[Paleopsych] Richard W. Bargdill: The Study of Boredom
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Richard W. Bargdill: The Study of Boredom
Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Fall 2000 v31 i2 p188
This article extends the study of a phenomenological investigation (Bargdill,
R. W., 2000) in which six participants wrote protocols and gave interviews
describing the experience of being bored with their lives. This study found
that the participants gradually became bored after they had compromised their
life-projects for less desired projects. The participants felt emotionally
ambivalent because they were thematically angry with others involved in their
compromises while being pre-reflectively angry with themselves. The
participants non-thematically adopted passive and avoidant stances toward their
lives that allowed their boredom to spread to more aspects of their lives. The
participants' boredom led them to identity issues because they no longer were
actively working toward projects. They felt empty and apathetic because they
felt every action led to boredom, and thus action was futile. Preliminary
distinctions between the experience of life boredom and depression are
THE STUDY OF LIFE BOREDOM
At some point in everyone's life there is an experience of being bored. We may
find ourselves bored by certain events such as a book, a job, or by others. At
times, we may even be bored with ourselves, complaining that there is nothing
for us to do or that nothing interests us. While boredom is often attributed to
the situation in which it arises, evidence suggests that certain people are
more prone to being bored than others. These people describe themselves as
being bored more frequently and across a variety of situations. This habitual
boredom suggests a more serious psychological issue.
Psychological and social research demonstrates that a person experiencing
boredom often attempts to alleviate this feeling. These attempts can be
associated with social ills, such as drug use, vandalism, gambling, and other
self-destructive behaviors. For example, drug abuse journals report that
boredom is a major factor in the abuse of drugs (Iso et al., 1991; Johnston &
O'Malley 1986; Samuels & Samuels, 1974). A drug abuser is more likely to use
drugs when bored and more likely to leave treatment due to boredom (Sherman et
al., 1989). In addition, vandals, prisoners, and high school drop-outs
(Farrell, 1988; Kirsch, 1986) all cite boredom as a main contributor to their
Similar findings concerning addictive behavior note that pathological gamblers
roll the dice in order to avoid or relieve feelings of boredom (Blasczynski et
al., 1995). Other research associates boredom with eating disorders (Abramson &
Stinson, 1977; Leon & Chamberlain, 1973), excessive cigarette smoking
(Ferguson, 1973), and increased drinking (Forsyth & Hundleby, 1987).
Furthermore, some authors (e.g., Boss, 1969) believe boredom and, in effect,
the social ills linked to it will be an increasing problem in the future.
Because of the severe problems associated with habitual boredom, this
phenomenon warrants further study. Accordingly, I will review the literature on
boredom as a psychological issue as approached by psychologists from different
paradigms. I will then describe an empirical phenomenological study of the
experience of life-boredom.
Surprisingly, a majority of the research on boredom concentrates on the
situational determinants of boredom rather than the assessment of those who
experience boredom habitually. This literature review will concentrate on
studies that focus on habitual boredom, or the "bored personality."
Industrial and human factors research on boredom typically suggests that
physical monotony is seen as the necessary and sufficient condition for the
occurrence of boredom. However, O'Hanlon (1980) notes that degrees of boredom
reported by different individuals in the same monotonous working environment
vary greatly. He suggests some workers performing monotonous jobs are not bored
at all, while others claim they exert more 'effort' to pay attention to their
jobs than their coworkers. O'Hanlon suggests that any task requires that an
individual have some interest in accomplishing the task and at the same time
the task requires the individual's attention. Effort is a concept that alludes
to these subjective components of boredom. Thus, if the experience is not
"objective" (determined by the stimulus) then certain people could experience
Cognitive researchers find that some people are bored all the time regardless
of the situation or the type of stimuli present in that situation. Smith (1981)
notes that the most robust finding in cognitive research is that extroverts
seem much more likely to be bored than introverts. This suggests that
personality factors make extroverts more likely to be situationally bored, and
thus eventually make them more likely to be habitually bored as well.
Larson and Richards (1991), educational researchers, note that the same youths
who report a high frequency of boredom during schoolwork also experience high
rates of boredom outside school. This suggests that students who are most bored
in school are not people who have something tremendously exciting they would
rather be doing. They are youths who report boredom across many situations;
this suggests that boredom may be a trait.
In 1986, Farmer and Sundberg developed the Boredom Proneness Scale to address
the disposition of bored individuals. They state that the boredom -prone
individual is "one who experiences varying degrees of depression, hopelessness,
loneliness, and distractibility.... Boredomprone persons tend to be amotivating
and display little evidence of autonomous orientation..." (p. 14) Thus, Farmer
and Sundberg suggest that there is a group of people who are bored to a greater
degree than the rest of the population.
The psychodynamic literature provides a few theories about patients who are
habitually bored. Fenichel (1951) describes pathological boredom as habitually
occurring when drives or wishes exist, but their objects or aims are repressed.
In pathological boredom , Fenichel thinks people experience the tension between
instinctual impulses (drives) and unfulfilled gratification (objects) as a
longing for something without knowing what it is they wish for. Therefore,
people are left to do nothing and experience a sense of aimlessness.
Wangh (1979) writes, "[T]he bored person, being most inclined to ascribe his
state of mind and mood to outside circumstances, usually feels superior, while
the person who complains of emptiness, being basically depressed, is apt to
feel inferior" (p. 519). For Wangh, boredom is a transitory emotion, except in
cases where boredom prevents the individual from slipping in to more
detrimental states such as depression.
In Neurosis and Human Growth, Homey (1950) describes the neurotic personality
style of "resignation". The resigned personality shows familiar symptoms of
boredom such as repression of wish, disinterest in world, and looking to the
world for shallow enjoyment. The resigned type shrinks away from life and
growth by not facing this inner conflict.
The resigned type believes that life should be "easy, painless, and
effortless." So the resigned type has the absence of any serious strivings and
the aversion to putting forth an effort. The resigned type appears to dabble in
many things but master none due to a lack of commitment. The very essence of
this solution is withdrawing from active living.
Several existential authors think that people's experience of being bored with
their lives is primarily a result of inability to create meaningful existences.
Sartre (1947) thinks that life has no a priori meaning, and individuals create
all the meaning in their lives. At each moment, we are responsible for choosing
the meaning of our situations. Thus, bored persons find themselves waiting for
others to make their lives meaningful.
O'Connor (1967) agrees with Sartre and feels that we usually avoid boredom's
insight of freedom and responsibility because the requirement to create meaning
and value is too overwhelming for us. Thus, our choices remain largely passive
and unreflective responses to environmental pressures (p. 381). This also means
that we generally accept a theory of determinism, genetics, or environmental
factors as having control over us.
For Straus (1980) and Knowles (1986), boredom shows itself as the blocking of
the process of becoming. To become is to proceed toward the future. In
becoming, people have goals and then attempt to actualize those possible goals.
When becoming is blocked, Straus and Knowles feel that people are unable to
foresee meaningful futures; people no longer experience themselves as a
process. Instead, they experience themselves more as a determined object.
Boredom reveals the present as cut off from the future.
Clive (1967) suggests that contemporary society provides the conditions to make
boredom a prevalent and habitual emotional experience. Our times are plagued by
profound disappointments and setbacks which are the result of an irrepressible
drive for change. The disappointments arise because change is supposed to be
change for the better, and Clive feels that many societal changes simply create
new problems and disappointments.
