The scientific benefits of boredom might not be obvious. But they are very real. In a recent study participants were placed in a room for between 6 and 15 minutes. They were given nothing except a button that they knew would shock them if they pressed it. They were asked to entertain themselves with their thoughts, but they could self administer the shock if they so chose. So what happened? Well, 25% of women and 67% of men shocked themselves. This is despite the fact that they had previously told the experimenters that they would pay money to avoid the shock.
But they are not alone. Around 95% of American adults report participating in some leisure activities over the past 24 hours. But only 17% say they spent any time at all just relaxing and thinking, because that apparently is boring, and being bored is unpleasant.
What is boredom?
Well contrary to popular belief, it’s not when you have absolutely nothing to do. It’s just when none of the options you have available appeal to you.
Boredom is characterized by a lack of concentration, restlessness, but also feeling lethargic. It’s really a state of being underwhelmed. And there are now more ways than ever to avoid boredom. With Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, not to mention my smartphone I have waiting in line, sitting in a coffee shop, stopped at a traffic light.
Many people reach for their phones to stave off boredom, and nowhere is sacred. Do you ever just let yourself be bored?
But are we losing anything by avoiding boredom? Well, scientific research says yes, and what we’re losing is important. When you’re bored your mind wanders. That’s only natural. The state of boredom is one where your attention is not focused on anything in particular.
Boredom studies show..
This mind wandering is useful for creativity. Researchers gave study participants the most boring process possible: reading the phone book. Then, they asked participants to be creative; generate as many ideas as they could for what you could do with a plastic cup. Those in the most boring read the phone book condition generated the most creative solutions compared to less bored controls.
A major reason many researchers suspect that we experience boredom is because it gives you an indicator of your current state. If you find yourself feeling bored, you know something about that situation isn’t working for you.
When you’re in class and you’re a bit bored do you ever just pull out your phone and have a look at stuff? Exactly.
So the paradox of boredom is that it makes you feel tired, sluggish and just disinterested. But it may actually spur you to action. It may get you to make changes that would be positive for your life.
In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we’re not doing what we want to be doing, and a push that motivates us to switch goals and projects.
Good things happened to those who are bored
Studies have also shown that boredom may make you more altruistic. Perhaps the acute sense of aimlessness you experience when you’re bored gets out of control, and makes you question what you’re doing with your life as a whole. But the silver lining is that it may trigger you to think about others and what you can do to help them. And that provides an immediate and concrete purpose to a life that might momentarily feel like it’s lacking one.
Studies designed to induce boredom have shown that more bored participants are more likely to donate to charity, or to give blood since they have free time on their hands. You know, just 2 hours or an hour and a half or so of boredom. So apparently the opportunity to do meaningful, even if unpleasant activities have more value if you’re bored than if you’re not.
Similarly, this aimless state seems to cultivate thoughts about what you want to do with your life. To think of your life as a story and consider where you want it to go in the future. This is called autobiographical planning. When given tasks that only use a fraction of mental capacity, study participants frequently thought of the future and their plans for it. In this way being bored is essential for goal-setting. If your brain is always consumed with other stimuli, you’ll rarely ponder the bigger picture and set long-term goals for yourself and consider how to achieve them. This is why we study history. It helps us understand the problems people faced in the past and learn from the solutions they applied to solving them. For example, Paul Revere took massive action riding his horse all night long to inform his neighbors that the British were coming.
But does a phone get rid of your boredom? Yeah, actually, thinking about it, it does. So every time you’re waiting for something, you have a decision to make, which seems like a tiny one. Pull out your phone for a few seconds or minutes, or just be bored; experience only your thoughts.
But hey, boredom might not be a big deal! Right?
And if you don’t give it much thought the obvious action is to see what’s new on your app of choice. And in making that decision you are alleviating a moment of boredom. But you are also likely making yourself less creative, less altruistic, less likely to assess your current state and less likely to set goals for your future.
In short, you are the real world example of someone shocking themselves to avoid the unpleasantness of boredom. Except in your case, the pain goes much deeper to the very nature of who you are, and who you will become. So think carefully before pressing that button.
Turns out that being bored is apparently something our brains need to do.
Content courtesy of Veritasium