Last spring, I started a new exercise class. As someone who dislikes doing jumping jacks, burpees, and push-ups, I found the workouts surprisingly enjoyable, at least for a while. But after several months, my hobby began to feel like watching the same episode of a sitcom on repeat. I was overly familiar with the class routine, and my excitement had been replaced with boredom.
A 2016 study published in the journal Emotion estimated that 63 percent of us suffer from boredom regularly. And research shows that chronically bored people are more prone to depression, substance use, and anxiety.
Even though we all feel apathetic from time to time, according to Mary Mann, author of Yawn: Adventures in Boredom, it’s often seen as being self-inflicted. “Only boring people get bored” is a popular belief.
But boredom isn’t a character flaw. It’s a state brought on by something called hedonic adaptation, or the tendency to get used to things over time. This explains why activities—and even relationships—that were initially gratifying can sometimes lose their luster.
Passion is fleeting
Humans are remarkably good at growing accustomed to changes in our lives, both positive and negative, according to Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside. This is a good thing when we are faced with adjusting to adversities such as losing a loved one or a job. But becoming immune to positive events can prove detrimental. Think about the last time you got a raise, bought a car, or moved. At first, these experiences can bring immense joy. But over time, they become part of the routine. We are ready for the next new thing to excite us. Think of it as a hedonic treadmill.
While boredom can be a downer when it drains the pleasure from our lives, it can provide a sort of service. “If our emotional reactions didn’t weaken with time, we couldn’t recognize novel changes that may signal rewards or threats,” Lyubomirsky says. In other words, we’d overlook cues signaling us to make important decisions about our relationships and safety.
It’s not unlike how our reactions change when we fall in love or experience loss. Being caught in the glow of happiness or the web of sadness can make us distracted or forgetful. We may miss signals that indicate whether we’re about to make a smart move—or a disastrous one. The good news is that understanding the connection between hedonic adaptation and boredom can help us maneuver.
A study published in 2018 in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin showed that finding quirky ways to interact with familiar people, places, and things can make everyday experiences feel exciting. In other words, sometimes you’ve just got to shake things up. Need some fresh ideas for keeping life fresh? Read on.
Keep your work dynamic
Spending too much time in the same environment can keep us from achieving “flow”—being immersed in an activity with full energy and enjoyment. Changes don’t have to be big to make an impact, according to Rachel Loock, a leadership coach at the University of Maryland. Buy some flowers for your desk, she suggests. Move your home office to the library or a coffee shop a few days a week. Approach a routine task in a new way. For instance, if you’re charged with leading a Monday meeting, try starting it with meditation or a nonwork discussion.
Engage with your significant other
“Boredom is an emotional state and happens when couples stop taking the opportunity to grow and deeply connect with each other,” says Venus Nicolino, PhD, host of Marriage Boot Camp: Reality Stars. Look for new challenges to take on together. Try mixing up different sets of friends to do something creative, such as a group cooking lesson, a themed dinner, or an old-fashioned tea party.
jacoblund/Getty ImagesTalk to the people you care about
Instead of “How was your day?” try asking “What are you looking forward to today?” or “Is there anything I can help you with this week?” Our curiosity can remind people that we’re interested in who they are, and that’s the key to maintaining intimacy. Studies show that being curious about others can make us more engaging to be around too.
Make your meals challenging
The Bulletin study found that eating foods in unconventional ways, such as using chopsticks to pick up kernels of popcorn, can re-spark the excitement we feel when something is brand-new. Consider the chopsticks a metaphor for shaking up any familiar habit.
Liven up your commute
If you drive, take a different route or listen to a new podcast. If you walk or use public transportation, greet a stranger or put away your phone and do some people watching. “Simply observing one’s surroundings may seem boring, but done mindfully, it can become interesting and even potentially profound,” says Tim Lomas, PhD, a lecturer in positive psychology at the University of East London. Just remember, whatever you do to quell boredom today, try something different tomorrow—and the day after that. And now that your brain is engaged, here are 12 ways to get smarter in your spare time.