This review reveals that there are many differing perspectives on the cause and
meanings of habitual boredom. However, most of the treatment of habitual
boredom is speculative or theoretical. The theories of habitual boredom are
drawn from observations of clinicians or from conclusions of research done on
situational boredom. While Farmer and Sundberg developed a scale to determine
who is prone to boredom , there is no research as to what conditions may lead
to this temperament and the processes associated with it. In order to address
this shortcoming, the present study goes to the source, to the people who
consider themselves bored with their life. This study explores the process that
leads to that boredom, the psychological experience of life boredom, and the
possibility of the resolution of that experience.
Six participants were recruited by advertising in wide-reaching newspapers and
by placing flyers in a wide range of venues. They were chosen based on their
interest in the research, their diversity with respect to age and gender, and
their ability to articulate their experience.
The participants (P's) can be characterized as follows:
P1 was a 28-year-old Caucasian female. She initially became bored working on
her dissertation. Her advisors needed help on their research work and offered
funding for working with them. She would not have chosen their topic and soon
could not bring herself to work on it. She avoided her advisors for long
periods of time because she was ashamed that she had nothing to show them.
P2 was a 67-year-old Jewish mother of six. Her goal was to find someone who
loved her for who she is, yet, she has remained married to man who she finds
emotionally abusive and cold. Motherhood left her with loads of work that she
found unsatisfying, but when the children left she suffered a complete loss of
identity. She had attempted suicide because she found her life empty and could
find no relief from her boredom.
P3 was a 33-year-old Caucasian male who became bored after being hospitalized
for a mental illness. He felt that subsequent hospital stays, changes in high
schools, and lost friendships had led him to life-boredom and prevented him
from getting a college degree.
P4 was a 40-year-old African-American female. She noticed she was bored with
her life because she had changed jobs every few years. She liked a challenge,
and so she made frequent, but superficial, changes in her life. She was
currently working toward a master's degree; yet, she felt she might become
bored with that too.
P5 was a 49-year-old Caucasian male who originally wanted to be an astronomer.
However, he had problems with a math course in high school and changed his
focus to evangelical religion. In college, he lost his faith in God and his
faith in himself. Since that time, he has been bored with his life. He has
jumped from job to job never finishing what he has started.
P6 was a 16-year-old Caucasian male who was bored with his school, bored with
his town, but most of all, bored with being treated as a kid. His goal is to be
treated like an adult although he has done little to deserve that treatment. He
felt his experience of boredom made him underachieve as a student and had
brought him to the borderline of delinquency.
The specific method I employed was an empirical-phenomenological method
developed from the phenomenological psychological research tradition (Giorgi,
1975). In this method, researchers perform a qualitative narrative analysis of
peoples' everyday accounts of the phenomenon being studied. Through this
method, researchers seek to interpret psychological meanings from the everyday
descriptions. These psychological meanings are inherent within the narrative,
but only implicitly; they emerge for the researcher in the course of
In this case the participants were asked to write a description of the
experience of feeling bored with their lives. In particular the researcher
requested that they provide a written protocol in response to the following
Please describe, in as much detail as possible, your experience of being bored
with your life. Please include how this experience arose, the experience itself
and how this experience came to a resolution, if it did. Give enough detail so
that someone who has never experienced an event of this kind would know just
what it was like for you.
After reading the protocols several times, interviews were conducted to clarify
any questions or ambiguities found in the written descriptions. The integration
of the written and transcribed interview provided the material that formed the
edited synthesis, the basis for each individual's case study.
THE EDITED SYNTHESIS
The edited synthesis is the protocol combined with the interview minus any
information that would identify the participant. An example of an edited
synthesis for one of the participants is provided in Appendix I. The
participant received the following instructions for the interview. The
researcher (R) told the participant (P) that the researcher would read the
participant's own written protocol to him or her. When the researcher paused in
his reading of the protocol, this would indicate that he would like to know
more about the proceeding events. Any pause would mean "Could you tell me more
about that?". This approach was used in order to avoid leading questions.
Pauses and the participant's responses were marked off from the original
written protocol by brackets. Direct questions asked by the researcher also
appeared in the bracketed text.
Each edited synthesis was divided into smaller, numbered units, each unit
highlighting shifts in the participant's meaning as the researcher perceived
these shifts. Giorgi (1985) writes,
[T]he meaning units that emerge as a consequence of the analysis are
spontaneously perceived discriminations within the subject's description
arrived at when the researcher assumes a psychological attitude toward the
concrete description, and ... becomes aware of a change of meaning of the
situation for the subject that appears to be psychologically sensitive. (p. 11)
Through this methodological move, the researcher became more attuned to the
meanings within the participant's account. Giorgi writes, "Thus, the method
allows the lived sense of these terms to operate spontaneously first and later
tries to assess more precisely the meaning of the key terms by analyzing the
attitudes and set actually adopted" (p. 12). Meaning units were delineated in
preparation for the next step of elucidating the central themes of these
Each meaning unit was re-examined, but this time in terms of its psychological
significance and relevance to the overall meaning of being bored with one's
life. The relevance of material was judged by asking, "How am I understanding
this phenomenon such that this statement reveals it?" Wertz (1983) writes of
the researcher at this stage, "He now takes a step back and wonders what this
particular way of living the situation is all about. Breaking his original
fusion with the subject, he readies himself to reflect, to think interestedly
about where his subject is, how he got there, what it means to be there, etc."
(p. 205). Giorgi adds, "After the natural [meaning] units have been delineated,
one tries to state as simply as possible the theme that dominates the natural
unit within the same attitude that defined the units" (1975, p. 87). This
transformation of the meaning units into psychologically significant themes
(also called constituents) prepared the data for a new synthesis.
INDIVIDUAL SITUATED NARRATIVE
The integration of the central themes and their mutual implication into a
descriptive statement formed the individual situated narrative. The aim was to
capture the meanings and significance of each participant's experience by
moving from the everyday meaning to the psychological meaning of the phenomenon
(Wertz, 1983, p. 228). This individual situated narrative remained close to the
participant's specific meanings, while seeking a comprehensive psychological
view of that individual's experience. The limitation of the individual situated
narrative is that it is only one example of a phenomenon. An individual
situated narrative was completed for each participant providing the base from
which a general structure can be derived.
GENERAL PSYCHOLOGICAL STRUCTURE
Once all individual situated narratives were complete, the researcher compared
each one with the others. At this point, the researcher reflected on those
constituents and structures that were common to all individual situated
narratives as well as any ways in which each structure could be considered a
variation of the others. The results of these comparisons produced the general
The general structure established the psychological dynamics of the phenomenon
that held true invariably across the specific experiences studied. Wertz (1983)
writes that the general psychological structure "involves understanding diverse
individual cases as individual instances of something more general and
articulating this generality of which they are particular instances" (p. 228).
Later, Wertz describes the general psychological structure as a formulation of
"the essential, that is, both the necessary and sufficient conditions,
constituents, and structural relations which constitute the phenomenon in
general, that is, in all instances of the phenomenon under consideration" (p.
235). The general structure represents the major finding of this study.
In the following paragraphs I will summarize a general structure of life
boredom. The general structure established the psychological dynamics of
life-boredom that held true invariably across the specific experiences studied.
I have also included examples from the edited synthesis of various participants
which help support the general themes being discussed.
THE GENERAL STRUCTURE OF BEING BORED WITH ONE'S LIFE
The participants, who became bored with their lives, originally found
themselves to be active and interested in their lives. They had goals and
life-projects that they were striving toward. They anticipated that their goals
were reachable, and yet often underestimated the requirements of their goals.
