The Meaning of Boredom

Photo by shortono8

Boredom is a common experience – we experience it every day, often multiple times a day. People who are prone to experiencing boredom frequently are more likely to engage in a number of impulsive behaviors, including gambling, substance abuse, binge eating, and dropping out of school. Despite its frequency of occurrence and relation to negative outcomes, modern experimental psychology has largely ignored the effects of boredom until recently.


We proposed that boredom, like other emotions, occurs in response to a specific situation and organizes physiological, cognitive, and behavioral reactions. The situation that elicits boredom appears to be the perception that the current situation is no longer satisfying, and the experience of boredom organizes reactions to identify and pursue alternative activities that could be more satisfying. In other words, what you’re doing now is no longer satisfying, and boredom prompts you to look around for other options. Exactly what “satisfying” entails is a matter of debate. Some researchers have argued that satisfying activities are those that are personally meaningful. We have suggested that satisfying activities are those that are related to individuals’ goals, and could be aimed toward short or long-term goal pursuits. For example, boredom could prompt people to engage in an existentially meaningful examination of future plans, but it could also prompt people to play Candy Crush (which gives the illusion of goal pursuit).


In many studies people report that boredom is extremely aversive and unpleasant. In a series of recently completed studies, we randomly assigned participants to a boredom condition (viewing a long series of positive or neutral images) or a non-boredom condition (viewing a short series of images). Participants in the boredom condition expressed a preference for new experiences and they were more likely to choose novel over familiar images to view next. This preference for novelty was so strong that bored participants were even more likely to choose to view new negative images (e.g., cockroaches) over familiar positive images. These findings suggest that boredom creates a “seeking state” that motivates people to seek out new situations and stimuli, and that boredom is so unpleasant that people would rather view disgusting images than experience boredom.


Studies in our lab and other labs are currently exploring the relationships between boredom and creativity, mind wandering, and self-regulation. Given the ubiquity of boredom across individuals and cultures, this work has the potential to shed light on a core facet of human experience.

Heather C. Lench is Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Head, Texas A&M University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.

Useful emotions

Useful emotions

What do emotions do for us? What if we’re wrong about how we’ll emotionally react to future events?


Recently, we began a line of research to determine the extent to which people are able to anticipate their future emotional reactions to events. People try to make decisions that will improve their lives, and to do so they rely on what are called “affective forecasts” – predictions about how future events will make them feel. In other words, they ask themselves how happy a future event will make them and use that information to decide what goals to pursue and what situations to try to avoid. People rely on these forecasts to make decisions from the mundane, such as what movie to see or whether to go to the dentist, to the monumental, such as whether to have children or what career to pursue. Understandably then, inaccuracy in affective forecasting has been identified as one of the major barriers to effective decision-making. If people cannot accurately forecast how they will feel in the future, then their decisions are doomed to be wrong. Over a decade of research has found that people tend to overestimate the impact of future events, believing that they will react more strongly to future events than they actually do. Researchers have argued that, as a result of this bias, people spend time and effort pursuing positive outcomes that will not be exhilarating as they thought, and trying to avoid negative outcomes that will not be as devastating as they predicted.


The robustness and pervasiveness of this bias has been widely accepted in research articles, popular science books, and the media. However, we conducted a series of studies demonstrating that this view is oversimplified, and that there are important moderators of forecasting accuracy. We demonstrated people are able to accurately forecast the intensity of their emotional reactions to events in the future. They are not so accurate, however, when predicting how frequently they will feel that way.


Perhaps you are trying to determine how much money to spend on your impending wedding ceremony. You consider the finances, of course, but you also imagine how deliriously joyous you will be on that day and for the lifetime of bliss that follows. Past findings suggest that you are wrong, that you will not be as happy as you think, and that the money would be better spent on other things. Our recent findings paint a very different picture, however. Our findings suggest that during your wedding ceremony you will likely be just as joyous as you thought you would be – your happiness will be just as intense as you forecast. You will also be as happy as you thought when you think about your ceremony. But you are likely to be wrong about the lifetime of bliss that follows – you will not be happy about your wedding as frequently as you forecast. Our preliminary results suggest that this is because you do not think about your wedding as often as you thought, as you become busy with other things. Should you spend the money or save it for another day? We are currently conducting studies to find out what the implications of accuracy and inaccuracy in forecasting might be for success in life and well-being.


