom motivates us to pursue goal-directed motion in particular:
I should be quick to point out that although boredom promotes locomotion, its proposed function is not movement pure and simple. Boredom aims not simply to move us from one situation to another but to facilitate a type of goal-directed motion—viz., one that takes us from an uninteresting or meaningless situation into one that it is interesting or meaningful. Indeed, boredom would be incapable of playing an integral role in self-regulation if its aim were not this type of goal-directed movement (Elpidorou, 2017, p. 10).
We can extend Elpidorou’s ideas to distinguish the motivational roles of boredom and effort. When we are bored, goal-directed activities feel more desirable than they otherwise would. We are therefore more motivated to think and act in a goal-directed manner. When we exert mental effort, restful activities feel more desirable than they otherwise would. We are therefore more motivated to let our minds rest.
A core application of this view pertains to thinking. I hypothesize that boredom and mental effort motivate us to think in different ways. Suppose you’re bored while you sit through a tedious talk. Here, you would desire to do something, anything, to engage your mind. Specifically, it would relieve your boredom to engage in goal-directed thought: to plan an essay, for example, or respond to emails on your phone. Suppose instead that you’re exerting mental effort to follow a technical talk. Here, you would desire not to engage in another train of goal-directed thought, but rather to rest your mind. Specifically, it would be a relief to let your mind wander, giving in to whatever memories, images, or bits of inner speech drift before your mind.
My hypothesis is this: boredom and mental effort increase the desirability of goal-directed thinking and mind-wandering, respectively. Let’s make this idea a little more precise. Boredom and mental effort act partly as weighting functions, which alter the baseline subjective expected values of goal-directed thinking and mind-wandering. Boredom boosts the value of goal-directed thinking such as methodically planning an essay (that’s interesting!) while decreasing the value of aimless mind-wandering (that’s boring!) (Table 1). In contrast, mental effort boosts the value of aimless mind-wandering (that’s restful!) while decreasing the value of goal-directed thinking (that’s exhausting!) (Table 1).
|Baseline (Unweighted)||Boredom||Mental Effort|
|Potential Activities||Focus on Lecture||10||10||10|
|Mind-wandering||13||11 (-2)||15 (+2)|
|Planning an Essay||14||17 (+2)||12 (-2)|
Table 1: How boredom and effort weight the expected values of potential activities. The “baseline” column represents the unweighted expected values of three potential activities. The “boredom” and “mental effort” columns represent the weighted expected values of those three activities while one is bored and exerting mental effort, respectively. In all cases, the highest expected value activity is in bold. Crucially, planning an essay has the highest expected value while one is bored, whereas mind-wandering has the highest expected value while one is exerting mental effort.
Boredom, mental effort, and mind-wandering may therefore be intimately connected. Future research could unify philosophical work on these three topics. For one, we might draw on philosophical distinctions between mind-wandering and goal-directed thinking (Christoff, Irving, Fox, Spreng, & Andrews-Hanna, 2016; Dorsch, 2014; Irving, 2016a; Irving & Thompson, forthcoming; Metzinger, 2013, 2015, Sripada, forthcoming, 2016) to understand the activities that boredom and mental effort motivate us to pursue.
Furthermore, the rational roles of boredom, effort, and mind-wandering might be intertwined. Sripada (forthcoming; cf. Irving 2016b, Chapter 5) argues that mind-wandering and goal-directed thinking help us trade off between “exploration” and “exploitation”. Mind-wandering helps us explore for novel ideas. In contrast, goal-directed thinking helps us “exploit” old ideas, rigorously thinking through their consequences. Yet there is a deep question about how we decide when to explore, and when to exploit. Boredom and effort may help us make these decisions, if they motivate us to engage in goal-directed thinking (mental exploitation) and mind-wandering (mental exploration), respectively (Sripada, 2016 advances a similar view about mental effort). On this model, boredom and effort play integral, connected, and complicated roles in regulating our thought. Together, boredom and effort not only motivate us to move on from activities that are unlikely to advance our interests (e.g. boring or exhausting lectures), but also motivate us to balance between exploration and exploitation in the activities that we do pursue.
Let’s summarize where we have arrived. Boredom too often gets a bad rap, as does mental effort. Both emotions might seem like a nuisance, insofar as they impugn our ability to stay on task. Yet Elpidorou convincingly brings out two benefits of boredom. First, boredom “protect[s] us from… situations that are not in line with our interests and desires” (Elipdorou, 2017, p. 5). Mental effort may afford similar protection (Kurzban et al., 2013). Second, and more uniquely, boredom “facilitate[s] a type of goal-directed motion”. In contrast, I’ve suggested that mental effort motivates us to pursue the opposite of goal-directed thought: mind-wandering. Boredom and mental effort might likewise be compliments, helping us to trade-off between exploitation and exploration. Far from a nuisance, boredom and effort may signal the optimal tracks for the train of thought.
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Invited Comments by Jennifer M. Windt (Monash)
The bored & the restless: Boredom, self-regulation & spontaneous thought
Commentary on Andreas Elpidorou
Jennifer M. Windt
Andreas Elpidorou aims to reconcile us with a mental state we are typically eager to avoid: boredom, despite its aversive phenomenal character, is in fact good for us. Elpidorou argues that the good of boredom is twofold. One, it has an epistemic function by making us aware of a discrepancy between our interests and goals on the one hand and our current situation including ongoing tasks on the other hand. Two, it has a motivational function, in that boredom drives us to engage in other, more engaging tasks and activities.
Elpidorou’s case for boredom is compelling but also raises important questions. In particular, does boredom fulfill a unique and distinctive function, or could the same good be achieved through other, less aversive means—i.e., without requiring us to sit through the tediousness of boredom? How exactly does boredom fulfill its alleged function? And what is the relation between boredom and other mental states? In this commentary, I address these questions by investigating the relationship between boredom and mind wandering, or spontaneous thought that is largely independent of ongoing tasks and environmental demands. I propose that there is a close overlap between boredom and mind wandering, and mind wandering seems ideally poised to fulfill both the epistemic and the motivational functions Elpidorou claims for boredom. I should say at the outset that my aim here is not to defend any strong, overarching claims either about the good of boredom or about that of mind wandering. Rather, I wish to show that the investigation of boredom and its relation to mind wandering is a fruitful topic for future research. I identify points of contact between the literatures on mind wandering and boredom and sketch different ways of conceptualizing what is likely to be a complex relationship between two constructs that themselves require fine-grained analysis.