However, in the initial stages of their projects, the participants found
themselves stuck by an event that they constituted as being beyond their
P3: "Basically I was good up to the ninth grade in school. I was skiing and
doing a lot of activities and things. I had a lot of friends and people who
wanted to do things with me. My grades were pretty good, so I planned to go to
college... There was always something to do before the time I got sick."
P5: "I was originally interested in scientific work, specifically, becoming an
astronomer way back in junior high school...I don't know if it was the material
itself or the teacher I had trouble with but, in any case, I stumbled pretty
badly in the tenth grade and became a little disillusioned with it."
The participants relinquished their original goals, apparently without much of
a fight. The participants chose paths that avoided making stands for their own
desires. They compromised those goals for other less desired projects, and
justified these compromises as being paths of least resistance or eventually
claimed these compromises as forced upon them. In any case, the modified goals
were not something they would have originally chosen.
P1: P had mixed emotions about her dissertation topic. On one hand, the topic
of P's dissertation was not something that P would have chosen. She was
interested in another area of study. On the other hand, P felt quite honored
that her advisors had asked her to work on their project.
P2: P suggested that her pregnancy was what kept her from pursuing more
education; however, her attempts to return to school were short lived and her
goal to be a biologist or doctor seem more of a fantasy than an actual
P5: "So at that point I changed my focus to religion. I would not have
originally gone into religion, but there were certain influences in high school
that led to that."
The participants became emotionally ambivalent after they had compromised their
life-projects. They experienced divided feelings directed at themselves and
others, and yet, they only seemed to recognize feelings that were directed
towards others. They were aware of anger towards others who they felt had
"forced" them to compromise their original goals for their modified goals. The
participants blamed these others and considered them responsible for their
situations. At the same time, the participants did not seem to be aware of
self-directed emotions of anger and responsibility for giving up on their
original goals so easily. These self-directed feelings would be ignored or kept
at a prereflective level. However, the participants attempts to deny or hide
these feelings would lead to their intensification; some things grow in the
P5: When selecting a college, P's pastor and parents convinced him to go to a
mainstream religious college rather than a hard-line evangelical college. P
came to feel anger toward these people for this action; yet, he was less aware
of anger toward himself for not taking a stand.
P6: P blames the town for being "pretty lame. Our whole town just sucks and the
people around it just suck." On the other hand, he resists taking
responsibility for missing opportunities by sleeping in.
P2: P is still married to a man she describes as "still a beast, he's still
cruel, and he's still heartless. Every time he saw something was making me
happy he had to cut if off... I'm still married to him and see him on
The participants began working on their modified projects, and again those
projects became stymied in the initial stages. Since the participants were torn
in two directions, they were unable to give their new projects their full
effort. When the projects became impeded, they did not experience the resolve
to continue working on them. They found themselves frustrated with these
modified projects. They tried some different approaches in attempts to make
progress on these projects, but soon they could no longer see any new
perspectives. They found themselves repeating the same approaches that had
initially failed, which led them back to the same dead-ends.
P1: "If I went to school I would sort of pick up this same book and open it
back up to the same page and look at it and still not get any new ideas. I went
on like that for a while."
P3: P tried a few different times to go to college but frequently took on too
much. "One time I was going to school part time, working two part time jobs,
and seeing a doctor once a week."
P5: "So once again it looks like I've kind of hit a brick wall with regard to
vocation. It might be a rubber wall which keeps bouncing me back to where I
The participants recognized themselves as being bored with their modified
projects. They could no longer see themselves making progress toward their
futures. They felt overwhelmed and helpless in the face of their projects. Yet,
they did not gain the assistance of others. They would fantasize about
solutions to their boredom ; they were passively hopeful. They hoped to be
saved by someone else's actions rather than their own. The participants'
stances toward their projects, and their lives, would become passive and
P2: "So many times my life was like a daydream. I would sit around and think
about how nice it would be if I could get a job where I could travel and be the
singer. I could dance. I was a real good dancer. Maybe I could get a job with
Lawrence Welk. So I fantasized that somebody might discover me someday. I'd be
somebody someday. It never happened though I'm still waiting."
P5: "I felt kind of overwhelmed by the choices to the point where you have to
take a step back and shut it out for a while. At that point, life temporarily
loses meaning for me."
P1: "So I avoided my advisors for six months. I wouldn't go to school a lot of
the time. If I would go to school, I would hide out in my office so I wouldn't
have to see my advisors."
They began to find themselves bored with more aspects of their lives. They
found themselves bored with activities that they had previously enjoyed. The
participants recognized that they were acting in ways that were
uncharacteristic of themselves; they would not have acted in these ways before
they had become bored. Although they had some ideas about different possible
projects that might change their boredom, they no longer felt confident enough
to try new activities. They anticipated that potential projects would become
boring, and so they decided not to bother with them.
P4: "Presently, I am bored with my whole life. None of the old things I used to
do bring enjoyment to me anymore. Nothing. [Boredom ] covers my social life. It
covers school. It covers work. It covers going to the grocery store . . . It
covers a lot of things. My hair."
P5: "I might think that I would become bored with whatever activity I'm looking
at. I project boredom. I'm looking ahead and saying 'Oh boy, it looks like it's
going to be boring after all.' So I don't even start it."
P3: "Too many ideas going through my mind . . . But I can't stick to things
very long. Then you end up accomplishing nothing, and you're bored because you
have all these ideas and they just don't get done."
The participants became aware of the self-directed feelings of anger, doubt,
and shame that had been hidden by ambivalence. These feelings had intensified
and could no longer be denied. Those self-directed feelings had largely
dissolved any previous feelings of confidence, desire, and will that the
participants had prior to their boredom. However, when the participants became
aware of these feelings they did not attempt corrective actions, rather they
continued a pattern of avoidance.
P1: P recognizes that 'There's a lot of self contempt.' She acknowledges that
she wasted time avoiding her advisor and working on her project.
P5: P recognizes that boredom has led to a loss of "good self esteem . . . and
without it I become fragmented, un-focused, and that results in a lack of will
power to keep going in any given project."
The participants found themselves questioning their own identities. These
questions centered around becoming self-aware of personal estrangement. The
participants no longer could understand themselves as being the active,
interested people they had been, nor were they actively working toward future
goals. They wondered who they were. Although they were passive and avoidant,
they continued to become someone--someone they did not like.
P1: "I thought I wasn't Ph.D. material or maybe I wasn't cut out to do this. I
had all these doubts about whether I'd be able to do it."
P2: "Like you hear the young people today say 'I'm trying to find myself. I'm
looking for myself.' I never found me. This person."
P4: "But I've become more of a recluse over the past couple of years...I used
to be more of a people-person...I always have a scowl on my face...It's there
without me even thinking about it. I don't get any enjoyment anymore. That
The participants' questions of identity lead to feelings of emptiness. They had
no answers to their identity questions. While their pre-bored sense of identity
had burned up, nothing with a sense of vitality had developed to replace it.
This left a vacuum. Nothingness. They no longer knew what they wanted or what
to do with themselves. They were no longer throwing forward possibilities.
P1: "In the past, I have always been energetic in every area of my life. But
now, this problem I am having with my thesis work has had the reverse effect on
my life. I felt like I couldn't do anything, whereas before I was sort of doing
P2: "But as I'm saying, for me as the one person myself, there was nothing.
There was really nothing. If you want to take it as a female reward, raising
your children. Fine. I had all that."
