Study: Religious people are less likely to get bored — which makes them less inclined to search for meaning

Religiosity is associated with lower levels of proneness to boredom, according to new research published in the scientific journal Emotion.

“Studies show that boredom propels people to seek for activities that are more fulfilling; acts that offer a sense of purpose and meaning. It follows that activities or beliefs that people feel gives them a sense of purpose should help to prevent getting bored. Yet, surprisingly, this had never been tested,” said study author Wijnand A.P. Van Tilburg of King’s College London.

“We looked at religiosity because religious people tend to describe their beliefs as offering them a sense of meaning in life. Besides that, religion is of course an incredibly widespread phenomenon worldwide and affects many people. So, we were interested if religiosity, a source of meaning in life for many, might prevent boredom.”

“The research had a secondary, more subtle, but nonetheless interesting purpose: If boredom normally makes people search for new purpose or meaning, then could it be that religiosity, through reducing boredom, indirectly prevents people from doing so?”

Across three separate studies, with nearly 1,500 participants in total, the researchers found that religious people tended to feel less bored, which in turn was associated with a lower inclination to search for meaning compared to non-religious people. The participants included Christians, Agnostics, Atheists, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, and Hindus.

Non-religious people who were subjected to a mundane task — transcribing an excerpt about lawn mowing — tended to report higher levels of boredom. They were also more likely than religious people to say they wanted to do something of greater significance.

“By reducing boredom, religiosity indirectly tempered the ‘quest’ for meaning,” van Tilburg told PsyPost. “To be clear: this does not mean that religious people do not search for meaning in their lives. Rather, the findings suggests that, counter-intuitively, religious people are less inclined to search for meaningful alternatives in situations where others would feel bored.”

Religious people were more likely to perceive life as more meaningful to start with, which was in turn associated with less boredom.

“The finding that a seemingly minor, everyday life, and mundane experience as boredom connects two variables of such existential and cultural significance as religiosity and meaning in life is, in our view, profound,” van Tilburg said.

“The finding that boredom links these two variables showcases how relevant ‘mundane’ emotions are in people’s quests for making sense of their existence, simultaneously further grounding the psychology religiosity and meaning in ‘mundane’ life and revealing boredom as actor with a more significantly role than it is traditionally given.”

But the study includes some caveats.

“No single study or even series of studies can fully address complicated phenomena such as religiosity, meaning in life, and boredom. For example, people differ in the way they practice their religion: some may focus particularly on the social and community activities that come with it, whereas others may focus more on using religion as a guide through their lives,” van Tilburg explained.

“In our research we have not yet made such important distinction. Could it be that the role of religiosity in reducing boredom depends on how people put their religion in practice? Furthermore, our studies focused mostly (though not exclusively) on Christians. Are there differences across religions? These are questions we have yet to find the answers to.”

Previous research conducted by van Tilburg found a link between boredom and political extremism.

“Throughout this and our other research we consistently find that boredom offers many surprises. It may seem like a mundane perhaps even trivial unpleasant experience but it turns out that it fulfills important psychological and social roles,” he added.

“Boredom ‘wakes us up’ by stirring a desire for challenge and more meaningful activity. It propels people towards activities that they believe offer a sense of purpose and this can lead to a range of unexpected outcomes, including derogation of outsiders, retrieving self-soothing nostalgic memories, and turning to more extreme political views.”

The study, “Bored like Hell: Religiosity reduces boredom and tempers the quest for meaning“, was authored by Wijnand A. P. van Tilburg, Eric R. Igou, Paul J. Maher, Andrew B. Moynihan, and Dawn G. Martin.

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