I begin by reconstructing the main points of Elpidorou’s position, with particular focus on the potential connection between boredom and mind wandering. I then propose that there are good reasons for thinking that different subtypes of boredom exist, and not all are equally beneficial. The subtypes of boredom that seem to best fit the functional profile sketched by Elpidorou appear to be closely associated with mind wandering; mind wandering is also often induced by boring, undemanding tasks. Much of the literature on mind wandering has emphasized its detrimental effects on the performance of ongoing, attention-demanding tasks and mood. Yet mind wandering, much as is the case for boredom, is a complex construct, and different subtypes need to be distinguished. Moreover, there is increasing empirical evidence supporting the benefits of certain types of mind wandering—and these fit in well with the epistemic and motivational functions Elpidorou proposes for boredom. It therefore seems plausible that the induction of mind wandering might be a candidate mechanism through which boredom fulfills these functions.
This is not to say that the proposed good of boredom is entirely fulfilled by mind wandering. There might still be something distinctively good either about boredom in general or boredom-induced mind wandering in particular. Boredom may also be able to fulfill these functions through pathways that are independent of mind wandering. For now, I do not want to a commit to a strong position on these issues; my main point is that to further understand the potential benefits of (certain types of) boredom, research on mind wandering is an excellent place to look.
2. Elpidorou’s case for the good of boredom
Elpidorou offers a critical review of the literature on boredom alongside conceptual clarification. He argues persuasively that the state of boredom, understood as the transitory experience of boredom, should be distinguished from and is in fact prior to the trait of boredom, or the disposition to experience boredom under certain conditions.
Elpidorou also offers a multilevel account in which the state of boredom is characterized by its affective, cognitive, physiological, and volitional profile. First and foremost, boredom is aversive and often associated with a perceived loss of the sense of agency, lethargy, and irritability. Second, boredom is associated with disengagement from and dissatisfaction with one’s current environment and activities, impaired concentration and attention, mind wandering, and a slowed sense of the passage of time. Third, the physiological profile of boredom is less clear, sometimes being described as a low-energy and apathetic state, other times as a state of restlessness and high arousal. Fourth, boredom is associated with the desire to escape one’s current situation and engage in a different activity or task.
Elpidorou proposes that this complex profile enables boredom to have a regulatory function. Boredom has an insight component, by making us aware of a mismatch between our current situation and our interests and desires, and a motivational component, by motivating us to escape our current situation and engage in different activities. Elpidorou acknowledges that boredom can fail to fulfill either or both of these functions. Yet ideally, both the insight and the motivational components work together. Here, Elpidorou appeals to Regulatory Mode Theory, which distinguishes two dimensions of human behavior: assessment and locomotion. Assessment corresponds to the insight component of boredom, wherein the aversive character of boredom signals the negative evaluation of one’s current situation. Locomotion refers to the initiation and maintenance of goal-directed activity, which can involve changes in one’s behavioral or one’s psychological state. Importantly, while the aversiveness of boredom may constitute a primary motivation to alter one’s situation, not just any alteration will count as beneficial. As Elpidorou (p. 10) puts it, “Boredom aims not simply to move us from one situation to another but to facilitate a type of goal-directed motion—viz., one that takes us from an uninteresting or meaningless situation into one that is interesting or meaningful.” Boredom, at least in the long-term, helps keep us in line with our projects and goals and reassess them against the demands of our current situation. It is beneficial to our wellbeing, but also, as Elpidorou emphasizes, can promote richer kinds of meaning that are crucial for leading a good life, replete with goals and activities that are our own and that we endorse.
This description makes it clear that the job description of boredom is demanding and complex, and Elpidorou acknowledges that this process does not always work smoothly. Boredom can fail to carry information about what, in a given situation, might alleviate it. He also points out that mere desire to escape a boring situation without direction and assessment of suitable alternatives is insufficient. To fully work its good, boredom will have to signal discrepancy between our current situation and our goals and motivate us to escape, but will also have to suggest a specific escape route and more satisfying course of action. This escape route will not just have to be generally aligned with our goals, but will have to be tailored to that subset of our goals whose pursuit can be realized given our current situation. As we all know from boring situations, this challenge is non-trivial: part of the aversiveness of boredom is that it typically arises in situations that, for one reason or another, constrain the space of possible action. Our options for escaping a boring meeting can be painfully limited, and boring tasks often have to be finished rather than abandoned.
Related to this is the fact, again familiar, that boredom can arise in response to tasks that despite their tediousness actually do align with broader or longer-term goals. Consider the task of proofreading the references for a research article prior to publication in a high-profile journal, or finalizing the paperwork for a promising job or grant application. In such cases, boredom may motivate us to abandon tasks that are crucial for our personal or professional projects and goals. Here, the tediousness of boredom seems counterproductive. Just as boredom can give us actual insight, challenging us to reconsider our goals and actions in light of our present circumstances, it can also mislead by pulling us in the wrong direction, perhaps even leading us to abandon activities that in a more reflective frame of mind we endorse. Boredom can be an unreliable guide to the true significance of ongoing tasks—and even when we are aware, while pursuing boring tasks, that their felt tediousness is poorly aligned with their actual relevance, it can be hard to overcome the pull of boredom to abandon them.
This suggests that if Elpidorou’s proposal on the self-regulatory good of boredom is on the right track, boredom will have to include something more than the initial insight and motivational component described earlier. Boredom will additionally have to facilitate the scripting of an alternative action plan—which sometimes might consist in a fresh perspective enabling us to reorient attention towards the boring task. To be maximally effective, boredom will not just have to steer us in the right direction, but will have to include a safeguard that prevents us from moving away from tasks that despite their aversive nature are in fact crucial for longer-term goals. How does boredom achieve this?
