Tuesday, August 12, 2008


The feeling of boredom may be a signal to change what we are doing, to seek something more stimulating or pleasurable.

Many signals that the brain gives us are helpful guides, which lead us to make better decisions.

Other times, the signals the brain gives us are misleading.

In the case of boredom, the brain may be conditioned to expect a lack of stimulation or pleasure in a given activity. And it may be conditioned to expect stimulation or pleasure by leaving this activity. If this behavioural pathway is followed, it may further lead to a conditioning effect, in which the initial activity feels even more boring the next time round. It is like the forest path again, and each time you go down the path, it becomes more established.

I believe that in many cases the brain causes us to leave experiences prematurely. There might be much more pleasure, stimulation, and meaning in activities that are felt to be boring, but the brain is too habitually eager to get us out quickly, to the alternate activity.

As an exercise, I encourage practicing ways to discover interest, stimulation, meaning, and pleasure, in activities that you have pronounced to be boring (e.g. working through a textbook for school; getting through a work shift; commuting; conversing with someone who isn't your favourite person, etc.). It may require looking at the experience in a different way, with an eye to find significance, meaning, and interest, rather than focusing on the aspects that you find tiresome.

One very specific way to discover this change of perception is to take a class in drawing, painting, or photography -- often part of the experience is of learning to see things in a different way, to become absorbed with interest in something you thought was mundane. Another technique is to take courses in meditation, in which one can learn to be more at peace with the present moment, even while sitting quietly with almost no external stimuli.

In my work with students, I believe this is an extremely important issue. Many students have enrolled in a course of study that may last at least four years, or may lead to a lifetime career. Yet they are bored with what they are doing. I strongly encourage choosing courses (or other life decisions) that have a hope to be interesting, and coming to the work with an attitude of finding significance, meaning, and interest, rather than expecting or continuing an experience of boredom. Boredom leads to disengagement, a fractured relationship with what you are doing, and can be the beginning of lifelong unhappiness with the present moment.

While you may need to make external changes, it is important to make a strong effort to direct internal changes too.

1 comment:

L said...

Hi Dr. K.,
I agree so much when you say:"I strongly encourage... life decisions...that have a hope to be interesting, and coming to the work with an attitude of finding significance, meaning, and interest....Boredom leads to disengagement, a fractured relationship with what you are doing, and can be the beginning of lifelong unhappiness"

I have been depressed off and on most of my adult life (I am now in my forties), except through most of university, where I studied what I was passionately interested in.

Out of university I took an unrelated job to pay off my student loans. I became "stuck" because the pay was good. I tried hard to move into a field within the organization that I felt was the most meaningful,but I still disliked so much of what I had to do. I stuck with it for 11 years because I was afraid of change.

Almost 7 years ago I fell into a severe depression and 5 years ago I had to leave work. Since then I have begun to create art: drawing, printmaking, pottery, and most recently I have discovered I have an intense passion for painting.

Yesterday my sister called me and, after I raved about how much I was loving painting, asked:
"How is it possible for you to get so far in life and never know you loved to paint?" How indeed.

I really think this depressive episode was triggered by a crisis of a lack of meaning and purpose in my life. I am hoping my newfound love for creating art will help lift me out of the hole I fell into.

I encourage everyone to find what they love to do and do it. Try hard not to let the pressure of paying off student loans and the trappings of a having a better material life deter you from what you love. Life is too short to be unhappy in something you spend so much time doing. I wish I had realized this sooner...and to top it all off, I'm still having a hard time learning it.