We were recently funded by the National Science Foundation to continue this work by investigating bias in forecasts of intensity, frequency, and duration of emotional reactions to events, and the mechanisms underlying those biases. As part of this project, we will also be able to offer recommendations about how to prompt people to be accurate about the future when they need to be.


Heather C. Lench is Associate Professor of Psychology and Department Head, Texas A&M University, and a scholar with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.

The Meaning Hypothesis of Living a Good Life: Virtue, Happiness and Meaning

Figure 1. The meaning axis versus the success axis.

The ideal life is characterized by the successful pursuit of one’s ideals and mission. However, even in situations where one is unable to realize one’s vision—because of sickness or external circumstances—one may still feel that one has lived a worthy life because of one’s personal sacrifice for a worthy cause. All the great humanitarians, such as Albert Schweitzer, Maya Angelou, Oskar Schindler and Mahatma Gandhi, devoted their lives to a noble mission. In contrast, those who pursue money, power and wealth can achieve only a shallow life at best; when they fail in their egotistic goals, they are more likely to become bitter, angry and depressed than those who failed in pursuing a meaningful life (Christensen, 2012; Huffington, 2013; Lyubomirsky, 2013).

The practical implications for this meaning fulfillment dimension are both significant and wide-ranging. It is possible for individuals and society to be transformed; meaningless strife may be turned into harmony, compassion and well-being.

I have developed a Life Orientation Scale (LOS) to measure the meaning mindset. A high LOS score reflects a positive and self-transcendental mindset with strong emphasis on moral excellence and altruism. We can also predict that people who score high in LOS will be more likely to devote themselves to humanitarian relief work, social reform advocacy, or religious vocations. Such individuals are more likely to show more altruism, more eudaimonia—or happiness—and more spirituality. I believe that a meaning-mindset is exactly what we need to create a culture that values social responsibility, civic virtues, and service to humanity. Ultimately, educating people with a meaning-mindset will result in a kinder and more harmonious society and more sustainable development.

Self-Transcendence and Virtue

Virtue is an indispensable dimension of the good life for individuals and society because virtue is not only good in its own right, but also benefits others. Viktor Frankl (1985) emphasizes the need for a radical shift from self-focus to meaning-focus as the most promising way to lift up individuals from the dark pit of despair to a higher ground of flourishing. Frankl’s (1985) concept of ethical responsibility is the foundation for acting well morally and imbuing life with meaning.

While subjective well-being is up to each individual to decide, virtue requires a relational and objective criterion, as proposed by Aristotle. Whether a certain behavior or certain individual is deemed virtuous is always based on some kind of social norm regarding one’s impact on other people and society. That is why virtue exists primarily in the social realm.

Acting badly would not make anyone’s life worthy of living and admiration, even when one is hugely successful as a drug dealer or gangster. Aristotle’s theory of virtue ethics stands in sharp contrast to the value-neutral stance of positive psychology (Seligman, 2002). Haybron (2013) says very well: “One should not be an asshole in the pursuit of happiness” (p. 97). It is worth noting that like Aristotle, Viktor Frankl (1985) also emphasizes the need for objective values as the basis for the subjective experience of meaningfulness.

The Central Importance of Self-Transcendence

Only when we redirect our focus from self-interest to something bigger than and beyond ourselves can we experience meaning in life. Frankl is unique in pinpointing self-transcendence as the hallmark of the spiritual nature and as the end state of becoming fully human: “Only when we lift ourselves in to the dimension of spirit do we become fully human” (Fabry, 1994, p. 19). Thus, Frankl elevates commitment to the spiritual act of serving a higher purpose for the greater good.

Horizontally, self-transcendence transcends ego-concerns and self-interest to serve others. It is intrinsically compassionate and altruistic, given its spiritual nature. In self- transcendence, other people matter in their own right because of their intrinsic value. Loving our neighbours is its own reward. Showing kindness to strangers is its own reward. We engage in deeds of compassion and kindness because we are simply expressing our spiritual nature. This is fundamentally different from using other people as instruments for our own advancement and happiness.