One possibility, suggested by Elpidorou (p. 16), is that the adequate response to boredom requires skill and a specific kind of know-how: “we need to have the ability to know how to read the situation and how to respond to it. Thus, listening to what boredom tells us when it arises, and being able to use its motivational power in order to promote movement, can help not only to reduce the duration of our current boring experience but also to increase the chances of later finding ourselves in situations that are congruent with our desires and in line with our interests.” This may seem to suggest that boredom merely provides the occasion for exercising an ability acquired elsewhere, making the potential benefits external to boredom itself. Yet Elpidorou (p. 16) proposes that “such a reaction underestimates—severely, I believe—the motivational power of boredom. Boredom is a powerful emotional state that can at once disengage us from uninteresting or meaningless situations and move us away from them.” Consequently, under its aversive phenomenal character, boredom must also bear a deep relation to more complex and constructive cognitive functions dedicated to the monitoring and assessment of existing goals in light of current situational demands, the realignment of short-term goals with more important longer-terms ones, and the rescripting of possibilities for action in a way that is both sensitive to and makes the most of ongoing constraints on action. To function optimally, boredom must lead a double life: “Although boredom itself is a form of stagnation, it can promote movement if we know how, and are able, to utilize its potential” (Elpidorou, p. 19). Yet we should not think of the ability to make good of boredom as a separate skill requiring independent know-how, but as grounded in its motivational character.
A second possibility hinted at by Elpidorou is that boredom fulfills this sophisticated function by triggering mind wandering. In this case, to escape boredom, no specific knowledge, skill, ability, or deliberate intervention would be required. Elpidorou does not elaborate this possibility, but we can easily imagine situations where mind wandering might alleviate boredom. Even in a situation where the potential for changing one’s outward behavior is severely constrained—consider, again, the mind-numbing meeting you cannot walk out of—you still have the option of engaging in a different mental activity, such as mind wandering or daydreaming. This might not just alleviate boredom by temporarily creating a more pleasant mental environment—say, a vivid fantasy of your upcoming vacation—but might even help identify alternative goals and refine future plans for action. For example, your daydream about your vacation may prompt you to consider some of the practicalities that need to be planned in advance—such as how you will get to the airport and whether you should ask your neighbor to water the plants. Spontaneous thought, coupled with disattending to the current environment (say, the mind-numbing meeting), can reorient and help us work towards other goals. Because boring tasks often impose severe limits on the space of possible actions, the idea that mind wandering offers a spontaneous and often quite creative mental escape route is compelling. It is also in keeping with Elpidorou’s (p. 16) claim that “Boredom disengages us from our current situation, makes salient to us our alternative possibilities, and motivates us to do something else.”
This proposal is also intriguing on a more general level, as it suggests a constructive, self-regulatory function of spontaneous thought processes that are independent of ongoing tasks and situational demands. Much of the literature on mind wandering has emphasized its costs, including detrimental effects on the performance of ongoing, attention-demanding tasks such as reading comprehension or driving (Smallwood & Schooler 2015). Mind wandering is also often described as involving a breakdown in attention as well as a transient loss of awareness and ability to control one’s ongoing thought processes (Metzinger 2013). Yet the newer literature is increasingly focusing on potential benefits of mind wandering, including future planning, associative problem-solving, and creativity (Mooneyham & Schooler 2013). Elpidorou’s proposal has the potential to add to this more positive and constructive portrayal of mind wandering. Boredom-induced mind wandering would then contribute to self-regulation, including monitoring and reassessment of personal goals and their context-sensitive (re)alignment with existing potentials for action. In the rest of this commentary, I explore this proposal and assess Elpidorou’s regulatory account of boredom in light of recent research on mind wandering. Yet we also have to tread carefully. Both boredom and mind wandering are complex constructs, suggesting that not all kinds will be equally suited to meet the demands Elpidorou has laid out for them. Moreover, because of this complexity, the link between different kinds of boredom and different kinds of mind wandering also has to be assessed.
3. The good of which boredom?
In a recent review, Raffaelli and colleagues (2017) identify the characteristics that are most consistently associated with boredom. These are task difficulty, with boredom arising from over- or from under-stimulation (i.e., from tasks that are either too difficult or too easy); an increase in mind wandering, or task-unrelated thoughts; over-estimation of time; reduced sense of agency, defined as the ability to freely determined one’s actions; negative affect; and activation in the default mode network (DMN), in particular in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). This last point is telling, as activation in these regions has been implicated in mind wandering and may be indicative of attention being directed inwards, towards spontaneous thoughts. vmPFC activation may also be linked to the appraisal of spontaneous thoughts, which would be consistent with the description of these thoughts as a coping strategy during boring situations.
Underlying this characteristic profile of boredom there is, however, a great deal of diversity and inconsistency, both in definitions and theoretical approaches and in empirical findings. Older definitions tended to cast boredom as a state of stagnation associated with an unfulfilled need for psychic stimulation, feelings of emptiness or even meaninglessness (see Raffaelli et al. 2017 for details and references). Today, boredom is commonly defined “as an aversive state of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” (Eastwood et al. 2012). This echoes older views of boredom as a state of deprivation and perceived lack, but is compatible with the claim that boredom is adaptive by reorienting us towards our goals. Raffaelli and colleagues suggest that the diversity in definitions of boredom is paralleled by the heterogeneity of the target phenomenon. They propose that distinct subtypes of boredom exist, which in turn may be associated with different kinds of (over- versus under-stimulating) tasks as well as different cognitive and neural processes.