P3: "I have memories in my head about how I was before it all broke down. But I
wish I could be like I was before I broke down. I can only remember it, but I
can't feel how I was before I got sick."
P5: "I lost my focus, and I lost the vision for my life and that former
excitement that I experienced."
The participants had a sense of futility since they felt their actions would
not bring about the desired results. They were unable to hold the future open;
they were not able to see any direction in their lives. They lost sight of a
hopeful vision for their lives. They lost faith in themselves, in terms of
actively, willfully, and authentically influencing their own lives. Their
limitations became more present to them than their possibilities.
P2: "It's like you take a train, and you have a long ride, and you come to the
end, and where do you go? There's nothing for you, nobody for you. It's like
you're in a big empty room. What do you do? Lay down and die."
P5: "When I lose my vision, I lose any idea or projection of what I want to do
in the future. I don't have any distinct plans, or even an idea of what I want
to do and so I wanted to immerse myself more in the present rather than
projecting myself in the future, hoping that something would work out in the
They could no longer envision a future that was different from the present.
They began not to care. When participants were apathetic, they tended to act in
ways that they knew were not in their best interest, in destructive ways.
P2: "So after so many years of loneliness and boredom, I thought, 'What now?
It's over with . . . So just end it.'"
P5: "Being in the disillusioned state I didn't have the will power to be
disciplined. I knew what I was getting into, but I just didn't care."
P4: "I've found myself in precarious situations, with people I would otherwise
never be with if I wasn't trying to avoid being bored. Just to have something
to do even if it's negative. I mean sometimes I just go out drinking if I'm
P6: When feeling bored and apathetic, P often resorted to teen mischief which
included drinking, buying and chewing tobacco, minor vandalism.
Not all participants resolved their experience of being bored. Those
participants who did, typically returned to having an active sense of agency
because someone else forced them to do so. Concerns such as lost jobs or lost
marriages placed new demands on the participants and made them create new
futures. This meant returning to active participation in their lives.
P1: "I will have to make a decision about how to handle this, and soon, for the
university is not likely to let me sit here, staring at the walls, too much
Participants began creating new goals by imagining new possibilities for their
lives. Unlike earlier fantastic solutions to their boredom, their new solutions
focused on possibilities that were within their active realm. By creating new
goals, new futures appeared. The participants who made active choices at that
point and experienced some initial success toward those new goals did not
currently see themselves as being bored.
P1: "I think it was different because I picked it; actually against the advice
of other graduate students, who told me the same thing would happen again . . .
But that didn't happen and I really got into this topic."
P2: "But now I'm trying to find myself. Now I'm taking piano lessons. I've
joined senior citizens, and I have a few lady friends."
This study found that the most important aspect in the experience of life
boredom was the development of emotional ambivalence. Ambivalent feelings
developed once the participants compromised their personal goals for less
Whereas participants' pre-bored selves appeared to be unified toward their
goals, they now were conflicted and divided. They still desired their original
goals; however, in lieu of the obstacles of those goals the participants chose
to change or modify them. On a practical or rational level, their decisions to
modify their goals made sense to them. Yet, their decisions undermined the
desires for their original goals. To some degree, the participants understood
that they were turning away from their own-most selves, but felt compelled to
work on these modified projects that they soon found their hearts were not in.
This turning away from their own desires would become a repeated pattern of
passivity and avoidance.
The participants were emotionally torn in two directions, and these two similar
but opposing emotional directions would develop simultaneously on two different
levels of awareness. Freud (1989) acknowledged a similar structure, "Contrary
thoughts are always closely connected with each other and are often paired off
in such a way that the one thought is excessively conscious while its
counterpart is repressed and unconscious" (p. 200).
On one hand, the participants would consciously feel anger and direct blame
towards the world and others. Ironically, the participants also expected the
solutions to their boredom to be provided by others. By giving the world and
others so much control over their lives, the participants found themselves
waiting for change instead of working towards it.
On the other hand, the participants pre-consciously felt anger and directed
blame toward themselves. Their attempts to deny, or ignore their own
self-directed feelings of anger, shame and doubt led to an intensification of
those feelings. Ignored feelings do not simply disappear. Rather, they simmer,
boil and burn. In this case, these feelings burned up the participants former
sense of confidence, will and active living. When strengths atrophy and nothing
new replaces those strengths, the participants experienced feelings of
This study is in agreement with the findings of cognitive researchers Larson
and Richards (1991) who reported that the same youths experienced high rates of
boredom inside and outside school. In this study, the participants were
initially bored with their modified projects, but boredom spread to more
aspects of their lives including activities that they previously enjoyed.
Instead of being open to the way the world called forth particular emotional
responses, the participants attuned themselves to a very limited set of
emotional possibilities. Their experience of being bored changed from a state
to a trait.
Returning to the psychodynamic perspective, the participants in my study
appeared to he very similar to the resigned personality that Homey (1950)
described in Neurosis and Human Growth. Both Homey's resigned type and the
participants experienced ambivalent conflicts and withdrew from active living.
In my study, I found no evidence that life boredom was the result of
instinctual impulses with repressed objects (Fenichel, 1951). However,
"repressed" objects may pertain more to situational boredom rather than life
boredom . Although Wangh (1979) felt that only depressed persons would
experience feelings of emptiness, I found that feelings of emptiness were also
part of life boredom.
Some preliminary distinctions between boredom and depression are in order.
There are some significant differences between the experience of life boredom
and the cognitive triad of depression (Beck, 1967). The first aspect of the
cognitive triad of depression is a negative view of one's self. According to
Beck, depressed people totalize themselves as being defective, deprived, or
inadequate. They understand their negative experiences as a result of their own
personal defects. Because of these defects depressed people underestimate and
criticize themselves, believing that they are undesirable, worthless, and lack
the psychological necessities to be happy and content (Beck et al., 1979; p.
In this study I found that the participants had a much different experience of
themselves. They began their original life projects with confidence and
expectations that their goals were well within their reach. In fact, I believe
that the participants were overconfident and over-estimated their own
abilities. They expected to easily achieve their original goals. For instance,
regarding the beginning work on her dissertation question, P1 said, "So I hoped
that I would start in whatever direction, and I guessed that when I started
doing the research it would be obvious to me what to do."
Apparently initial troubles with life-projects did not immediately lead the
participants to doubt themselves, nor did they double their efforts. They
tended to see the projects, instead of themselves, as less desirable or
unworthy. P5 said, "I don't know if it was the material itself or the teacher I
had trouble with but in any case, I stumbled pretty badly in the tenth grade
and became a little disillusioned with [my original goal]." Most of the
participants could picture themselves as being happy, but this happiness was
usually dependent on the actions of others rather than actions under their own
The second component of the cognitive triad consists of depressed people's
tendency to interpret their ongoing experience negatively (Beck et al., 1979;
p. 11). The world is understood as making tremendous demands or presenting
insurmountable obstacles which keep them from reaching their goals. Depressed
people misinterpret their interactions with the world and others in a way that
leaves them feeling defeated or deprived (p. 11).
The participants who experienced life boredom had similarities to this second
component as well as some subtle differences. The participants also ran into
obstacles on the path to their projects. However, they felt that they had the
resources to overcome those obstacles. Yet, when it came to using those
resources, in the form of finding fresh perspectives to their problems, the
participants were unable to do so. They tried the same approach over and over.