The Role of Meaning in Well-Being

Well-being is based on several dimensions: self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose in life, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relationships with others. These dimensions cover much of the same domain as sources of meaning (Wong, 1998). I propose that meaning serves at least three important functions in maintaining positive mental health:

(1) Sources of Meaning as Contributors to Well-Being

The Personal Meaning Profile (Wong, 1998) is related to both presence of well-being and absence of mental illness. Mascaro (2006) found that PMP (Wong, 1998) was negatively related to depressive symptoms, depression and hopelessness, and positively related to meaning fulfillment, hope, and internal locus of control. Although all these studies are correlational, there are some perspectives and longitudinal studies that show that meaning can predict future well- being (Mascaro, 2014; Mascaro & Rosen, 2008).

(2) Meaning as a Protective/Preventive Factor

However, when people are going through very difficult times, meaning, rather than positive emotions, becomes more important in maintaining some level of well-being (Frankl, 1985; Wong, 2010; Wong, 2011). According to the meaning-centered approach to well-being, the ABCDE strategy serves the function of transforming negatives into positives, as well as making suffering more bearable. The ABCDE acronym stands for acceptance, belief, commitment, discovery, and evaluation/enjoyment. I have given a detailed account on how these components contribute to resilience and well-being in adverse situations (Wong, 2010; Wong & Wong, 2012).

(3) Meaning as the Basis for Hope in Extreme Situations

The important role of hope in maintaining one’s well-being and health has been well documented (Snyder, 2000). Hope provides the motivation to strive and improve one’s life. However, in extreme situations such as the Holocaust or dying from incurable cancer, one needs a different kind of hope that is not based on confidence in one’s own competence or positive expectations of a good outcome. Viktor Frankl (1985) developed the concept of tragic optimism, which enabled him to survive the Nazi death camps. I have identified the key components of tragic optimism as consisting of acceptance, affirmation, faith in God, self-transcendence, and courage. Only meaning-oriented hope can survive unimaginable horrors and sufferings.

In another post I will discuss my three-factor model of my meaning-centered approach to a good life, drawing more connections between Well-being, Virtue, and Meaning.


Christensen, C. M. (2012). How will you measure your life? New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Fabry, J. B. (1994). The pursuit of meaning (New revised edition). Abilene, TX: Institute of Logotherapy Press.

Frankl, V. E. (1985). Man’s search for meaning (Revised and updated). New York, NY: Washington Square Press.

Haybron, D. M. (2013). Happiness: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Huffington, A. (2013, May 29). Beyond money and power (and stress and burnout): In search of a new definition of success [Web log post]. Retrieved from success_b_3354525.html

Lyubomirsky, S. (2013). The myths of happiness: What should make you happy, but doesn’t, what shouldn’t make you happy, but does. New York, NY: The Penguin Press.

Mascaro, N. (2006). Longitudinal analysis of the relationship of existential meaning with depression and hope. Doctoral Dissertation, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas.

Mascaro, N. (2014). Meaning sensitive psychotherapy: Binding clinical, existential, and positive psychological perspectives. In A. Batthyany and P. Russo-Netzer (Eds.), Meaning in Positive and Existential Psychology (pp. 269-289). New York, NY: Springer.

Mascaro, N., & Rosen, D. H. (2008). Assessment of existential meaning and its longitudinal relations with depressive symptoms. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 27(6), 576-599.

Metz, T. (2013). Meaning in life. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
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Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York, NY: Free Press.

Snyder, C. R. (Ed.). (2000). Handbook of hope: Theory, measures, and applications. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Snyder, C. R., & Lopez, S. J. (2007). Positive psychology: The scientific and practical explorations of human strengths. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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Waterman, A. S. (1993). Two conceptions of happiness: Contrasts of personal expressiveness (eudaimonia) and hedonic enjoyment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 64, 678-691.

Wong, P. T. P. (1991). Existential vs. causal attributions. In S. Zelen (Ed.), New models, new extensions of attribution theory (pp. 84-125). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag Publishers.

Wong, P. T. P. (1998). Implicit theories of meaningful life and the development of the Personal Meaning Profile (PMP). In P. T. P. Wong & P. Fry (Eds.), The human quest for meaning: A handbook of psychological research and clinical applications (pp. 111-140). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publishers.

Wong, P. T. P. (2010). Meaning therapy: An integrative and positive existential psychotherapy. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, 40(2), 85-93.

Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69–81.

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, a). Meaning-seeking, self-transcendence, and well-being. Annual Review of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis.

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Wong, P. T. P., & Wong, L. C. J. (2012). A meaning-centered approach to building youth resilience. In P. T. P. Wong (Ed.), The human quest for meaning: Theories, research, and applications (2nd ed., pp. 585-617). New York, NY: Routledge.