Of particular interest for working towards a more fine-grained taxonomy of boredom are two experience sampling studies investigating the phenomenology of boredom and associated thought contents (Götz & Frenzel 2006; Götz et al. 2014). Based on initial results from high-school students, Götz and Frenzel (2006) distinguished four subtypes of boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, and reactant boredom. Indifferent boredom is a state of inactivity and acceptance. Subjective reports describe it as a state of zoning out associated with lack of interest and motivation, fatigue/sluggishness, as well as a feeling of inner emptiness devoid of thoughts. Calibrating boredom is also a largely inactive state, but additionally characterized by openness for novelty. Subjective reports describe wandering thoughts circling around personal hobbies and interests as well as school, but without being directed at specific goals or future plans; thoughts may also be about not knowing what to do. Searching boredom is a state of restlessness characterized by the search for alternative courses of action. As is the case for calibrating boredom, searching boredom is associated with thoughts about hobbies, interests, and school; but these are prospective and lack the aimlessness of thoughts in calibrating boredom; participants also describe the urge to keep busy. In reactant boredom, thoughts are focused on opportunity costs incurred by the current situation and feelings of aggression. The four subtypes of boredom are also associated with increasing arousal and increasingly negative valence. While indifferent boredom is associated with neutral to weakly negative valence and low arousal, suggesting similarity with states of relaxation, reactant boredom has high ratings both for negative valence and arousal, suggesting an association with anger and helplessness.
The existence of these distinct subtypes of boredom was confirmed in a later study involving high-school and university students, with slight adjustments: calibrating and searching boredom were found to be more similar than suggested by the earlier study, and a new category, termed apathetic boredom, was added (Götz et al. 2014, see figure 1). While apathetic boredom was, if anything, even more aversive than reactant boredom, it was associated with low levels of arousal that were comparable to indifferent boredom, suggesting that the affective and arousal dimensions of boredom can be dissociated. Götz and colleagues (2014) describe apathetic boredom as a particularly unpleasant and debilitating kind of boredom, similar to depression and learned helplessness.
Figure 1. A typology of different subtypes of boredom, distinguishing mean values of negative valence and arousal. Dots within circles indicate mean levels of valence and arousal for each subtype; circle size represents the number of measures for each subtype. (Götz et al. 2014)
The occurrence of these different boredom subtypes seems to depend on the situation. Götz et al. (2014) distinguished achievement situations, such as classes, lectures, or studying in the library or at home, form non-achievement activities such as sleeping, eating, or leisure time. They found that the more negatively valenced types of boredom were more likely to be experienced during achievement situations. This is plausible as achievement situations are more restrictive and impose stronger limits on possible actions. There was also interindividual variation, with participants tending to experience the same subtypes of boredom over time.
Based on these findings, it seems plausible that the different subtypes of boredom will differ in their ability to be self-regulating in the sense proposed by Elpidorou. Judging from phenomenological descriptions, the subtypes of calibrating and searching boredom seem to be the strongest candidates for fulfilling a positive, regulatory function. Perhaps the sweet spot for boredom lies in the middle, in types of boredom that have intermediate ratings of both negative valence and arousal. They are still aversive, but in a way that is motivating without being either mind-numbing or infuriating, both of which would impede one’s ability to conceive of alternative actions. What makes these intermediate kinds of boredom constructive could be that here, the phenomenology of boredom, while present, stays in the background, allowing spontaneous thoughts to drift in a more constructive direction. By contrast, when the aversiveness of boredom takes center stage, as in reactant and apathetic boredom, this may actually impede potentially constructive mental activity.
While this may help determine which subtypes of boredom are constructive and help identify associated cognitive processes, this research also suggests that the overall potential of boredom to work its good may be limited. What is particularly worrisome is the frequency of the less constructive kinds of boredom in achievement situations. In achievement situations, reactant and apathetic boredom were slightly more frequent than either calibrating or searching boredom; indifferent boredom was the least frequent. Overall, it would thus seem that in exactly those situations that place the strongest restrictions on possibilities for physical action and where we could most profit from spontaneous mental activity, we are, if anything, more likely to experience the more thought-stifling kinds of boredom. We also do not seem to become more skilled at boredom with time. Apathetic boredom, which judging from Götz and colleagues’ (2014) study seems to be the least palatable and least constructive subtype, made up around 10% of boredom experiences in high school students, but as much as 36% of boredom experiences in university students.
I have discussed Götz and colleagues’ (2014) findings at some length because they suggest a particularly fine-grained taxonomy of different kinds of boredom and their relation to spontaneous thought. But similar, though more coarse-grained, distinctions are also borne out by other studies. For example, Malkovsky and colleagues (2012) found that individuals that scored high on trait measures of boredom proneness performed poorly on sustained attention tasks and had higher ratings of ADHD and depression. Importantly, highly boredom prone individuals were separated into two groups. One group had a tendency towards apathetic boredom, characterized by a lack of concern for the environment, but also lack of interest and motivation to alter or improve their current state, as well as frequent lapses in attention. The other group tended towards a more agitated kind of boredom; these participants were motivated to engage in ongoing tasks, but nonetheless failed; they were also more likely than the other group to prefer novel over familiar stimuli.
Other work has focused more strongly on distinguishing boredom from related states such as sadness, but also from the resting state, which is traditionally associated with mind wandering. Merrifield and Danckert (2014) investigated the psychophysiology of boredom and found that compared to sadness, boredom was characterized by increased heart rate and cortisol levels, but reduced skin conductance. This suggests that to fully characterize boredom, different measures of arousal can pull in different directions and need to be distinguished. This complex profile of arousal characterized by increased heart rate and reduced skin conductance is also found in ADHD, and Merrifield and Danckert propose it may be linked to attentional lapses.
Subjective ratings of boredom may also be associated with different patterns of underlying brain activation, possibly revealing different pathways to boredom (Raffaelli et al. 2017). Danckert and Merrifield (2016) found that different tasks were rated as similarly boring by participants and involved similar activation of the DMN, but there were also task-dependent differences in the degree to which DMN activity was associated with activity in the anterior insula. As the insula forms part of the salience network and may be implicated in representing important information about the environment, Elpidorou proposes that while both the resting state and boredom involve disengagement from the environment, only boredom involves motivation to engage with the current situation, which in turn is reflected in differences in insular activation. Yet, as subjective ratings of state boredom were similar in this study, this is consistent with saying that states that are subjectively described as similarly boring may have different neural and perhaps motivational profiles. For Elpidorou’s claim that the experience of boredom is beneficial, this is clearly relevant.
