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Bored with life? What to do when you're in a rut

Experts explain why we feel bored and offer advice on how to get unstuck.
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/ Source: TODAY

For some, work feels identical day after day. You have the same conversation with your co-workers. You work for a few hours before the daily meeting. Then you work more and go home. The project you just completed seems no different than the last one. To put it simply: You’re really bored. But is being bored a problem or just what it’s like to be an adult?

“It is a common human experience that we take for granted and we don’t think a lot about it and move on,” John Eastwood, an associate professor at York University in Toronto, told TODAY. “But boredom can become quite problematic and it can become an oppressive experience.”

Eastwood studies boredom. While it is a common and unpleasant, people think of it as harmless. Yet, sometimes people cope with their boredom by acting impulsively or turning to alcohol or drugs. A New York Times article about boredom noted that those plagued by frequent boredom are more likely to be depressed and anxious and have substance abuse issues.

“The state of boredom is very uncomfortable and we want to be rid of it,” Eastwood explained.

Boredom and hedonic adaptation

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“Boredom is this push when … your mental resources are being squandered,” Eastwood said.

This desire to do something sets boredom apart from apathy or frustration.

“When we are frustrated we have a clear desire. I want to do X, but you are thwarting my ability,” he said. “Boredom is an ineffectual desire.”

George Lowenstein — a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh — agreed.

“Boredom is your brain sending you a signal that you are misusing a scare resource, which is attention. It is an emotional signal,” he told TODAY. “We have the ability to overcome boredom.”

But sometimes hedonic adaptation comes into play. While the two are related, they explain different experiences. Hedonic adaptation or a hedonic treadmill occurs when people’s circumstances change in either a good or bad way and a person adjusts to it. Let’s say one of your friends wins the lottery. That win might make your friend happy at first, but pretty soon she’s going to revert to her usual self. While it helps people cope with adversity, hedonic adaptation isn’t always positive.

“We become complacent because we adapt to negative things,” Lowenstein said.

This means people stick with a dull job, workout routine, romantic relationship or social life while not trying to fix it.

“You lack the motivation to change,” Lowenstein explained. “Adaptation can definitely be a bad thing if it prevents you from changing your circumstances.”

How to cure boredom

While people sometimes solve their boredom by doing something rash, Eastwood explained that’s not the best way. Early research finds that people who are better at mindfulness, aka being in the moment, tend to feel less bored.

“Mindfulness is accepting the present moment as it is whereas boredom is the anthesis of that,” he said.

Therapists often suggest patients try something like meditation or other mindful practices when they complain of dissatisfaction.

“You’re trying to tune in with what you really care about and what makes you satisfied,” Sophie Lazarus, a psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, told TODAY. “Using your awareness can allow you to see things with new eyes.”

While people might not have time to meditate every day, she believes they can make smaller tweaks, such as journaling or just really “tuning in with what we care about.”

Often people deal with boredom by turning to their smartphones or quick distractions. But that makes boredom worse.

“We are training our brains to be used to more stimuli … It is hard to be without a device,” said Thea Gallagher, clinic director at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety at Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

But that doesn’t quash boredom or encourage people to get out of their adapted ruts.

“Small actions tend to have small effects,” Lowenstein said. “There is very often a reason to stir things up not just in trivial ways.”

Here are a few tips to help deal with common sources of boredom:

  • Bored at work? Apply for new jobs.
  • Does your romantic life feel stale? Try something new with your partner.
  • Start a meditation practice.
  • Try a new workout with a friend.
  • Aim to spend less time on your phone.

“It is really important to get ahead of the adaptation curve, not to wait until you reach the breaking point of intolerability,” Lowenstein said.

And, this might require a bit of introspection.

“You want to get to the source: ‘Why am I bored?’” Gallagher said. “Maybe I am not engaging in the present enough or living in the future.”