Instead of a series of tremendous demands, the bored participants tended to
believe there was one small hurdle that they tripped over. Once they would get
past their obstacles their lives would be back on track. They underestimated
the requirements of their goals. Moreover, instead of seeking help when they
became stuck, the participants often avoided getting help from others. Not
because they felt defeated rather the participants felt too ashamed to ask for
help. They thought they should be able to accomplish the task on their own. In
general, I tend to think of shame as integral to life-boredom whereas guilt
seems to be more prominent in depression.
The third component of the cognitive triad is that depressed people have a
negative view of the future. They anticipate never-ending series difficulties
and perpetual suffering. Depressed people exhibit expectations of hardship,
frustration, and deprivation. These expectations lead the depressed people not
to take up projects because they anticipate that these projects will end in
failure (Beck et al., 1979; p. 11).
The bored participants also tend to have a negative view of the future even
though initially their feelings were not as hopeless or pervasive as in
depression. I think that the participants felt they deserved and were worthy of
an interesting and active life. Although they did anticipate boredom toward
their own possibilities, they could fantasize or passively hope for others to
save them from their boredom. Fantasizing falls in between the hopelessness of
depression and imagining. Imagining or active hope occurs when a person throws
forward projects that are within the realm of one's real possibilities.
Several existential authors (e.g., Frankl, Boss, Clive) feel that contemporary
society appears to have special factors which make people particularly
vulnerable to the agonies of boredom. In general, I found no evidence to
suggest that our culture has a large influence in leading a person to boredom .
The participants tended to blame others for their situation, and under the
broad category of others to blame, cultural structures were mentioned. Yet,
cultural structures only appeared to be another target, in a series, toward
which the participants directed their anger. However, the method of protocol
analysis utilized in this study may not be the best method for uncovering
cultural influences on the experience of boredom.
My findings are in agreement with the perspectives of Knowles (1986) and Straus
(1980) in that the process of becoming was blocked by the participants'
experiences of boredom. In addition, my study found that although the
participants' active sense of becoming was blocked, they passively continued to
become--only they became people whom they did not like. In time, the
participants found that these passive, avoidant aspects became a distinct, then
dominant aspect of their identity. Therefore, the bored participants were
alienated from the future and estranged from the past.
The existential position recognizes the need to create personal meaning--which
becomes the background for choice--to be a very important feature of a person's
experience of boredom. In fact, I originally thought boredom was a possible
precursor to authenticity (Bargdill, 1999), providing an opportunity for people
to take up their own most possibilities. However, when faced with choosing the
meaning for their lives, people experientialiy appear to make fight, flight or
Boredom is equivalent to the freeze response. In this response, people ignore
the possibility of taking creative steps toward making their lives meaningful.
Instead, they walt for others-for outside assistance to a very personal
insight. Like a deer in the headlights, these people freeze. They hope that the
intrusive danger, meaninglessness, will disappear and that they will be able to
return to their daily lives. They retain a passive hope; not a hope that leads
to action, rather a hope that someone will help them. They are between despair
and joy. They are in purgatory waiting and dependent on other people's prayers.
As if they have seen Medusa, they stagnate, solidify. They are no longer in
motion. They are aware, but paralyzed. They are bored.
APPENDIX I: EDITED SYNTHESIS FOR PARTICIPANT ONE
"MARGARET THE MATH GRAD"
Until a few years ago, I had never really been bored with any aspect of my
life. [Well, I don't think I have ever been in a situation where I had to do
just one thing and nothing else. Through high school, through college, I was
always taking a bunch of different classes. Then, all of a sudden I had to do
one thing, and I just got really bored with it. Up until then, I had been doing
lots of other different things, so maybe it was that. I had some of other
things to go to. If I got tired of the one subject I was studying I could go to
something else.] School interested me a great deal, and I was able to focus
intently upon all of my studies, and I achieved a measure of satisfaction from
doing so. [I think it was not only being satisfied with the different things I
was doing and the being satisfied with the things I was learning in classes,
but there somebody was teaching me, and I always had immediate feedback from
homework or exam grades or something like that. But when I started doing my
research, all of a sudden nobody was there teaching me anymore. So I was never
sure how much progress I was making. And I was not being evaluated right away.
So there wasn't this immediate sense of satisfaction from research like there
was from class, I guess.] I finished all of my required coursework for my Ph.D.
approximately two years ago, and then embarked upon a research project for my
I fell into this project rather than choosing it, [I first started working with
my advisors after they asked me to be a research assistant, instead of being
supported by teaching. So of course I said, "Yes." The project I started
working on is the project which I ended up doing my dissertation on--and that's
sort of how I fell into it. They had money to support this work, and so, I
started to work on this project for them. Then, that was fine. But then when it
came time to do my work, I had been working on this project for a year. Instead
of trying to put something totally new together, they said, "Since you know so
much about this project, why don't you just try to extend this research." It
made sense to me at the time, and I suppose it still does make sense to me.
Sort of the direction they would lead me in, but that's why I sort of fell into
it. It wasn't like I had found out about it independently and said, "That
really interests me." It sort of came about due to this research position.]
since at the tim e I was being supported by research grants through my
advisors, and this happened to be the topic on which they needed work done. At
first, I was excited about the project. [Well, first of all I was excited that
they had come to me and ask me to do research with them. I felt like that was a
big honor. Most of the time you have to go seek out somebody to do research
with. So I was excited about that. I was also excited about doing research,
that's what I went to grad school for. It is an interesting topic. When it was
first presented, I thought: "Wow, this is really great." It's something that's
really applicable. They were working with a company around the city, so we
could go and see the results. And I was going to be writing computer code,
which I was really good at. So I thought it would a good project.] Here was
some original work that they had written papers on and developed algorithms
for, and I was writing the computer programs that were to test out the
practical validity of their theories. It seemed t o me that this was what I had
spent four years of graduate study preparing to do--[I spent this time in
graduate school taking all these classes in applied math, and I was sort of
focused in on applied math. And I took all the classes with numerical
algorithms, and by that time, I had probably four or five classes in numerical
method. So here is this project, an applied project, and I'm going to be
testing out numerical algorithms and that's why I took all these classes: to be
able to something like this.] and in fact, I did it quite well. [They gave me
this project--and actually compared to how long it has taken me to do my
dissertation--they gave me this project to do: I had to write up this computer
program and test out all these different cases, and so forth, and I did it over
the summer. So in three months, it was done and it worked. We did some
investigation and it just seemed so amazing, it was done so fast.
R: Sounds like you were quite happy with it?
P: I think they were happy with what I'd done, and I was happy with what I'd
I finished my program, the numerical tests were done, and I came out of it with
my name on a jointly-published paper. All a very good start for a fledgling
Ph.D. student in mathematics. [Well, I think, "Yes, a very good start," because
I think at that point I had passed all preliminary exams, I'd passed all my
comprehensive exams, I was just about done with course-work. I started working
on this research project. I hadn't done any original research but had done
these numerical tests, and I had my name on a paper--a published paper in what
was considered to be a very good refereed journal. One of the things you need
in order to get jobs when you finish your Ph.D., is you have to have some
record. It helps to have a record of publication.]
