If you’ve managed to get through a year of lockdowns, isolation, and virtual trivia nights without once feeling bored, you’re in the minority. Nay, you may even be an actual unicorn. For most of us, the last twelve months have been characterised by a lot of boredom (and also loneliness, anxiety, and lethargy – but let’s tackle those later), and while that doesn’t usually feel great, it may not be all bad. In fact the benefits of boredom may even make it worth staying home and watching paint dry from time to time – if you do it right.
Humans have been pondering the nature of boredom for generations.
Back in the thirties Joseph Barmack, a professor of psychology at City College of New York, took it upon himself to figure out how factory workers dealt with performing monotonous tasks all day. He gathered a few college students, bored them silly, and measured a number of variables, like blood pressure and attention span. He found, not surprisingly, that pumping them full of amphetamines (not recommended practice in the workplace) helped decrease negative feelings about the mind-numbing tasks they had to perform. Money had a similar effect.
More recently, a study published in the Academy of Management Discoveries journal had participants endure the excruciatingly dull task of methodically sorting a bowl of beans by colour, one bean at a time. They then went on to examine how well the bored bean sorters performed in creative tasks, compared to those who hadn’t been bored out of their minds before.
The result of these, and the numerous other studies that have been done over the decades, is that we now know a lot more about how boredom works, and how it can benefit us if we use it as a tool. It’s no longer just something kids whine about to their exasperated parents, but something we can harness in our adult lives too.
Brain Benefits of Boredom
Sandi Mann, senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the U.K. , and author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good says that boredom is, essentially, “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied. If we can’t find that, our mind will create it”.
It’s no wonder then, that the aforementioned bean study found that participants who performed a boring task before taking on a creative challenge performed way better when they did. “There’s no other way of getting that stimulation, so you have to go into your head,” Mann says, and that promotes more creative thought and innovation than one would otherwise enjoy.
Many acclaimed writers have also cited boredom as a well of creativity and a source of inspiration for their work. In something of an echo of Mann’s point of view, when asked what advice he’d give budding writers, Neil Gaiman said: “You have to let yourself get so bored that your mind has nothing better to do than tell itself a story.”
Boredom also has benefits for your mental health. Stepping away from all the screens and distractions we’re flooded with every day is a fantastic opportunity for your brain to rest and reset.
Boredom steers you in the right direction
By now, those of you who don’t feel particularly passionate about creative tasks may be rolling your eyes and thinking that none of this applies to you, but you’d be wrong. Perhaps even more importantly than boredom’s ability to improve creativity is the way it tells us when we’re going in the right direction – and when we’re not.
Writing for Vice, Shayla Love writes that being bored isn’t necessarily a catalyst for good or bad, but that “the latest research understands boredom as a signal that what you’re currently doing isn’t meaningful to you and doesn’t grasp your attention—it’s a neutral signal”. In this way, it can be a motivator for action. Analysing our boredom can help us change the course of our lives and eliminate destructive behaviour patterns. There are, however, different ways to handle boredom, and it’s important that you do so the right way.
She writes that “people who are ‘boredom prone’ may reach for less constructive coping strategies, like alcohol, drugs, or excessive use of technology, like video games or social media.” – something we’ve seen happening throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Those same ‘boredom prone’ individuals may also be more likely to shirk lockdown measures and go out, putting themselves and others in danger of infection.
Love writes of boredom as an emotional call to action – a signal telling you that what you’re doing at that moment may not be serving you and that perhaps you need to switch course and engage in something that does. That requires some introspection in order to find a way to add meaning to the task at hand, or to figure out how to be performing an entirely different, more meaningful task instead. When our lives have more meaning, we’re a lot less likely to engage in destructive behaviour patterns. “Boredom motivates action to change your circumstance to something that has more meaning or is more captivating,” says Love.
Instead of pausing to think about why we’re bored, and what it is we actually require in order to work through that boredom, we try to distract ourselves with more of the things that don’t serve us. “We’re trying to swipe and scroll the boredom away, but in doing that, we’re actually making ourselves more prone to boredom,” says Mann, “because, every time we get our phone out, we’re not allowing our mind to wander and to solve our own boredom problems”.
By analysing our boredom, and allowing it to guide us, we may be able to discover a more meaningful, enjoyable and less boring life for ourselves.
Boredom is always uncomfortable. Like physical pain, it’s a signal that something isn’t right, and that we need to change the situation we’re in – whether that be by creating something new and interesting ourselves, or simply readjusting our course. How we respond to boredom can tell us a lot about who we are, and the desire to let it take over, or to harness it and use it to our benefit is up to us.
However we may choose to use it, it’s clear that there can be benefits to boredom that we may not have considered while laying around the house, binging Netflix shows we’ve seen before and indulging in our quarantine snacks. Though it’s been frequently branded as something bad, being bored allows us a unique opportunity to add meaning to our lives. And in a world where there’s so little we can control, isn’t the fact that we can control our response to boredom just fantastic news?