For now, my main point is that for assessing the good of boredom, a more complex framework and fine-grained taxonomy is needed. Different subtypes of boredom appear to exist, and it seems plausible that not all will be equally beneficial. Moreover, to understand what, if anything, is distinctively good about (certain subtypes of) boredom, it will be necessary to investigate the distinction between boredom and associated states such as sadness, but also the resting state. Given the implication of the DMN in both boredom and the resting state, as well as its association with subjective reports of mind wandering, it is also possible that the benefits of boredom are tied to its ability to facilitate the emergence of certain types of mind wandering. The good of boredom would then not be intrinsic to the state of boredom; rather, certain subtypes of boredom would work their good indirectly, by providing the causally enabling conditions for the emergence of certain types of mind wandering.
4. Wandering your way out of boredom
So far, there are good theoretical and empirical reasons to think that boredom may work its good by facilitating the induction of mind wandering, or spontaneous thought. This assumption seems plausible in light of the existence of different subtypes of boredom, of which the most constructive seem to be associated with spontaneous thoughts. This idea is also consistent with the self-regulatory function of boredom proposed by Elpidorou. Recall that to fully work its good, boredom must not just motivate us to escape ongoing situations. Rather, it must it also suggest an escape route, a plan for alternative behavioral or mental action. And precisely because boring situations often limit our possibilities for action, this escape route must be context-sensitive and will often require a creative element. Sometimes, where the challenge is to overcome boredom and refocus attention on an ongoing task, this might involve a detour rather than an alternative action: boredom can also be overcome by finding fresh motivation for an ongoing task. In this section, I examine whether mind wandering, based on existing research findings, has the credentials to meet this job description.
Research on mind wandering has exploded during the last years, and the discussion has become increasingly diverse, both on the side of empirical research findings and increasingly refined theoretical accounts (for two recent reviews, see Smallwood & Schooler 2015; Christoff et al. 2016). Perhaps the most general and in many ways most striking finding relates to the frequency of mind wandering, which is said to comprise roughly 25-50% of our waking mental activity (Kane et al. 2007: Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). Its sheer frequency suggests that mind wandering may play an important role in our mental lives—and also that the target phenomenon is heterogeneous, requiring a complex account.
A basic problem is how to define mind wandering and distinguish it from other kinds of thought processes. A common strategy is to define mind wandering as involving conscious thoughts that are independent of ongoing (experimental) tasks and environmental demands (Smallwood & Schooler 2015). This task-focused view is also reflected in the common discussion of mind wandering under the heading of task unrelated thoughts (TUTs: see for instance Smallwood et al. 2009a: McVay et al. 2009). The basic idea is that mind wandering involves thought processes that are neither prompted by ongoing experimental tasks nor by environmental stimuli; mind wandering is self-generated in the sense that its immediate causes are spontaneous and internal. This raises an important methodological problem: Tasks can be constructed in such a way as to facilitate the induction of mind wandering, but because of its relative task- and stimulus-independence, the prospects for using experimental tasks to control both the content and the occurrence of mind wandering under laboratory conditions seem limited.
Mind wandering also seems to evade direct internal or deliberate control and often, we notice only in retrospect that our minds have wandered. In philosophy, mind wandering has been described as involving a transient loss in attention, meta-awareness of ongoing thought processes, and control and has even been suggested to undermine the view that for most of our waking lives, we are aware and in control of our conscious thought processes (Metzinger 2013). Given the frequency of mind wandering, cognitive agency and mental autonomy, or the ability to control one’s thought processes and the direction of attention, would then appear to be the exception, not the rule. At the same time, mind wandering has long been thought to be consistent with executive models of attention, allowing it to be conceptualized as a goal-driven process (Smallwood & Schooler 2006). How to conceptualize the relationship between mind wandering, attention, awareness, and control is an important challenge for future work.
Two main methods are used to investigate the subjective side of mind wandering. In self-caught paradigms, participants are asked to report whenever they notice that their minds have wandered; in probe-caught methods, participants are asked at short time intervals whether their minds have wandered or their attention was on task (see Smallwood & Schooler 2015 for details and further references). Generally, probe-caught methods result in higher reports of mind wandering than self-caught methods; moreover, while certain conditions (such as alcohol consumption) increase the frequency of mind wandering, they also decrease the ability to notice that one’s mind has wandered unless one is probed. Mind wandering without awareness—so-called zone outs—are also more detrimental to task performance (such as solving a crime in a detective novel) than tune outs, in which awareness that one’s mind had wandered is retained. These empirical findings lend some support to the idea that mind wandering frequently involves a loss of meta-awareness; yet there also appears to be a distinction between mind wandering episodes with and without awareness, and the relationship between mind wandering and meta-awareness is insufficiently understood.
This tenuous relationship between mind wandering and meta-awareness not only raises methodological, but also conceptual problems: given that we are often unaware that our minds have wandered, it seems plausible that reduced meta-awareness would also compromise our ability to retrospectively detect the causes of mind wandering. Characterizations of mind wandering as task- and stimulus independent may therefore reflect a lack of insight into the actual causes of mind wandering: at least in some cases, mind wandering may appear to be internally generated because no obvious external causes can be discerned. This lack of insight would nonetheless be consistent with spontaneous thought contents being prompted and modulated by external causes in subtler ways. For example, a vivid daydream of one’s next vacation may be triggered by sounds in the background that one is not consciously aware of—such as the neighbors playing music that reminds one of one’s last vacation. Similarly, an ongoing task—say, a sentence in a novel one is reading—might prompt an associative and seemingly unrelated train of thought. The more idiosyncratic the connection, the more difficult it will also be for experimenters to detect. Yet, especially given its associative nature, attempts to define mind wandering through the independence of thought contents from ongoing tasks and environmental demands may be too strong. Rather, it seems likely that conscious thoughts have different degrees of task- and stimulus-relatedness and we may be more or less aware of this fact. This is not just the familiar point that participants are often bad at determining the actual causes of their actions and beliefs (Nisbett & Wilson 1977); rather, the spontaneous and associative nature of mind wandering may make it particularly hard to introspectively discern its causes.