Wong, P. T. P. (in press, b). A decade of meaning: Past, present and future. Journal of Constructivist Psychology.

Paul Wong is Professor Emeritus, Trent University, Adjunct Professor, Saybrook University and a scholar with the Virtue, Happiness, and Meaning of Life project.

The Generative Adult

The Generative Adult
The famous psychoanalytic theorist Erik Erikson defined generativity as an adult’s concern for and commitment to promoting the well-being of future generations.  Generativity involves raising children, of course, but it also encompasses things like teaching, mentoring, activism, leadership, and other prosocial activities aimed at leaving  a positive legacy of the self for future generations.  Erikson argued that generativity (versus stagnation) is the central psychosocial issue of the middle-adult years.  Midlife adults who are able to make positive contributions to future generations should enjoy better psychological health and higher levels of psychosocial development, compared to their less generative counterparts.  But generativity should be good for others, too, as well as for the self, which suggests that generativity is itself a virtue, or that it points to related virtues, such as care and concern for humanity.

My students and I have developed the main psychological measures used today to assess individual differences in generativity.  Many studies link high levels of generativity, as assessed on these measures, to more effective parenting, broader friendship networks, political participation, civic engagement, religious involvement, mental health and well-being, positive personality characteristics, and a host of other positive outcomes in life.  As described in my book, The Redemptive Self:  Stories Americans Live By (2006/2013), highly generative American adults at midlife tend to construe their lives as heroic narratives of redemption, wherein a gifted protagonist journeys forth into a dangerous world and, equipped with moral steadfastness, aims to transform suffering into enhancement.

Image by Otto Steininger, from

Redemptive life narratives serve as a psychological resource for highly generative adults, providing them with the kind of personal story (narrative identity) they often need to persevere in the face of adversity and to keep focused on trying to make a positive difference in the lives of others and in society writ large.  In our current longitudinal study of men and women between the ages of 55 and 65, we are continuing to study the vicissitudes of generativity and redemptive life narratives.

Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living

Joining the conversation about goodness, happiness, and a life worth living

After decades of believing happiness could be found by focusing on the self, many of us are now seeking purpose elsewhere. Rejection of personal achievement as the yardstick with which one might measure a successful life began some years ago, but in recent years more and more people seem to feel that a good life requires more than mere personal success. In a 1997 interview with Terry Gross on the NPR show Fresh Air, the fabulously successful young author David Foster Wallace voiced his profound disenchantment with the self-indulgent tendencies of U.S. culture, describing the sense of emptiness he felt he shared with others of his generation: “I was about 30 and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better healthcare and more money than our parents did. And we were all extraordinarily sad.”

Wallace went on to criticize mainstream culture’s definition of a meaningful life: “[A] successful life is – let’s see, you make a lot of money and you have a really attractive spouse or you get infamous or famous in some way so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible, which ends up being sort of empty and low-calorie.” Wallace also questioned the connection between individual success as

David Foster Wallace interview with Terry Gross, “David Foster Wallace: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview,” recorded March 5, 1997
David Foster Wallace interview with Terry Gross, “David Foster Wallace: The ‘Fresh Air’ Interview,” recorded March 5, 1997

measured by money and status, and real happiness, happiness which he felt had eluded him despite his enviable achievements: “I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by happiness . . . we sort of knew how happy our parents were, and we would compare our lives with our parents and see that, at least on the surface or according to the criteria that the culture lays down for a successful, happy life, we were actually doing better than a lot of them were. And so why on earth were we so miserable?”

Wallace’s sense that life should be about something greater than individual achievement is reflected in the contemporary idealism of the high-profile actors and music industry stars whose lives are successful by conventional measures, yet who have still felt the need to draw attention to poverty and human suffering throughout the world. It is reflected in the popularity of Rick Warren’s book The Purpose Driven Life, which has sold more than 30 million copies, and whose first chapter begins, “It’s not about you,” and goes on to insist, “The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions.”

This sense that a successful life should be about something greater crops up in the language Karl Moore uses in Forbes magazine to contrast the desire of millennials for meaningful work with the Wall Street generation that preceded them:

“You might remember the bumper sticker, ‘He Who Dies With the Most Toys Wins.’ Fast forward two decades and you notice that Millennials are concerned with other things. Money is important and they do enjoy making it, however, they long to be a part of something bigger than themselves.”

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