By Dayna Mason
Following the stay-at-home order, my 10-year-old grandson—whose technology use is normally limited by his mom to give him time to engage with the world around him—was allowed to immerse himself in the land of cartoons, Xbox games, his hoverboard and his iPad. By Day 13 the repetition of these distractions became routine. As I sat on the couch struggling with my own restlessness and lack of ideas for my upcoming column, I looked down to see my grandson had made a game of rolling himself up in the area rug.
We had both hit a wall. Boredom had arrived.
What is boredom?
Boredom is unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity. It’s our built-in notification that alerts us we’re not satisfied with what we’re doing and pushes us to do something different. Leo Tolstoy called boredom “the desire for desires.”
I chose to write about boredom because I was, um, bored. Ironically, I discovered that the subject of boredom is fascinating. For example, I learned there is an annual conference held in London, the “Boring Conference,” which was created in response to the cancellation of the 2010 “Interesting Conference.” The Boring Conference celebrates the mundane by examining seemingly pointless topics such as toast, double yellow lines, barcodes, sneezing, and vending-machine sounds, to reveal these subjects as actually interesting.
Boredom is a luxury. When we’re busy surviving, or if we are one of those who are on the front lines of this pandemic, we don’t have time for boredom. But those of us stuck at home and coming to the end of all those projects that we were excited to have the time to complete may be running out of distractions. We may be restless and asking, “Now what?”
When a situation or activity lacks value for us—it’s unenjoyable, uninteresting, or unimportant—or we feel confined by our environment or circumstances, unable to exert our will, we feel bored. This could explain why the peak of boredom occurs in adolescence, when our parents are in control of what we do. When we need to do something that we don’t want to do, finding value in it can help alleviate boredom.
Boredom is not the same as apathy, hopelessness or depression. Bored people are motivated to end their boredom. Some will do anything to ease the pain.
Boredom motivates us to action
People who have a powerful need for excitement and novelty are more prone to boredom. To achieve the stimulation that these people crave or to cure boredom, they may take up riskier hobbies like skydiving. Or, if they become chronically bored, they may turn to addiction. Persistent boredom has been linked to several behavior issues including bad driving, mindless snacking, binge-drinking, and problem gambling.
In a collection of eleven studies on the disengaged mind, researchers discovered that people would rather experience physical pain than be left alone with their thoughts. In one of these studies, participants each sat alone in a room with a button that would administer a mild electric shock to electrodes on their ankle if pressed. They were instructed to “entertain yourself with your thoughts as best you can” and “press the button if you wish.” During the 15-minute thinking period, 64% of the men and 15% of the women gave themselves at least one shock.
There are many ways to avoid boredom, including taking part in unpleasant novelty. But every time we reach for our phone or engage in some other mindless activity to stave off boredom, we’re not only distracting ourselves from the discomfort of tedium, we may be inhibiting our creativity, altruism and dreams for the future.
Boredom inspires altruism and creativity
The sensation of futility causes us to seek meaning elsewhere. Several studies in Ireland found that boredom makes us more likely to engage in prosocial, other-oriented behaviors, such as volunteering, giving blood, etc., to feel the sense of purpose that we crave when we’re bored.
In addition to promoting altruism, boredom stimulates creativity.
In a study at the University of Central Lancashire, researchers had one group of participants perform a boring task, read the phone book, and then asked them to come up with as many uses for a plastic cup as they could. They compared these results to a second group that had not performed a boring task prior to generating ideas. Those in a state of boredom generated the most creative uses for the cup.
My grandson and I decided to replicate this experiment. My grandson was able to generate four times the number of uses for objects after a state of boredom compared to ideas generated not following boredom.
Researchers believe that boredom can lead to some of our most original thoughts.
Using boredom to dream of a better future
When our minds are not focused on anything in particular, our minds wander, and studies confirm that the content of mind-wandering is predominantly future-focused. We engage in something known as “autobiographical planning,” the process of planning and anticipating personally relevant future goals.
When we are bored, we use our imaginations to dream up a better life.
The mundane creates space for deep thinking—pondering what isn’t working in our lives. Without boredom we remain trapped in unfulfilling situations. Boredom forces us to look at what we are doing from the perspective of what is meaningful in our lives. And motives us to do something different.
The next time we feel the familiar sensation of boredom, instead of resisting, do nothing. Let’s allow our minds to wander. In the words from a popular TED talk, “Stare out the window. And know, that by doing nothing, you are actually being your most productive and creative self. It might feel weird and uncomfortable at first, but boredom can lead to brilliance.
Let’s welcome boredom like a friend who has some magnificent and life-altering information to share with us.
Why boredom is good for you (video):
TED Talk – How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas
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