Next came the time for us to decide what topic I should pick for my original
thesis work. This particular project is not what I would have chosen, [I kind
of think that is a big part of it, of the problem. The advisors that I ended up
working with, they are the professors I would have chosen to work with. In
fact, when I went to school I knew ahead of time that I would probably want to
work with these people. But they work in a different area of applied math,
which is what I thought I wanted to do research in. In fact, they had a bunch
of students at the same time as me and, everyone else was working on their
project except for me. I was working on this other topic. If I had never
started working with them on their research project, I would probably ask them
if I could work with them on this other area of math, not the area I ended in.]
but since I already knew all of the background information, and since my
advisors felt that there was further work to be done in the same area, it was
mutually agreed upon th at I would try to further the research that they had
already done on this topic. [We talked about what I was going to do my research
on, and I had told them that I was interested in this other area. We talked for
a while about what my options were, and the truth is that they told me that if
I really wanted to work in this other area, it would be fine with them. But
that I had already, in their opinion, spent a year and a half doing all the
background work on this area I was working on for them. So I would sort of have
to start over if I did work in a different area. What they said made a lot of
sense to me at that time. I said, "Yeah, you're probably right. I'll see where
I can go with this." We discussed it, and all agreed that this was going to be
the fastest way for me to get finished.] Again, I originally was excited and
hoped that I would soon be writing programs to test the new and improved
theories that I devised on my own. [In the beginning, I had a lot of
enthusiasm. I had been successful in what I h ad done for them. So now it's
time for me to work on my own thing, and I was thinking two years and I'll be
R: Was that part of the hope part?
P: Oh yeah. So I hoped that I would start in whatever direction, and I guess
that when I started doing research, it would be obvious to me what to do. So I
was kind of excited about it, and I thought I'm just going to sit down and
start doing it. In a couple years, I'll graduate. I was excited and I was
hoping that I would be done pretty soon.]
These new breakthroughs, however, were not so easily found. [I thought I was
going to sit there and it was all going to come to me--how to go about solving
this problem. Actually it wasn't even a matter of trying to solve the problem,
it was a matter of trying to pose the problem. I don't know. Ideas were not
coming to me, and I would sit and read things over and over again and still not
have any ideas about where to go.] I began to find myself despairing of ever
doing anything original on my own, [After not being able to come up with
anything, I just was thinking I have to create something out of thin air. I
have no idea of how to do that, and maybe I can't do that. For a long time I
thought that way, and I thought that whatever I came up with had to be
something completely new, that nobody ever thought of before. Which actually
isn't the case, but that's what I thought when I was first trying to do this--I
just had no idea.
R: Can you tell me more about this feeling of despairing?
P: I started having this feeling of despair, of never being able to do it. I
thought I wasn't Ph.D. material or maybe I wasn't a cut out to do this. I had
all these doubts about whether I'd be able to do it. And I think that the more
I sort of sat there and realized that there were no ideas coming to me, the
more I sort of got depressed about it. I thought, "It's never going to happen.
I'm never going to come up with anything that's going to lead to a
dissertation."] because I had no idea where to start. [That was the whole
problem: I didn't know how to start coming up with ideas, and I didn't know how
to start approaching the problem, how to start posing a problem. It was like I
was faced with this huge task, and I felt like I had to do it all in a day. I
thought I had to come up with the one big idea in a day, and I didn't know how
to do that.] Eventually, my advisors wrote a new grant proposal on the topic,
in which they outlined several directions that could be explored by further
research. Now, I had at least some idea of which way to head, [They wrote this
grant proposal. They took the problem, and what they did for me by doing that
is they posed several questions, like seven or eight different questions that
they thought could lead to further research. So then we sat down again after
they wrote this, and we talked about some of the questions. At least I had sort
of a question and something to direct me. So what I did, was after we talked
about it, I picked one of questions and this is what I'm going to try to work
on.] and I began with somewhat renewed enthusiasm to look for books and papers
on some of the topics. [Well, I felt like, "OK. Now I have a question posed. So
now I know where to look for answers." I had renewed enthusiasm because I felt
like I know kind of where to start, so that helps. So I went off to the library
and started looking up all this stuff started doing background research.
R: So just having a direction helped you?
P: Yeah, because I wasn't looking for my own question anymore. I had this
question and it was like, OK now I have a question and can go out and try to
figure out how to answer it. At least I knew how to start.] Unfortunately,
these bursts of enthusiasm never seemed to last for long. [(Laughing) When I
first looked at this proposal they wrote, I picked out a question and then it
was sort of going to lead me into an area I had never studied. So with the
renewed enthusiasm I went out and got books on this area, and I started trying
to teach myself enough about it that I could figure out how to apply it to my
problem. That lasted for a while, I was reading through this book making sure I
understood what was going on. Then when it came to trying to apply it to the
problem we had, I got stuck every time. At that point, I started despairing
again thinking, "Well, I can go out and get this book and learn about this
topic but I have no idea where to go from there. I'm back in the same situation
I was in before."]
These days I find myself sitting at my desk, on those occasions when I force
myself to go to school, staring at the book from which I hope to find ideas.
[Well, this book I'm referring to is on integral equations. I was teaching
myself from it, and at that point, I just did not know where to go. I wasn't
being supported by teaching--I had a fellowship for a while. So I avoided my
advisors for six months. I wouldn't go to school a lot of the time. If I would
go to school, I would hide out in my office so I wouldn't have to see my
advisors. If I went to school, I would sort of pick up this same book and open
it back up to the same page and look at it and still not get any new ideas. I
went on like that for a while.
R: What was it about this hook?
P: It was this book on integral equations and I was trying to take and figure
out how to apply it to this problem. I actually worked through a lot of the
book.] I first checked out this book on March 1, 1996.
[R: What was it about having this book for a year?
P: What it is, is that I avoided it a lot of the time. I would look at this
book once or twice in the two months. I'd renew it, do the same thing. I mean I
really wasted a whole year by trying to avoid the whole thing.] It is now
almost one year later, and I still have not finished working on the sections
which I hope to apply to my research. Every time I pick up the book, I leaf to
the same section, begin to reread the same chapter that I have read maybe fifty
or sixty times, try to rewrite the theorems in the context of my particular
problem, come to the same dead end and quit. [The same dead end, was that I
would try to rewrite the theorems in the context of my problem, and I would
sort of always get started. But I would work on the same thing and it never led
anywhere. But there was a problem, I got stuck at the same point and couldn't
figure out how to get around it. So I would try the same approach or a slightly
different approach, time after time, thinking that if I write this down one
more time, it's going to come to me how I can get around this problem, and I
never could. In fact, I never did. I never got around that problem.] I read it,
but cannot seem to get excited about it. [Every time I would read the book, it
was never anything that interested me a whole lot. It never interested me! When
I tried to teach it to myself from the book, it never interested me. I never
got excited. I don't know if excited is the right word. I never really got
interested in the math that was going on.] I am positive that I could do
something with this, [At the time, I was sure that the problem they had posed
could be solved and that it could be done using this method and that there
should be some way to do it. I don't know why I was so positive about that, but
for some reason I thought there has to be a way to do it.] find some
breakthrough, but I cannot seem to get past this barrier in my mind [I don't
know when the barrier appeared, but at some point I had looked at the problem
from the same perspective for so long tha t I think there was just kind of this
wall. I felt like I just could never get past it. I would be like staring--I
guess I felt like there was something preventing me from seeing the light. Like
when I would read this stuff, I thought I was understanding what I was reading
and thought there would be some way it would connect with my problem. I thought
that I should see it and I never saw it. I felt like there was something sort
of preventing me from seeing the solution.] that is closing off any kind of
intellectual curiosity about this topic. [After a while I didn't care. I wasn't
interested in finding a solution. In the beginning, I thought, "Well, it's kind
of interesting, and it would be neat if we solve it." After a while I didn't
care about it. I wasn't curious if there was an answer. I was just sick of
looking at it.] I could do almost any other boring, mundane activity and find
more interest in it than looking at these books and papers for one more time.
