For some time now I’ve been seeking that perfect niche job where my talents can be used to their fullest. In the news not long ago, a great possibility emerged: it turns out that Toronto’s York University has an actual Boredom Lab. I’d hoped they might want a research associate they could observe who’d kick back all day, drink coffee and play solitaire, but alas, they never returned my call. However, I discovered some pretty stimulating things about human boredom, as well as how it affects other animal species.
First off, boredom is not what most of us think it is. Dr. John Eastwood, who directs the aforementioned lab at Canada’s third-largest university, explained in a CBC “Quirks and Quarks” radio episode aired in January 2021 that boredom doesn’t mean there’s nothing to do. Many of us are occupied with plenty of stuff, but if we’re not invested, it’s naught but a dull pantomime – we’re reduced to going through the motions.
According to Dr. Eastwood, boredom is the “…unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity. I can sometimes feel bored when I’m very busy if none of [the work] is engaging me.” While Eastwood’s lab pre-dates the current pandemic, the situation has given him and many other tedium scholars more fodder for research. To them it’s meaningful work, so they’re probably not bored.
Although boredom affects us all to varying degrees from time to time, a strong body of research suggests that people who are more disposed to it tend to have narcissistic personality traits and struggle with self-control. Very recent findings show that boredom-prone folks are also more apt to embrace rigid and extreme political views, flout COVID-19 social-distancing rules, and think that the illness is a hoax.
In large part, researchers agree that the pandemic hasn’t necessarily increased boredom, but that it has made us more afraid of this emotion. In addition, studies hint that technology may have rendered us less able to cope with “empty spaces.” I mean, what do we do when we suddenly find that Instagram, Twitter and all the rest are dull?
Eastwood believes that a great antidote to boredom is to try and find significance in even the small tasks. “Boredom is a normal feeling,” he reminds us. “It’s telling us we need to embrace the world [with more agency] and look at it as an opportunity to rediscover who we are and what matters to us.”
Boredom researcher Dr. James Danckert from the University of Waterloo agrees that being bored can potentially benefit us, but only if we meet it halfway and view it as a sign we need to make positive changes. He cautions that boredom will not make us inspired, but that we ought to turn to whatever creative outlets we have cultivated in the past: “[Boredom is] a call to action, so when we’re feeling bored, it’s telling us what we’re doing right now is not engaging.”
Given that we’re still unlocking details on the ways in which boredom affects people and how we respond and adapt to it, it’s no surprise that even less is known about what ennui does to non-human animals. For hundreds of years, Western science was rather frantic in its efforts to distance us from other animal species, bristling at the suggestion elephants, dogs, ravens, and whales might feel grief, joy and other familiar emotions.
These sad attempts to reject “anthropomorphic projections” persisted into the mid-1900s. Much in the way that it took centuries and a mountain of evidence to convince doctors to wash their hands between patients, we were pitifully late to acknowledge that birds, reptiles, and mammals simply like to have fun, and that they sometimes feel sad, frightened, or bored.
Boredom and depression are distinct yet related with all animals. When an environment lacks adequate stimulus, animals may become bored, but as long as their motivation is up they’ll seek ways to find or create interest in their situation. Long-term enforced monotony, though, can easily push animals, human and otherwise, across the line into depression. When helplessness is artificially imposed for long enough, the will to seek means to engage with life is extinguished. Without proper stimuli – intellectual, social, or physical – captive animals are known to partake in stereotyped activities like self-harm and pacing.
Dr. Barbara J. King, professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, wrote a piece on the subject of animal tedium for National Public Radio in August 2017, contending that “Far from being a uniquely human emotion, boredom is felt by many animals.” In her article, King sheds light on the work of Dr. Charlotte C. Burn, a biologist at The Royal Veterinary College in the UK.
According to Dr. Burn, “The more intelligent among species may be able to come up with ‘creative’ solutions to relatively limited environments, such as the tool-use we sometimes see only in captivity. Also, any animal can get bored if it has nothing relevant to do and its other needs are fulfilled.” For example, grazing animals like cows which evolved to pick through grass all day have little to do when they’re fed a high-energy grain mix and kept in the barn.
Dr. Barbara King holds that “For some animals in some captive contexts, it’s extremely challenging, if at all possible, to give them mental stimulation even remotely approaching what they would experience if allowed their freedom…the notion that enrichment for zoo animals is adequate is naïve.” She emphasizes that even well-loved pets can suffer greatly from uniformity in their environment. Giving pets more quality time and attention on a regular basis, as well as items of interest like toys, games, and foods of varying textures and shapes will help.
I suppose the same should go for our human friends and families. Let’s reach out, get folks immersed in nature and engaged in conversation, and perhaps any harsh world views of pets and pet owners alike might soften a notch. It can’t hurt.
Naturalist, arborist and author Paul Hetzler practices solitaire in case the Boredom Lab phones back with an offer.