Learning to Differentiate Apathy from Boredom

Being bored isn't the same as feeling apathetic. In fact, this last dimension is often linked to more serious mental illnesses, such as depression and bipolar disorder. We'll tell you all about it in this article.
Learning to Differentiate Apathy from Boredom

Last update: 01 July, 2021

Although some people think that apathy and boredom are the same, they aren’t. There are clear differences between the two. Boredom, tiredness, feeling like life lacks excitement, feeling empty, frustrated, and uncomfortable with oneself are common. We dare to say that every single person goes through them at least once in a while, which is why it’s important to learn to differentiate these emotions.

Rollo May, a well-known existential psychologist, used to say that the opposite of love isn’t hatred, but apathy. It refers to that state of disinterest, a place where enthusiasm has faded, even when it used to make you incredibly happy before. It’s the lack of sparkle in the tingle of everyday motivation. When the apathetic state rises to the surface, the person enters a dimension that’s more problematic than boredom itself.

Learning to identify one and the other can be of great help for several reasons. Firstly, it may help you detect what state of mind you find yourself in since, in many cases, apathy is characteristic of depression. Secondly, it’s always good to know what emotions are part of them to better deal with difficult situations. Let’s see.

Learning to differentiate apathy from boredom

We’ve all experienced boredom. But apathy isn’t as common. It’s true that both emotions are quite negative. Most people know what it’s like to wait for hours at the airport because their flight was delayed. Think about it. Did you ever feel like running away from a boring meeting or class?

Also, dealing with a bored child can be very complicated. However, this isn’t as bad as you may think. In reality, allowing a child to get bored stimulates their innate capacity for boredom, which is very important. However, adults don’t always use their imagination when they’re bored. Instead, they tend to experience this state with frustration. Therefore, they try to avoid it with unhealthy behaviors, such as overeating.

It’s essential to know how to differentiate between apathy and boredom. In fact, scientific literature hadn’t paid attention to these dimensions until very recently, revealing them to be decisive for mental health only a few years ago.

A woman feeling apathetic toward life.

The unengaged mind: boredom

Boredom is an aversive state that appears when what surrounds you externally doesn’t interest you at all. It comes up when there are no attractive or challenging environmental stimuli; it may also appear when you’re forced to do tasks that aren’t rewarding for you. When nothing seems satisfying, interesting, or motivating, boredom may take hold of you.

In this psychological reality, boredom goes hand-in-hand with unease, frustration, and negativity. However, we must note that one of the differences between apathy and boredom is that the latter lasts for a shorter period of time.

Likewise, studies such as those conducted at the University of York define boredom as that state in which the mind doesn’t commit to itself and is unable to focus on anything, which leads to wandering.

As Eastwood, Frischen, Fenske, and Smilek (2020) point out, the more you let your mind wander, the more bored you’ll be. The essential thing is to focus your mind on something you enjoy so that that feeling goes away.

Differentiating apathy from boredom in order to improve your mental health

Dr. Yael Goldberg from the University of Waterloo in the United Kingdom conducted a study where he highlighted the relevance of learning to differentiate apathy from boredom. This is because apathy often lies behind depression and neurodegenerative states such as Alzheimer’s. That being said, let’s understand how to identify states of apathy:

  • Over time, apathy is a more stable state than boredom itself.
  • In a literal way, apathy means “lack of feeling”. Thus, while various emotions appear in boredom, in apathy there’s more of a void. Nothing excites, stimulates, nor interests the individual.
  • On the other hand, apathy is also related to anhedonia, which is the inability to experience pleasure and enjoyment. According to the DSM-V, this characteristic corresponds to symptoms associated with depression.
  • Although it’s true that apathy can appear during a time in your life and disappear when you find new motivators, it could become part of a greater psychological disorder.
  • Apathy is also characteristic of bipolar disorder, major depression, and anxiety.
A man learning to differentiate apathy from boredom.

Apathetic boredom

As we’ve pointed out, although it’s important to differentiate apathy from boredom, another dimension should be taken into account. Recent studies by a team of researchers from Canada, the United States, and Europe identified a new type of boredom, which they called apathetic boredom.

This mental reality integrates feelings such as negativity, hopelessness, and learned helplessness. It’s easy to identify:

  • The inability to concentrate or pay attention.
  • The person simply can’t focus their attention on day-to-day things.
  • Feeling of guilt due to not being able to perform.

As you can see, these two spheres aren’t as similar as you probably thought in the beginning. Learning to differentiate apathy from boredom is important because both dimensions become part of one’s life at least for a short period of time. These two can even appear together due to psychological wear and tear. Motivation and the ability to get excited every day are the best antidotes for them.

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  •  Eastwood JD, Frischen A, Fenske MJ, Smilek D. The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2012;7(5):482-495. doi:10.1177/1745691612456044
  • Goldberg, Yael & Eastwood, John & LaGuardia, Jennifer & Danckert, James. (2011). Boredom: An Emotional Experience Distinct from Apathy, Anhedonia, or Depression. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology. 30. 647-666. 10.1521/jscp.2011.30.6.647.