[Whenever I forced myself to go to school, inste ad of working, I would sit
there and get on the internet and read inane chat groups that were going on. I
read so many newsgroups: I knew what was going on in the Simpson's group and
would talk to these people for a hour, sometimes six hours a day. How
ridiculous is that?
R: How do you explain that?
P: I think I originally did it to avoid working, and I would go to school out
of guilt. Also, so that my advisors would know that I was there. Then I would
sit in my office and do no work. Sometimes I would go in and try to do some
work, but most of the time I would try to stare at the stuff for a half an
hour, then decide to take a break and log on to the computer for a second. Then
four hours later, I realized I've been here for four hours, and it was time to
go home and make dinner. I would do that all the time.
R: Could you say more about being able to do any other activity?
P: It was the worst. I had no interest in it at all. I mean I would do things
like balance my check book, clean my office. Things I would never do otherwise
just because I couldn't stare at this stuff. I just couldn't stare at this
stuff anymore. So I would look for any menial task, or something to occupy
myself as sort of a diversion from my research.] In fact, I very often will
come into school and sit staring at the computer screen for hours, browsing the
Internet, and reading the most incredibly stupid news-groups rather than
attempt to do any work.
R: There sounds like some self-contempt there?
P: Oh Absolutely! There's a lot of self-contempt. I thought it was ridiculous
that I did that. I still think I sort of wasted time; four to eight hours a day
reading these stupid little comments on the computer screen. There's no meaning
in that. I thought it was stupid. My time would have been much better spent
reading a book. I was angry at myself because I knew I wasn't getting anywhere.
I always felt that every time I went to my advisors I had to have accomplished
something. I had to have something to show them when I go see them. At this
point, I sort of kept spinning my wheels and never had anything to show them.
So I never went to see them. It turned into weeks, then months, then six months
between meetings with my advisors. That was the longest period of time that it
ever turned into. I was angry at myself. I thought I was incompetent and I was
depressed. I was convinced that I was not going to be able to do this.] I even
began writing this protocol after leafing through my research notes for five mi
This boredom is not something that I have ever experienced in my life before.
[I think it was a different type of boredom because it was so prolonged.
Certainly, I have been bored in my life. I've met some people and had some
conversations that were boring or gone to a party that was boring, but that
might have lasted a couple of hours. Then I got to leave and do something else.
This was different. It was like every single day, I'd wake up and know that I
was either going to avoid doing this, or I was going to have to try to do this.
It was just like never-ending boredom . I didn't see any end coming, and that,
I never experienced before. I never had a situation where I felt I couldn't get
out of it. I couldn't see it ending.] In the past, I have always been energetic
in every area of my life. [I've always been a person who sort of takes on a
million things and usually does a million things pretty well. I have always had
a lot of energy. I've always excelled at school. I've always excelled at
everything I did . I always was very interested in what I was doing and had a
lot of energy for it.] In fact, people used to tell me that I took on too many
things. [My family always tried to tell me that I try to do too many things.
Especially, my grandma used to say, "You do too much, you do too much." Even
professors would tell me that, because I always had a job and had a full load
of classes. Besides that, I would be in a choir and going out with
friends--always doing a lot of different things.] But that never bothered me;
[It never bothered me that I had so many things going on. I never felt like I
was doing too many things. I never even remember feeling overwhelmed about all
I was doing. It seemed to me then and seems to me now that I have a million
things going on and I seem to get them all done. I actually get more done than
if I have nothing going on.] the more I took on, the more I accomplished. But
now, this problem I am having with my thesis work has had the reverse effect on
my life. [I felt like I couldn't do a nything, whereas before I was sort of
doing everything. Now all of sudden there was one thing that I could not get
past. Like there was this one obstacle that I couldn't overcome. I always felt
guilty doing anything else because I had one really important project to get
done, and it wasn't getting done. So if I did other things, it was like taking
away from the one thing I was supposed to be doing the most. So I felt like I
couldn't do anything. I think I felt guilty doing other things. For sure, I
didn't enjoy the other things as much, even when I was doing them. Even at work
I felt guilty because I knew it was time away from my research.] I feel weighed
down by it, [Whatever I was doing, it was sort of always in the back of my
mind. That here's this big problem that I can't get over, and it was always in
the back of my mind somewhere. It was always this big burden I was carrying
around. So I guess that's what I mean about "weighed-down by it". It always
bothered me, it was always a presence that I thought a bout.] and it occupies
my mind, at least partly, most of the time. All of my energy seems to go into
thinking about getting my work done, and I have no energy or patience for other
aspects of my life. [Again, because I always felt weighed-down by it, I always
felt like I was carrying this around in the back of my mind. It occupied my
mind a lot of the time so I didn't have a lot of mental energy for thinking
about other things. About patience too, I can remember trying to read books,
and I couldn't because I didn't have enough mental energy or patience to
concentrate on anything other than some inane book. Like anything that would
require thought or concentration to read, I couldn't read. I wouldn't be able
to concentrate on the same thing for a very long time, I just wouldn't have the
patience to do that or I'd get sort of irritable pretty easily. I certainly
wasn't in a very good disposition most of the time.] Because I feel guilty
about it, I force myself to go into school, dig out my research, and attempt
some kind of work. [The guilt came from myself because I felt I was letting
myself down. I knew I was doing things that were not characteristic of me. I
also felt like I was letting my parents down, letting advisors down, everyone
in my family who had supported me when I was an undergraduate-and going to
graduate school--and my friends. Every time someone would ask me how my
research was going, I would feel like this big guilt wave, and would not want
to give an answer. I'd try to change the subject.] But inevitably I get nothing
done, [It seemed inevitable at the time. It seemed like this was never going to
end; I was never going to have a breakthrough and never find an answer to this
problem. I think it's probably true that when I forced myself to go to school,
I never really believed I was going to get anything done. I sort of convinced
myself of that after a while, which is probably why I didn't get anywhere after
a while.] sit staring blankly into space or at the computer, [Boy, I sound
really morbid do n't I?--Sitting staring blankly into space. I would sit there
staring at the open book. You start staring at something and everything becomes
blurred and you sit there staring at nothing. I don't even know if I was
daydreaming or not. I was just sitting there trying to work. You realized ten
minutes have gone by and you haven't read a single word.] and go home with a
sense of utter failure. [Because at the end of the day I would realize that I
wasted another day sitting at school for eight hours getting absolutely nothing
done--sometimes not even really giving it a good effort to get anything done,
sometimes not giving any effort at all. I always felt every single day of
school, "You failed. You failed."] I avoid talking about school, I avoid my
advisors, I avoid the voices in my head that tell me that I am wasting valuable
years of my life. [I told you I avoided my advisors pretty successfully for six
months. I avoided them because I felt that I had to have something to show
them. The longer the period of ti me became since I had first seen them, the
more I felt I should have to show them. After two months went by, I was just
petrified by saying, "Two months have gone by and I have got nothing." So I
continually avoided them. I avoided talking about school, I certainly never
brought it up, and if someone else brought it up I would sort of say, "Yeah,
things are going kind of slow," and change the subject. There was always in the
back of my mind this fear and this doubt that I was never going to get
anywhere. If I never got anywhere I should just quit now and not just sort of
spin my wheels in grad school for four years. I'd gotten my master's only after
a year and a half, so two and a half years would have been wasted if I didn't
get anywhere.] Everyone else tells me that to quit now would be a waste--but am
I not already just wasting time? [I don't know if I had given quitting a
serious consideration. I had talked about it, I talked to friends about it. I
don't think I ever really sat down and thought about what the consequences
might be, or I certainly never sat down and thought about what I would do if I
quit. I don't remember sitting down and thinking, "Well, I'd apply for jobs
here or I'd do this." I always felt like I knew exactly what I wanted to do,
and this was the only way to be able to do what I wanted to do. So I did talk
about quitting, but I don't know that I would say that I seriously sat down and
thought about quitting.
