Why do people experience boredom

Why boredom is totally good for us

Psychologist Marc Wittmann knows that boredom is part of life and has nothing to do with laziness. She actually wants to tell us something. Well then: let's listen.

Whether at the bus stop or in the queue: wherever there is nothing to do, we immediately get our cell phone out. Why?

Because we can't stand it alone with ourselves and our thoughts. So we're looking for distraction - from ourselves, so to speak. The quickest way to find them is in smartphones.

Sounds sad. What does the immediate distraction bring in these moments?

It's kind of an escape. When I just stand there, wait and do nothing, I have the feeling that time goes by infinitely slowly. At the same time, my self-awareness increases. That feels uncomfortable for many.

So I prefer to check my emails to bridge the gap.

Yes, you lose yourself in the activity, you have neither a sense of time nor a sense of self. And the wait is over in no time.

You did research on boredom, what did you find out?

I use boredom as a means to an end, to explore time. So I just kept people waiting. Seven minutes without a cell phone or other distraction - in a totally boring room.

The result?

In addition to personal characteristics, we asked how long people thought they had waited. We could see a clear connection between boredom and the perception of time - and personality. For people who are emotionally self-controlled, that is, less impulsive, time passed faster. Impulsive people found the situation uncomfortable and overestimated the duration.

What is boredom anyway?

The particularly intense perception of myself and the time with an overall negative feeling. From a neutral point of view, boredom only means that I don't get any input. So it is also a state of zero activity. Nothing happens. No distraction, no social environment.

Why is this feeling important anyway?

Because, as with everything in life, we need a change between activity and rest. That is healthy. Those who are active during the day should relax in the evening. Not necessarily all evening, but in moments.

To do this, we would have to break away from the constant distraction. Otherwise a zero input level cannot arise in the first place ...

Right, but we are almost always blocking ourselves. And with it, of course, any self-awareness, because through constant distraction we no longer realize who we are, what we are, what we want, what our needs are.

Why is it so difficult to endure this state without input and with it your own thoughts?

Because we can't just switch from activity mode to sleep mode. Anyone who comes home after a full day of loud conversations, meetings and emails is still fully active. And suddenly there is this nothing. It can be oppressive and difficult to take.

Why should you do that anyway?

Only those who walk through the valley of boredom stimulate the back room and come up with fresh ideas. However, the difficult thoughts stand in the way of the process.

That sounds like the classic artist cliché: staring at the white canvas for a while, until the flash of inspiration comes at some point.

But it affects us all, not just artists. In everyday life it would be the moment when you want to make something to eat in the evening after a stressful day. They are standing in front of the supermarket shelf and do not know what to buy. So it often takes a kind of calm, including boredom, to come back to ideas.

What can I do specifically?

You can learn to come down. For example, some people walk home at the end of the day. Even if it's 30 minutes or more. Others go jogging to pump out the adrenaline and exhaust themselves physically. Meditation or yoga can also help.

Hm. Isn't all of that a form of distraction too?

I would rather say that we learn how to relax and calm.

From the outside, bored people seem easy, well, lazy. But the way you describe it, boredom actually takes self-discipline!

So that you can endure them - yes. You could say it is a virtue to endure boredom.

Are there actually different levels of feeling in the wasteland?

Yes, if I am stuck in an emotional state, for example, between the desire to do something meaningful and the simultaneous inability to move, then one speaks of an existential boredom. In this state I lack the drive. I could do anything, jog or go to the movies, call friends, sort the stamp collection - but I don't have the motivation. I just don't know what to do with myself, and I can feel that too.

And another stage would be?

The situational boredom. Means: In a specific situation, you are, for example, over- or under-challenged. If you were suddenly in a seminar on the mathematical foundations of quantum physics, you would be overwhelmed - and soon very bored because you cannot understand what they are talking about. On the other hand, if you were sitting in a classroom doing math for first graders, you would not be challenged. You guessed it, that too leads to boredom.

What does boredom want to tell me?

Almost all emotions are signals for us to change our behavior, that is the function behind it. If we're scared, maybe we want or should run away or avoid something. Boredom, especially situational, promotes the urge to act. It shows that something is wrong here right now.

Moment. Boredom is a feeling of nothingness, of standstill - and does it want to get us into action?

Exactly. In the situational boredom, that's also great: I'm leaving the lecture on quantum physics. In the existential one, however, it is a bit more complicated.


Well, you can't escape yourself.

What is the difference between boredom and leisure?

These are opposing states that are nevertheless close to one another. From a purely external point of view, leisure is very similar to boredom. When you see someone staring holes in the air, you don't know: is they bored or enjoying this state. And that's exactly where the difference lies: in the feeling. The positive feeling is part of leisure, you are relaxed, enjoy the quiet time when nothing happens, while boredom feels rather bad.


We then lack the resonance of the world and of others. There is a research in which the test subjects have to use an app at random times to enter what they are doing, with whom they are doing it - and how they are doing, including with regard to boredom. It becomes clear that people feel better in social situations. Time also passes faster. When you are alone or feel alone, you feel the boredom sooner and more intensely - and with it all the negative feelings.

When does the feeling become dangerous for me?

Very important: we always need balance. To put it cautiously, boredom is a very, very small outgrowth of depression. Patients with depression experience a strong over-representation of the ego. In addition, the time not only passes slowly, you are actually stuck in it.

According to a 2017 study, men and younger adults are the most likely to be bored. How do you explain that?

Basically, you can say that women are a little more socially competent than men. And also slightly more empathic. This helps with boredom, they are less different than men.

What if we could all be bored better?

There would be more serenity! Then I remember a quote from the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who said in a general way: All the unhappiness of people comes from the fact that they cannot stay quietly in one room. Those who want to escape boredom tend to take spontaneous, impulsive actions that may not be that good, and often even bad. Means: If we could all endure the boredom, maybe the world would be a better one ...

DR. MARC WITTMANN from the Institute for Frontier Areas of Psychology has written some books - currently.