One morning during my commute, I found myself without my usual literary distractions. Instead, I had the rare opportunity to observe my fellow New Yorkers in their most natural and probably most frequented habitat: the subway. A 40-minute ride revealed that approximately 90 percent of them were locked into vigorous mobile games of Candy Crush or Words with Friends, or engulfed in print or digital reading materials. They were doing everything they could to avoid being present with the drudgery of a long subway ride.
As digital technologies have enabled constant engagement, it can seem like we as a society have entered a battle with boredom (either actual or anticipated), and that any moment without distraction or entertainment signifies a “loss” in the duel.
But as it turns out, we might be thinking about boredom all wrong. Research suggests that, rather than a feeling to be avoided, boredom (in moderation) should be embraced. The happy balance between chronic boredom and constant engagement can prove beneficial for our minds and even our careers.
What It Means to Be Bored
Though boredom may seem like a phenomenon of the 21st century — an unfortunate consequence of briefly unplugging after being plugged in all the time — it’s actually been recorded for centuries. The doldrums that are familiar to us were illustrated in Pompeian graffiti, described in Roman philosophy as a kind of nausea, and documented in Christian tradition as a “noonday demon.” Virtually everyone — from Socrates to the kid on the subway — gets bored.
While the concept of boredom is as old as time, scientists are just chipping away at what exactly it means and how it occurs. The most widely accepted definition is described in terms of attention: boredom is the frustrating experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity, meaning a bored person cannot engage the internal (thoughts or feelings) or external (environment) factors necessary to produce a satisfying activity.
For instance, if you’re sitting in your room watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians (but the fact that Kim is picking out her 100th Gucci onesie is not interesting) while checking Instagram (but the photos of your friends’ lunches or engagement rings are not stimulating), you might end up feeling bored because you can’t find something that adequately captures your attention at the moment. Once an engaging activity is found (say, you start planning the healthy meals you’re going to bring to the work potluck), the sense of boredom seems to disappear.
Bored To Genius — The Upsides of Ennui
Boredom may seem like an annoying feeling that we should try to dissipate immediately, but science says it can actually benefit our thoughts and lives. Research suggests that passive, so-called “boring” activities, such as reading or attending meetings at work, can lead to more creativity. That’s because being bored can promote daydreaming, which can allow us to make new, innovative connections.
It’s a novel concept to accept in the modern, workaholic world. Too often, many of us feel expected to be constantly engaged with something (or anything) for fear of appearing lazy — whether it’s researching, calling clients, or asking for more work if we finish our share. No one wants the boss to walk by their desk while they’re staring into space. And the boss probably doesn’t want that, either: one survey found that many organizations view boredom as an obstacle to organizational efficiency and innovation.
But occasional, passing boredom (not the chronic kind) that increases daydreaming can actually help achieve the ingenuity that organizations seek. And it’s in desperate demand: Psychologists have found that America is experiencing a creativity decline, with scores decreasing each year since 1990 (even while IQ increases).
Other research suggests that boredom encourages the pursuit of new goals when a previous objective is deemed no longer interesting. If a worker is disinterested with their job, for instance, it may signify that the job isn’t the right fit or they’re not being challenged. Realizing this, they might ask the boss for more responsibility or seek other opportunities. It’s not to say one should call it quits after a couple of uninspiring days at the office (or dates with a significant other), but being aware of the caliber and frequency of boredom can serve as the catalyst for bettering a situation.
Bored to Bad Health — When Boredom Doesn't Help
While occasional boredom can inspire creativity and deliberate action, it can also lead to less healthy behaviors. A common result of tedium is mindless snacking or eating, which research has found to occur both in obese and non-obese individuals. Researchers speculate that the mind enjoys eating while bored because preparing, cooking, and chewing food shifts our mind away from the bored state to a highly sensory one, which temporarily alleviates our doldrums.
Chronic boredom has also been linked to more serious mental health issues. One study revealed that participants’ predisposition to boredom was a strong predictor of paranoia. Another study of undergrads found that those most prone to boredom also scored highly for symptoms of anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The research doesn’t imply causation, but it suggests that boredom may be a component of more serious mental health conditions. The key, it seems, is moderation.
Embracing Boredom — The Takeaway
Occasional boredom is pretty much inevitable and can occur in a multitude of situations and for many different reasons. The point is not to eradicate boredom or to be bored all the time, but rather to aim for a healthy dose. A good bout of boredom shouldn’t be viewed as a bad circumstance but rather as an opportunity to unplug, daydream, and let your creative juices flow. Need more proof? Newton was purportedly just sitting under an apple tree when he discovered gravity.