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Embracing Ennui: How Boredom Can Be Good for You

dog looking bored
Boredom is not a good feeling, but experts say your reaction to it is key to whether it can be a productive experience. Carol Yepes/Getty Images

Ever felt bored to tears? Maybe it was yesterday flipping through 1,000 TV and streaming options and not liking any of them. Or else it's the current daily grind of work, dinner and kids that never seems to change. Boredom can give rise to ennui, a chronic type of boredom, characterized by listlessness, discontent and sadness. Pronounced "ahn-wee," the word is aptly named, as its roots are in the Latin for "annoy," as well as the Old French "enuuier," which means "to vex."

Many people with ennui don't even know that they have it, as there isn't exactly a blood test for the emotional state. "Feelings associated with ennui have been described as 'mental weariness' and a general feeling of dissatisfaction and being unengaged," says Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. with the blog The Art and Science of Mom in an email. "It's important to note that research examining chronic boredom and depression have found that although highly associated, they are distinct states and not the same emotionally."

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Ennui hasn't been studied much, although boredom has been and it's difficult to pin down, diagnostically speaking.

"Boredom, like all emotions, does not have a one-to-one mapping with 'symptoms' or expressions; rather, we can feel bored in different ways at different times, just like we can feel anger and other emotions in a variety of ways (from quiet frustration at a late colleague to rage at a person who has harmed a loved one)," explains Erin C. Westgate, Ph.D., assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Florida via email. "Empirical evidence suggests that boredom, for instance, is sometimes associated with heightened physiological arousal (i.e., fast heart rate) and sometimes with low arousal (i.e., slow heart rate, lower blood pressure, etc). Thus, there's likely no one way that ennui or chronic boredom feels."

Certain types of people seem more likely to develop ennui. "Neurological studies suggest that some people, like thrill-seekers, need more stimulation to release the brain's pleasure and reward chemicals. For some reason, men are more likely to fall in this category," says Edlynn. It also seems that people with low self-awareness about their emotions are more prone to ennui. "The theory is that again, they do not have awareness about what provides them satisfaction," she explains, adding that people with attention problems such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are more likely to experience serious states of boredom.

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Your reaction to ennui is key to whether it can be a productive experience. Sometimes it inspires people to look for broader meaning in life and embrace sensations like nostalgia and patriotism, Edlynn notes. "It can also activate people to figure out what will provide satisfaction, opening up new ways of thinking and exercising creativity," she explains. "However, plenty of evidence also indicates that feeling bored more often is a risk for significant psychological problems like various psychiatric diagnoses, substance abuse and gambling."

Obviously, feeling chronically disengaged from one's own life and mentally weary isn't a great way to walk around. And although there's no real research on ennui, boredom studies have yielded us clues on how to do deal with it if it becomes a persistent issue.

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First, revamp your thoughts about whatever is causing the boredom. For instance, college math students working on boring math problems can remind themselves that these exercises are part of reaching their future goals, Edlynn says.

Second, don't immediately try to get rid of the feeling. "The more often we allow ourselves to feel boredom (not automatically picking up our phones), the more opportunities we have to tolerate it and use it to channel innovative and creative thinking," she advises. "In fact, children who figure out how to tolerate boredom through their own creativity and not by depending on others are more likely to manage it better as adults.

If the first two suggestions don't help, shift gears and do another activity. Momentary boredom can be a signal that what you're doing right now is meaningless and you should try something new. "People can do something else entirely, in hopes that the new activity will be a better attentional fit (i.e., not too hard, not too easy) and more meaningful than their current task," Westgate says. "Whether the same is true of chronic boredom or ennui is unclear."

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