When I first started mulling over this topic, I couldn’t exactly nail down the difference between boredom versus unhappiness, which was worse, or why it was even important. Then I started reading about the psychology of boredom. For such a pervasive feeling, the science on boredom is still somewhat new. In fact, it was only recently that psychologist John Eastwood tried to pin down a definition of boredom within the scientific community.
In his 2012 paper, “The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention,” Eastwood hypothesized that boredom is more than the common refrain, “I have nothing to do!” Someone who is bored wants to have something to do and wants to feel engaged—but isn’t. He defined boredom as, “The aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” What’s satisfying, of course, will vary from person to person, and so too the nature of boredom itself will vary.
[Related: 4 Easy Ways To Feel Happier At Work]
Happiness and unhappiness are even more difficult to define. Generally, a happy person is considered to be someone who often feels positive emotions like joy, interest, and pride, and rarely experiences negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, and anger. Psychologists will tell you that boredom can be a marker on the way to real unhappiness and even depression, so the difference is nuanced but important. Here are five questions that will help you determine how you’re feeling, and what to do about it:
“A key difference between unhappiness and boredom lies in pervasiveness,” says therapist Melody Wilding. “To assess if you’re truly unhappy, run a check of the other areas of your life. Is your low mood reserved for work and the office alone, or is it invading your personal life? If it’s damaging your friendships or romantic relationships, or you feel completely unmotivated and uninterested on weekends and to pursue your own hobbies, it’s a bigger sign you’re heading for burnout, or worse, facing real depression.”
Author Shahla Khan tells me that unhappiness at work is often something you can pinpoint. For example, you have an abusive boss, or you are overworked and underpaid. On the other hand, if you’re bored, you might not be able to pinpoint a specific reason for feeling disengaged. “Typically, boredom in the workplace comes from not being challenged or acknowledged enough, whereas unhappiness in the workplace comes from all sorts of other areas,” agrees career and business coach Rachel Ritlop. “Unhappiness can come from toxicity in the workplace or deeper rooted insecurities, such as fear of rejection or criticism.”
“If you’re bored in your job, you may find yourself counting down the hours of the day, groaning and moaning that the weekend is over, or that you have to go into work the next morning, whereas if you’re unhappy you will find yourself having a more visceral reaction,” says Ritlop. For instance, that could be waking up in the middle of the night with your stomach in knots, having work-related nightmares, and high anxiety levels at the office during the day.”
“If you have plenty of challenging work, but find yourself clenching your teeth at work, have a tense stomach, or dread Mondays, you are unhappy,” says Joni Holderman, founder of Thrive! Resumes. “If you feel that there is a ton of work but it’s not sufficiently challenging, or there’s no room for growth in your current position, you’re bored.”
When psychotherapist Stacy Kaiser tells me that boredom and anger go hand in hand, it hits home more than I would like to admit. “Interestingly enough, boredom is actually rooted in the emotion of anger, not sadness or depression,” she says. “It’s anger that you’re in this situation, anger that you can’t leave the room, anger that you’re doing something repetitive, and so on. Unhappiness is more about being disappointed, let down, or sad. When you feel bored, ask yourself what you’re angry about in that situation.”
So now that you know what you’re feeling, what are you supposed to do about it?
“When in a negative state of mind, we can fall into thought traps,” says Wilding. “Just because you’re bored or feeling unhappy, it doesn’t mean that you are incapable or insufficient. Instead of blaming yourself for character faults, pinpoint the precise situation that’s bringing you down, whether that’s poor work-life balance, work that doesn’t use your skills, or toxic coworkers.”
“Sometimes we’re bored because we aren’t doing the right things to motivate ourselves,” says career and leadership coach John Addison. “I am a firm believer of how important it is to constantly sharpen your edge as a person, so instead of approaching your job as ‘another day here,’ talk to your boss, look for new projects, and find ways to improve and raise your energy level.”
Addison also suggests making a list of what’s good about your job, as opposed to constantly thinking about what you dislike at work. “We live in a world with such constant stimulation—social media, technology, news—that everyone thinks everything should be constantly exciting,” Addison says. “Take a look at the situation [keeping this in mind] and ask yourself, ‘Is the job boring, or am I allowing myself to just become bored?’”
“Once you’ve identified what’s triggering your feelings, come up with action steps to change your situation,” Ritlop says. “And if you aren’t already working with a coach or therapist, I strongly recommend you enlist an accountability buddy.” Once you’ve set goals to rectify the situation, put markers in your calendar (every four weeks, or every three months—whatever feels right) to reflect on your progress and re-evaluate your workplace from a logical point of view.
If you’ve tried to re-engage with the work or solve the problem that is making you unhappy, and neither have yielded results (i.e. you’ve surpassed three check-ins based on the schedule you created in step three and nothing has changed), it’s time to look for something new. “Whether you’re bored or unhappy, if you’ve tried to implement positive changes with no success, it’s time to launch a proactive job search,” says Holderman. “The old adage that it’s easier to find a job when you have a job is really true.”
This article originally appeared on Levo and is reprinted with permission.