R: When you were talking to others were you looking for some response from
P: Probably. I knew they would probably say, "You shouldn't quit." I was
probably looking for some reassurance from people who knew me well--to say,
"You can do it."--because I had sort of convinced myself that, "No, I couldn't
do it."] I know that if I could just get past this and finish, [So I felt that
if I could just get done and get my Ph.D., then I would have the time to study
the things I really wanted; that if I want to read books, that my mind wouldn't
be so obsessed with this one thing, and I would be able to go back to enjoying
books like history and classics. If I finished this I could enjoy the things I
used to enjoy.] I would be free to study other things that interest me. [I
certainly felt like I wasn't free, freed from this obligation, free from
thinking that I had to work on this all the time or else I'd have to feel
guilty about it.]
I suppose that somewhere within my mind is the strength of will, [I guess I
thought I should have been strong enough to just make myself do it.
R: So part of the problem of boredom is a problem of the will?
P: Yes, I guess I thought I wasn't exerting my will strongly enough. I felt I
was sort of being weak by avoiding the whole thing; that I need to focus on the
one topic and finish my dissertation.] I know that I am a strong person, [I
mean I have the ability to go on even when things happen that don't go your
way--or catastrophes, when bad things happen in your life--or being able to
continue even if the odds are against you.] and I have already overcome many
difficulties just to get to this point. [I felt like I had accomplished a lot
just to get into graduate school. I went to college right out of high school,
and I dropped out in my second semester because I lost everything I owned in a
house fire. At that point I moved to my mothers house, then I moved out. I
started living on my own for the first time. I was 18. I worked for a couple
years and I started going back to school. I went to community college first, on
grants and student loans. I went to a university on grants and students loans,
as well as work ing to pay for the rest and supporting myself while at school.
I felt, and still feel, a lot of pride that I was able to do that because it
was hard for me to do that. I worked 30 to 40 hours a week, and went to school
full time, and still graduated with honors, and I got into graduate school. I
got full support for grad school, and that's why I thought I should be strong
and should've been able to do it. I felt like I had already overcome a lot to
even be here.] Reading back through some of what I have already written, I
suspect that part of my problem is that I never have really been focused on
only one thing in my life. As I said, I have always had a bunch of projects
going on at one time. They all kept me interested and excited. [Maybe if it had
been one thing that really absorbed me and that I was really interested in. I
don't know if that would have mattered or not. I had other situations that I
was bored in, but there was always an end. If it was at the beginning of the
semester, I knew there was going to be an end. I think at that time I just
didn't see the end, other than quitting.] Now that I am supposed to focus on
this one big project--which will require much time and single-mindedness--I
find that I am bored. I have not been able to find it within myself to just do
it. [What eventually happened is that, later, all I did is work on my thesis.
Now I'm into it and it's the only thing I'm working on. I'm hardly even at
home. I'm at school all the time and I'm working really hard on it. I'm
actually interested in it so maybe it's not that it was one topic. Maybe it's
that I really didn't like doing it.] Rather, I have procrastinated, [Yeah, it's
what I've been doing the whole time. Sitting there getting on the Internet,
looking for other stupid little things to do. I was procrastinating working on
it. I was procrastinating seeing my advisors, and telling them that I didn't
think I could get anywhere. That's for sure. I always knew, "I should go. I
should go. I should go." I told myself, "I'm gonna go tomo rrow. I'm gonna go
tomorrow. I'm gonna go tomorrow." I was afraid. I was afraid they were going to
think I was stupid. I was afraid they were going to think I was unable to do
the work. I was afraid of going and saying, "Look I couldn't get anywhere."]
looked for other interests, or sat idly wondering how it could possibly get
done on its own. [I don't know if I seriously sat wondering if it was going to
get done on it's own, but maybe this is what I was thinking as I was sitting
staring blankly at the screen. Sometimes I would sit there and stare at it and
think how is this ever going to get done and how am I going to do this.] Since
such a miracle is not likely to occur,
P: The magnitude of the problem, I really felt like I would never figure this
out. It was going to take an act of God to put this thought into my head for it
to finally click. So I thought that it would take miraculous divine
intervention to get the answer--to make me see the connection between the stuff
I was reading and the problem I was trying to solve.] I will have to make a
decision about how to handle this, and soon. For the university is not likely
to let me sit here staring at the walls for too much longer. [1 felt like I had
to make a decision about what I was going to do--whether or not I was going to
think seriously about quitting or whether I should go and talk to my advisors
about it. I knew eventually I had to do something. I certainly wasn't going to
able to come in and sit in my office because my fellowship was going to run
out. I was going to have to do something so I knew I just couldn't sit here and
[P: Do you want to know what happened? This particular problem that I started
working is not what I ended up working on. After the six months were up and I
finally saw my advisors again, we sat down and had a really, really long talk
and we completely changed my problem. It was the same basic topic. It was the
same area, just a different question--a different one of the seven questions. I
got much more interested in that, and I think I never originally felt
frustration exactly because I never cared that much. I was never interested in
the first question, and I was never interested in the direction it was taking
me. Whereas the problem I ended up working on, I was interested in the
direction it was taking me. When things wouldn't work out I would get
frustrated, and I think the difference was that then I actually cared whether
or not I could get the answer.]
[R: When it came to picking the first question did you pick it?
P: Actually no. I mean (Laughs), "we agreed." It was something that one of my
advisors was interested in and I think, to be quite fair to them, they thought
was going to lead somewhere interesting. Since they thought it was a
particularly good question for a dissertation, and thought it would lead to a
lot of things, I think that's why they picked it. At the time I didn't know
enough about research to really argue with them, and so I agreed and that's
what I started doing. Like they later said to me, "Sometimes you try an avenue
of research, and it doesn't work out and that's just what happens." But like
they told me, "You can't disappear for six months."]
[R: What about the time you got excited about the new project. Was that their
P: Actually no. What happened, after we had this meeting, was we went over what
my options were. So we looked back through their proposal and they said, "Here
are some other questions and there are some options." Then they also said that
if I wanted to get out completely and work on this other completely different
area--that I told you about--they said I could still do that if I wanted to,
but I had to realize that it was going to take me longer. So they sort of gave
me all these options, and I went away and thought about it for a while. Then I
came back to them and said, I'd like to maybe work on the second problem.
Again, they seriously encouraged me not to change the major area of my research
because it would take me so much longer, but they gave me an out.]
[R: When you came back and said, "Yes, I want to pursue this." do you think it
had a big impact?
P: Yes I do. For one thing, I sort of felt like I had been forced into the
situation--like it wasn't of my own choosing to work on this problem. In fact,
I think I felt resentment toward them because I felt that they sort of pushed
me into this problem and it was easier for them, and they wanted someone to
work on it. So they picked me and why did they have to pick me?
So I think it was different because when I picked it, they gave me all the
options and I decided to do it--actually against the advice of other graduate
students, who told me the same thing would happen again, and I'd be better
going into the area that really interested me. But that didn't happen and I
really got into this.
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