An alternative is to focus on the dynamics of conscious thought processes rather than on their contents. Christoff and colleagues (2016) propose that what distinguishes spontaneous thought—including mind wandering, but also creative thought and dreams—from intentionally directed thought is its comparative fluidity. Spontaneous thought, in their view, is only weakly constrained by ongoing tasks and environmental stimuli, but also by deliberate conscious goals and intentions. With greater freedom from strong constraints come comparatively greater fluctuations between different thoughts; but this leaves open the possibility that external or deliberate constraints may continue to modulate the occurrence and contents of mind wandering in a subtler way. By contrast, deliberate control and task-related attention impose comparatively greater stability and predictability on conscious thought processes.
What is the relation between spontaneous thought and boredom? The focus on the dynamics of conscious thought processes seems to fit in well with Elpidorou’s claim that the regulatory function of boredom involves not just motivation, but locomotion, including mental activity. On a very general level, our minds are restless: to be sure, there are periods of greater stability, as in sustained attention, and of rest, in which conscious thoughts slow or even recede into the background; but one of the most striking findings from mind wandering research is that what outwardly appears to be a period of rest and inactivity can in fact be associated with intense mental activity in which the mind wanders about, cycling between different contents in a highly dynamic and associative manner.
There is also a more specific methodological association between mind wandering and boredom: in the laboratory, mind wandering is often induced through the use of boring tasks. As is the case for the state of boredom, mind wandering can be induced by tasks that are either too demanding or too undemanding (Baird et al. 2012). Generally, mind wandering is context-dependent and has been found to increase not just with boredom, but also with unpleasant tasks, stress, sleepiness, and chaotic, overly stimulating environments. By contrast, mind wandering decreases with concentration, effort, successful task performance, enjoyable tasks, and positive moods including happiness (Kane et al. 2007; McVay et al. 2009).
Discussions on the costs of mind wandering have typically focused on its correlation with reduced performance in ongoing, attention demanding tasks such as reading comprehension and driving. Mind wandering is also associated with and may precede negative moods (Smallwood et al. 2009a; Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). On the more positive side, the benefits of mind wandering may include prospection, future planning, and creative problem solving as well attentional cycling, which in turn may help structure and reorganize different goals. These longer-term benefits may be compatible with the immediate costs of mind wandering. For example, mind wandering may reduce comprehension of a text we are currently reading, while at the same reorienting attention towards a longer-standing personal goal and perhaps even suggesting a novel and creative solution. As I am interested in the potential of mind wandering to fulfill similar functions to those Elpidorou suggests for boredom, I will selectively focus on research findings supporting the benefits of mind wandering here.
In one study, participants were presented with a task that demanded an unusual, creative solution. During an incubation period, they engaged in either an undemanding or a demanding task, or took a break. Following the undemanding task, participants came up with more creative solutions to the initial task. Importantly, this was associated with increased mind wandering, but not with increased thoughts about the initial task (Baird et al. 2012). The ability of mind wandering to promote associative thought and creative problem solving may therefore in part be related to the style and dynamics of thought rather than the specific contents of mind wandering episodes.
This is not say that the content of mind wandering is irrelevant. To fully understand both the potential costs and benefits of mind wandering, the specific thought contents, but also the broader context (including ongoing tasks) need to be taken into account (Smallwood & Andrews-Hanna 2013). Mind wandering has a prospective bias, with almost half of mind wandering episodes being directed towards the future, around 30% to the present, and around 10% to the past or lacking temporal focus (Smallwood & Schooler 2015). Future-oriented mind wandering may be particularly frequent during easy tasks that place low demands on working memory (Smallwood et al. 2009b); it is also increased through self-reflection (Smallwood et al. 2011). The idea that future-oriented mind wandering draws from memory sources to promote autobiographical planning therefore seems plausible (Baird et al. 2011). In some cases, mind wandering may even help refine personal goals and make them more concrete. In one study, participants were asked to describe their personal goals. Those who engaged in future-oriented mind wandering during a subsequent task later produced more concrete goal descriptions (Medea et al. 2016). This was associated with stronger coupling between the hippocampus and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is consistent with the role of the hippocampus in imaginative predictions and episodic memory.
Finally, mind wandering may not just reorient us away from boring tasks towards other, more meaningful concerns and help us refine and work towards future goals, but may also help redirect attention towards boring tasks—almost as if mind wandering were providing a mental break and restoring our ability to focus on a boring task with a refreshed mind set. For example, semantic satiation induced by the repetition of words can be reduced through mind wandering, with participants who mind wander exhibiting semantic priming effects in longer trials (Mooneyham & Schooler 2016). Mind wandering may reduce mind numbing by inducing temporary disengagement from a boring task. Mind wandering may also reduce the negative effect of boring tasks on mood as well as their subjective duration: where boredom is associated with increased time estimations, mind wandering leads to shorter ones (Mooneyham & Schooler 2013).
Mind wandering may also make us more patient. Smallwood and colleagues (2013) found that when participants engaged in task-unrelated thoughts under undemanding conditions, they tended to prefer larger, but more temporally distant rewards over smaller, but imminent ones. Mind wandering thus appeared to counteract delay discounting, or the tendency to discount larger but more distant rewards in the face of smaller, more immediate ones. This contradicts common descriptions of mind wandering as involving a transient loss of mental control. In fact mind wandering may, under certain conditions, increase our ability to keep impulsive decisions in check.
The story, so far, seems to indicate that mind wandering has a regulatory function, associated specifically with creative problem solving and the evaluation and refinement of goals and future plans. Sometimes, this may involve reorienting attention towards an ongoing, but tedious or repetitive task, allowing us to tackle it afresh; other times, mind wandering involves the pursuit and refinement of alternative goals and/or preexisting tasks. Mind wandering thus seems well poised to fulfill the functions Elpidorou ascribes to boredom. Yet what is less clear is how this regulatory function of mind wandering is actually associated with the state of boredom. While boring tasks are standardly used to prompt mind wandering, and while both mind wandering and boredom appear to be induced by similar types of tasks, it is an open and separate question whether the tasks that trigger mind wandering do so by first triggering the state or the experience of boredom.
