Boredom in Addiction and Recovery

As regular readers of this blog know by now, the great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that addiction is a response to living a life that has little personal meaning. According to Frankl, the most obvious symptom of such a meaningless life is boredom. It should not surprise us, then, that researchers have discovered that one of the most common vulnerabilities to addiction is boredom and that boredom is a major reason why clients drop out of treatment.

Our clients commonly complain that weekends are boring because programming is less intense. These complaints are typical for those who suffer from chronic boredom. The lack of an imposed structure covering the full weekend is interpreted as “there’s not much going on during the weekends.”

Although boredom may appear to be a relatively simple condition – we all get bored from time to time – research has concluded that chronic (long-term) boredom is quite complex. Typically, chronically bored people find they get bored with some activity or someplace. Many of our clients in their life stories often mention, for example, that “I was bored at school.” But researchers, such as Richard Bargdill, report that those who are bored in school are usually bored in other areas of life. In other words, a chronically bored person seems to be bored in most places and in most activities.

The famous psychologist Erich Fromm argued that boredom is one of the most painful of conditions and individuals would do anything they could to alleviate it. In this blog, we look at the lesser-known relationship between boredom and addiction and how to creatively address both.

Understanding Boredom

Different psychologists have formed different theories on boredom, but one of the best explanations comes from Richard Bargdill. In his studies, Bargdill highlights several common features of bored people. According to his research, bored people do not necessarily start out being bored. They have goals they want to achieve, but then something interferes with those goals. For example, a person gets sick, which interrupts some personally meaningful pursuit. Another example is the person who might want to be a doctor but then doesn’t do well in math in high school.

What usually happens is a person believes that the barrier is out of their control and feels forced to change their personal goal. Bargdill suggests that those who become bored may be too overconfident; they don’t realize how much work is needed to achieve their goal or they become frustrated when they find out how difficult it is. They don’t seem to be able to overcome barriers with some creative solution.

Whatever the reason, a person changes the initial goal that originally appealed to them. So the new, modified goal is not their preferred one. Because the new goal lacks the personal meaning of the original goal, they really don’t put their heart into the new goal. In time, they lose interest in the new goal and find life less than satisfactory. Then they start blaming others for their unhappiness. They also take a passive stance toward their lives. Those who are chronically bored look to others and to the world to keep them entertained and occupied.

Drugs as a Solution to Boredom

We often ask clients what they did when they get bored. Their answer is, of course, they get intoxicated. One of the interesting characteristics of intoxication is that it usually gets rid of boredom.

Some drugs have the effect of making life more interesting. Marijuana is known for making music sound richer and jokes seem funnier. It changes the experience of time so that it slows down, allowing people to look more deeply into whatever is in front of them (Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Cody is an interesting attempt to describe the experience of marijuana intoxication). Users of drugs such as LSD report that sounds can have colours and colours can have sounds. Obviously, such experiences are out of the norm and, therefore, new and exciting. And, of course, after a few drinks at the bar, even strangers become friends.

We’ve talked before of the great philosopher and psychologist William James, who described his personal experiences of intoxication with alcohol, nitrous oxide, and chloroform. With alcohol, for instance, he said that intoxication allowed him to make sense of opposites, such as good and evil, which he could not really come to terms with when sober. Other thinkers such as the great psychiatrist Carl Jung, said that alcohol could provide a counterfeit feeling of spirituality. It was no accident, said Jung, that alcohol in Latin is “spirits”. Intoxication as described by James and Jung certainly adds some zip to a boring, sober life.

Drug Lifestyle as a Solution to Boredom

Perhaps the most potent strategy that people with addictions use to deal with life boredom is intensity. People with addictions love emotional intensity whether it’s happiness, sadness, or anger. As long as the emotional level is raised to the level of a soap opera, it’s good.

The Narcotics Anonymous saying “We made mountains out of molehills,” is an excellent metaphor for this. If a person with addiction issues goes to the parking lot and finds his car has a flat tire, he feels as if this is one more example of his pathetic luck. Relationships, where addiction is involved, are also very soap-opera-like.

Another tactic for creating intensity is to quit something and start something new. There is a benefit to newness… it’s not boring, at least for a while.

The type of work people with addictions are drawn toward is also evidence of the need for intensity. Jobs filled with pressure or risk or chaos are appealing because they make the job exciting. One more example is not finishing things; many clients are famous for starting some new project or hobby (the exciting part), but not seeing it through (the not-so-exciting part). Having a series of relationships or one-night stands is also exciting since the problem with long-term relationships is that the honeymoon period (the exciting part) eventually ends.

Even in treatment clients often invent things to overcome their boredom. Rumours and gossip are typical. Or, for those really bored, engaging in crisis, conflict, and drama is popular.

Having a Goal as a Solution to Boredom

Almost everyone who provides advice on dealing with boredom tells you that you need goals. But the goal(s) must be personal, not one imposed by someone else. And the goal has to be sufficiently big to keep you interested.

This advice makes sense. If boredom is really a psychological problem of not pursuing freely chosen goals (e.g. being true to oneself) then the solution is to figure out what you want to do in life.

Traditional addiction treatment approaches try to keep clients busy. Their rationale is if a busy activity schedule is not imposed on clients, who knows what they will get up to? But this approach does not actually deal with the underlying psychological problem of boredom: the lack of a personally meaningful life. If Frankl is right that addiction is one response to a meaningless and boring life, then the solution must be to live a meaningful life. This means having a personal mission and pursuing goals. The byproduct will be that boredom dissolves away.

Complexity as a Solution to Boredom

Another solution to the problem of chronic boredom is recognizing that whatever you do must be complex. Psychologist Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi developed flow theory to understand how creative people were creative. Among the things that he discovered was that for something to be interesting over the long haul, it had to become increasingly more complicated.

You probably know that some songs have a great emotional impact on you. But if you listen to these songs over and over they lose their appeal. If you only know how to play three chords on the guitar, then playing the guitar will become boring. If you watch the same episode of Seinfeld TV show over and over, it will become boring. If you eat the same meal every day for a week, it will become boring.

On the other hand, if what you do becomes increasingly complex, it will hold your attention. This is true of hobbies, playing the guitar, and so on. It’s also true of relationships. To keep out of a rut in relationships, you have to introduce new energy, such as different friends, activities, etc.

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