Boredom is a universal state of mind and emotion. Being bored has a negative connotation and yet, originally it was associated with the monarchy and elite society as they had nothing much or urgent to do, thus, became bored.
As with all emotions, the purpose of boredom is to move one into action; it asks for a change. If we open the fridge and think, “I’m bored of eating the same ol’ thing,” this indicates our desire to eat something different.
Types of Boredom
- Predictable circumstances that are hard to escape and have lengthy duration (e.g., meetings, perhaps certain social outings, travel, movie, etc.)
- Repeated experiences (e.g., driving to work, cleaning, taco Tuesdays (again!), etc.). It is these daily or frequent experiences which are worse when they do not have much value (e.g., “Does it really matter what pants I put on?”) and can lead to existential boredom, melancholy and ennui.
Boredom represents the degree of disconnection or disengagement between a person and the world. On a deeper level, we are actually bored with ourselves (how we habitually think, act, decide). In some cases, when one looks below the boredom, there are feelings of frustration, indifference, loneliness, entrapment and depression.
Boredom can feel like one is in a fog. Lars calls boredom a “meaning hangover.” There can be an essence (or more) of associated suffering with the chief purpose of taking a break, checking in with one’s self, evaluating the amount of meaning in your life and refining what you care about. Boredom is not out there, but between out there and us.
Why do we get bored?
Sandi Mann (author of “The Upside of Down time: Why Boredom is Good”) suggests that we are so used to high levels of fast-paced stimulation offering novel experiences which give us dopamine hits. Our brains get used to this ‘high’ (as when we take a drink, gamble, etc.), so when the stimulation is removed or lessened, our brains become under-stimulated when this threshold is not met.
“We have changed our understanding of the human condition as one of a vessel that needs to be filled.” And it’s become something like a drug – “where we need another hit to remain at the same level of satisfaction,” states John Eastwood (director of York University’s Boredom Lab). When the activity is over … now what?
The fast paced and constant distractions mean we can’t focus and fully engage (thus, lessening the chances of getting meaning) in what we are doing and although we feel stimulated we may still be bored. Ironically, often by trying to get rid of boredom, we become more bored as we attempt to find stimulation with activities which lack much meaning (e.g., internet, movies/TV, eating – or all three simultaneously!).
Lab studies done with rats subjected to long term boredom had decreased brain mass and brain plasticity. They also showed abnormal levels of social behaviour – anxiety, depression, disordered eating and risky behaviour. These are states which lead into addictive and compulsive behaviours. MRI scans on bored participants found decreased activity occurring in areas of the brain associated with self-control (again, the connection to addictive, compulsive tendencies). Thus, chronic boredom increases the risk of unhealthy coping behaviours which aim to fix boredom.
Indeed. A 2014 study had participants sit for 15 minutes doing nothing. If they found it too uncomfortable (that is, could not endure doing nothing) they were given the option of self administrating a mild, yet painful shock. Nearly 50% of the participants did opt for giving the shock (someone gave 190 shocks during the 15 min. period!).
Further to the inability to do nothing or one’s discomfort in not having stimulation, a recent study found that Canadians generally lose concentration after 8 sec while a goldfish loses concentration after 9. Find out more about this on a short video.
The Upside of Boredom
Boredom researcher Sandi Mann suggests that boredom can lead to creativity and insights.
“Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to really wander,” she says, “you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious, which allows sort of different connections to take place.”
MRI scans show the bored brain begins to connect disparate ideas and problem solve as it begins to do something called “autobiographical planning.” When you find yourself staring out the window, know that by doing nothing, you may actually being your most productive and creative self.
“This is when we look back at our lives, we take note of the big moments, we create a personal narrative and then we set goals and we figure out what steps we need to take to reach them,” she explains.
What to do about boredom?
- When it does happen, don’t judge it. Accept it and realize it is there for a reason.
- Stop and reflect – what thought, action, etc. are you bored/tired of?
- What bigger picture or deeper change might be ‘up’ or are you in need of contemplating?
- Even create times for boredom to enter your life. Purposely block periods of time with nothing planned, turn off devices, etc.
- Embrace the art of puttering; of just seeing where your in-the-moment energy and wants take you.
- Stare out the window and see what comes up!
Check out Manoush Zomorodi’s 16 min. Ted talk, “How boredom can lead to your most brilliant ideas”
As well as … Lars Svendsen (“A Philosophy of Boredom”) and Peter Toohey (“Boredom: A Lively History”).