One possibility is that certain kinds of tasks—namely those that are boring in the sense of being undemanding—facilitate productive kinds of mind wandering (such as those associated with concrete future planning, creative problem solving, or even just increased patience), but that they do so independently of whether or not they are associated with the state or experience of boredom. In that case, the state of boredom would seem largely irrelevant to the benefits of mind wandering. Another possibility is that the experience of boredom is more closely associated with the good of mind wandering, somehow contributing to its potential benefits. To support this claim, it might seem that we can appeal to the association between searching and calibrating boredom, as the most promising types of boredom, and mind wandering. I think, however, that this would be hasty. All this association tells us is that those types of boredom that are associated with spontaneous thoughts likely lead to more positive outcomes than the more aversive kinds of boredom, which can even be counterproductive by making us slip into aggression or apathy. Medium-level types of boredom may be compatible with spontaneous thought, but it is less clear that they facilitate it or are necessary for its emergence. Does boredom make us restless? Perhaps. But the frequency of mind wandering seems to outrun that of boredom: if the experience of boredom induces mind wandering, this is consistent with saying that a large part and perhaps the majority of mind wandering occurs for independent reasons—or even for no reason at all, other than the natural restlessness of our minds. It still remains possible that mind wandering induced by the state of boredom is somehow distinctive or particularly beneficial. But for now, this is an open question, and it seems equally plausible that mind wandering could work its good independently of whether or not it was preceded by the experience of boredom.
An alternative story is that the alleged good of boredom is in fact the good of mind wandering—and that this good includes the potential of mind wandering to help us avoid and/or escape the more tedious kinds of boredom. The good of mind wandering might consist, in part, in preventing us from getting bored in the first place. Our minds are naturally restless, and under normal conditions, this prevents us from slipping too deeply into the stagnant and highly aversive kinds of boredom. Perhaps the experience of boredom only kicks in when the largely automatic, self-regulating mechanism that underlies the fluctuations of spontaneous thought becomes transiently disrupted. Mind wandering would then not be consequent on boredom, but the opposite would be true: boredom might signal that for some reason or other, the natural dynamics that govern our spontaneous thoughts have stagnated. Boredom would then not so much signal a mismatch between the ongoing task and our goals, but a transient failure in the dynamics underlying our conscious thought processes. Boredom might then be a warning signal that the natural restlessness of our mind has failed and a last-ditch attempt to kick-start it before our minds go blank. Incidentally, this might turn out to be a further way of specifying the good of boredom: boredom may signal that availability of cognitive resources in the face of an undemanding task or otherwise boring situation. In this way, boredom might contribute to mental resource allocation. This process can happen naturally, when our thoughts move elsewhere without the prior intervention of boredom; but the aversive phenomenology of boredom may also be a more direct way of alerting us the fact that our cognitive capacities are being insufficiently engaged. This idea fits in well with historical definitions of boredom as a state of mental emptiness and unfulfilled need for psychic stimulation (see Raffaelli et al. 2017).
Relevant to this possibility is that when our minds become disengaged from ongoing tasks, mind wandering does not always ensue. This is not just the case for apathetic boredom. Mind blanking, arising independently of boredom, has been suggested to be a distinct category of mental state characterized by an absence of reportable thought contents. Mind blanking has a distinctive phenomenology from mind wandering and is also associated with different performance outcomes (Ward & Wegner 2013). Where mind wandering is the natural chatter of a restless mind, mind blanking is transient emptiness or stagnation. Tellingly, one study found that children with ADHD have a higher proportion of mind blanking (relative to both mind wandering and on-task thoughts) than controls. Importantly, increased mind blanking came at the cost of reduced mind wandering; and mind wandering levels increased following medication aimed at improving attention (Driessche et al. 2017). In some cases, restoring the natural chatter of the mind might be part of the solution rather than the problem.
But perhaps this contrast between mind wandering (boredom-induced or otherwise) as a highly dynamic and cognitively rich state with less dynamic and perhaps even empty or stagnant states such as mind blanking and apathetic boredom underestimates the distinctive contribution of the experience of boredom. Specifically, in Elpidorou’s account, boredom has an insight and a motivational component, both informing us of a mismatch between our current situation and our long-standing interests and motivating us to reassess our current possibilities for action. Even if mind wandering is (or can be) the mechanism that moves us out of boredom, the state of boredom might still have a distinct signaling function, giving us specific kinds of insight. Mind wandering may seem particularly poorly suited to fulfill these functions. As mentioned earlier, mind wandering is often associated with a loss of meta-awareness; moreover, because of its spontaneous nature, mind wandering is largely independent not just of external, but also of internal constraints, including deliberate, conscious control. Note also that in both boredom and mind wandering, these two aspects are linked: the aversiveness of boredom both informs us of the mismatch between our current situation and our goals and motivates us to change our circumstances; by contrast, we don’t just often fail to notice that our minds have wandered, but this temporary insight also seems to hamper our ability to control our thoughts and attention. Even granting that mind wandering is beneficial, it may still work its good in a way that is inimical to self-knowledge. It is conceivable that in some or perhaps many cases, mind wandering quietly does its job in the background without drawing attention to itself. This is in keeping with the fact that many people are surprised to learn that they spend up to half of their waking lives mind wandering. The benefits of mind wandering would then exist alongside a deficit in self-knowledge about the causes, contents, and dynamics of our own thought processes. By contrast, boredom might give us a kind of insight into the relation between our current situation and our goals that mind wandering typically glosses over.
This description is tempting, and it would afford a distinctive epistemic and perhaps motivational function to boredom. Yet I am not sure it does justice to the complex and heterogeneous nature of mind wandering. Specifically, note that just as mind wandering episodes can be associated with meta-awareness (as in tuning out versus zoning out), they can also be initiated intentionally. The comparison between intentional and unintentional mind wandering is fascinating because it puts pressure on the widely accepted view that mind wandering is the opposite of control and mental agency. Seli and colleagues (2016a,b) propose that failure to distinguish these two subtypes of mind wandering leads to an oversimplified view. While they found unintentional mind wandering to be more frequent, overall, than intentional mind wandering, easy tasks had higher proportions of intentional mind wandering than difficult tasks. It also seems plausible that at least initially, intentional mind wandering would involve meta-awareness. Again, this suggests that awareness of and intention to mind wander is context-sensitive, as well as related to better outcomes. Where in demanding tasks, mind wandering is often detrimental and unintentional, in tasks we perceive as undemanding, we may consciously initiate the slip into an episode of mind wandering—and this awareness then may or may not be lost as the episode unfolds and runs its course. Conceptually, this is interesting because intentional mind wandering involves a deliberate cessation of control. For now, I only want to point out that the association of intentional mind wandering specifically with easy tasks, as well as with awareness, suggests that there is room for both an insight and a motivation component, at least in some forms of mind wandering. Neither would then be exclusive to boredom.
Finally, where Elpidorou’s view suggests that boredom makes us aware of the unsatisfying nature of our current circumstances, research on mind wandering and judgments of boredom suggest a different account. Critcher & Gilovich (2010) propose that in some cases, participants may judge that a task was boring based on the occurrence and contents of spontaneous thoughts. Participants describing positive mind wandering about the present, but also more diffuse thoughts about numerous different events or topics were more likely to say that a concurrent task was boring than participants who experienced past-oriented mind wandering and/or focused forms of mind wandering about a single attractive alternative. This suggests that participants hypothesized that they were bored to explain the occurrence of different types of spontaneous thoughts. Boredom was thought to explain the occurrence of positive mind wandering about concurrent and diffuse activities, which now made the ongoing task seem, by comparison, tedious; by contrast, when participants mind wandered about the past or about a single topic, they tended to attribute this to the attention-grabbing nature of the memory rather than the engaging versus boring nature of the ongoing task. Importantly, in this study, there was no relation between different thought contents and the task itself. Mind wandering was experimentally manipulated by prompting participants to engage in different thoughts about what they might be doing if they weren’t in the lab prior to engaging with the task. Differences in the content of mind wandering during the task were associated with this pre-task intervention rather than with the task itself. Whether a task seemed more or less boring was therefore not directly related to the task itself, but to what participants had been thinking before the task. This raises interesting questions about both the factors underlying judgments of boredom and their accuracy. How we make judgments about boredom—and how reliable those judgments are—requires further investigation. At least in some situations, mind wandering may inform—or be taken to inform—us about the engaging versus boring nature of ongoing tasks. In other cases, mind wandering may result from boredom or may provide a break from it (Raffaelli et al. 2017). Again, to make progress on this question, it will be important to investigate not just the relationship between mind wandering and different kinds of tasks, but also to take both the content of mind wandering and the specific phenomenology of different subtypes of boredom into account.
Is there something distinctively good about boredom in general, or about boredom-induced mind wandering in particular? Does the good of boredom consist in the induction of mind wandering, and does the phenomenal character of boredom add something that we cannot get through other means? Or can we reap the epistemic and motivational benefits Elpidorou identifies for boredom without actually sitting through its tediousness? In this commentary, my main aim has not so much been to answer these questions or take a particular stance on the respective good of boredom or mind wandering. Rather, I hope to have shown that these are interesting questions in their own right and fruitful targets for theoretical and empirical research. I have also sketched different ways of thinking about these questions, identified points of contact between the literatures on boredom and mind wandering, and proposed possible ways of conceptualizing the relation between these mental states.
In this process, I have cast mind wandering as a strong candidate for fulfilling the positive functions Elpidorou proposes for boredom. The emerging picture is that mind wandering has an important role to play for creativity and future planning, for the specification and organization of personal goals, but also for the maintenance of attention. But this is not to say that mind wandering is wholly beneficial or to deny that it can have serious downsides. For now, I wish to remain noncommittal on these issues, and I think a more developed theory and more fine-grained taxonomy of mind wandering is needed to defend any strong positions on these matters. Here, I have emphasized the potential benefits of mind wandering for strategic reasons, to compare them to the proposed benefits of boredom—but this is consistent with allowing that in other conditions, both states can be costly, perhaps even in the extreme.
I am also well aware that the implication that the restlessness of our minds is both natural and potentially beneficial is at odds with currently popular views. We are told to aspire to calm serenity and inner quietude, aiming to be in the here and now rather than drifting off in aimless daydreams. In return, we are promised heightened levels of awareness, insight, and control. I suspect that the implied dichotomy between mind wandering on the one hand and mindfulness, meta-awareness, control, and/or attention on the other hand is oversimplified and their relation is in fact complex (Mrazek et al. 2014). But for now, I am not interested in taking on these larger issues or in committing to any strong positions. My main point is that in thinking about mind wandering, we should take seriously the possibility that under certain conditions, the natural restlessness of the mind, alongside disengagement from ongoing tasks and our present environment, may be beneficial.
In fact, thinking about the relation between different subtypes of boredom and different kinds of mind wandering may be especially fruitful for understanding the relation between spontaneous thought, attention, awareness, and control. Generally, both mind wandering and boredom involve disengagement from ongoing tasks as well as diminished ability to consciously direct attention; both are also associated with changes in the perceived sense of agency. Yet they are drastically different in the richness and dynamics of conscious thought processes, enabling a contrast between states in which the mind goes blank, as in apathetic boredom, with those characterized by rich and rapidly changing thought contents. The investigation of these states might shed light on differences in natural fluctuations of thought processes independently of both external experimental tasks and deliberate, conscious control.
This is not to say that the restlessness of our minds is necessarily or consistently beneficial, or that we should aspire to become more scatter-brained. Nor am I denying that some types of boredom could have a positive function in the ways suggested by Elpidorou. I do think, however, that mind wandering seems particularly well suited to fulfill this function. At least sometimes, the natural restlessness of our minds is a blessing—albeit one in disguise and that we often have a tendency to overlook. Mind wandering can help us dream up new solutions to problems, but can also provide an escape from the tediousness of boredom. Other times, mind wandering might trick us into thinking we were bored, or may even make us feel bored by a task with which we would otherwise have been satisfied. And yet other times, mind wandering might prevent us from getting bored in the first place. Given that both boredom and mind wandering are typically regarded as costly, these two states may appear to be strange bedfellows. Here, I am proposing that they are not. Sometimes, they may even come together to jointly work their good.
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