Being bored could hinder our lives in ways we don’t realise – but it may also have helped shape one of our most productive characteristics, says David Robson.

I’ve met lots of people with a talent to bore in my time, but Sandi Mann is one of the few to have honed it as a craft. Eager volunteers visiting her lab may be asked to carry out less-than-thrilling chores like copying out lengthy lists of telephone numbers. They mostly tolerate the task politely, she says, but their shuffling bottoms and regular yawns prove they are hardly relishing the experience.

Their agony is science’s gain, though, since Mann wants to understand the profound effect that boredom may have on our lives. So far, she is one of the few psychologists to have forayed into such mind-numbing territories. “It’s the Cinderella of psychology,” she says. After all, admitting that you study boredom might itself sound a bit, well, boring – but that is far from the truth. Boredom, it turns out, can be a dangerous and disruptive state of mind that damages your health – and even cuts years off your lifespan. If that sounds negative, Mann’s research would also suggest that without boredom we couldn’t achieve our creative feats.

Bored to death

Boredom is such a large part of day-to-day existence that it is somewhat surprising the word only entered the language with Charles Dickens’ Bleak House in 1852. Dickens study of Lady Deadlock’s suffering – she is “bored to death” by her marriage – would end up pre-empting many of the latest findings. But perhaps because of its prevalence in our lives, scientists had been slow to explore the sensation. “When you are swimming in something, maybe you don’t think of it as being noteworthy,” says John Eastwood at York University in Canada, who was one of the first scholars to take an interest.

One of the most common misconceptions is that “only boring people get bored”. Yet as Eastwood set about exploring the reasons for boredom, he found that there are two distinct types of personality that tend to suffer from ennui, and neither are particularly dull themselves.

Boredom often goes with a naturally impulsive mindset among people who are constantly looking for new experiences. For these people, the steady path of life just isn’t enough of a rollercoaster to hold their attention. “The world is chronically under-stimulating,” says Eastwood.

The second kind of bored people have almost exactly the opposite problem; the world is a fearful place, and so they shut themselves away and try not to step outside their comfort zone. “Out of their high-sensitivity to pain, they withdraw.” While this retreat might offer some comfort, they are not always satisfied with the safety it offers – and chronic boredom results.

Almost from the very beginning, it became clear that either of these states could push people to harm themselves; a proneness to boredom was linked to a tendency to smoke, drink too much, and take drugs. Indeed, in one study boredom was the single biggest predictor of alcohol, cigarette and cannabis use among a group of South African teenagers.

That’s not to mention more mundane but equally unhealthy behaviours, such as comfort-eating your way through tedium. “Boredom at work is propping up the confectionary industry,” says Mann, who is based at the University of Central Lancashire, UK. The overall effect of boredom on your life expectancy could be drastic, too. When researchers in the famous Whitehall study followed the lives of middle-aged civil servants in the UK, they found that the people who are most likely to get bored were 30% more likely to have died over the next three years.

That is something of a puzzle for evolutionary psychologists. Emotions should evolve for our benefit – not to push us to self-destruction. “The very fact that boredom is a daily experience suggests it should be doing something useful,” says Heather Lench at Texas A&M University. Feelings like fear help us avoid danger, after all, while sadness might help prevent future mistakes. So, if true, what does boredom achieve?

Reviewing the evidence so far, Lench suspects that it lies behind one of our most important traits – curiosity. Boredom, she says, stops us ploughing the same old furrow, and pushes us to try to seek new goals or explore new territories or ideas. That search for an escape could sometimes push us to take risks that eventually hurt us. One team simply left subjects by themselves in a room for 15 minutes with a button that allowed them to give themselves an electric shock on the ankle; many did indeed elect to give themself the brief buzz of pain, seemingly because it was the only way to break up the tedium. Perhaps the same search for an escape explains why bored people turn to unhealthy behaviours – but the upside is that it can also increase innovation.

Returning to those people mindlessly copying out telephone numbers, Mann has found that their ennui boosted their performance standard tests of creativity – such as finding innovative uses for everyday objects. She suspects the tedium encouraged their minds to wander, which leads to more associative and creative ways of thinking. “If we don’t find stimulation externally, we look internally – going to different places in our minds,” she says. “It allows us to make leaps of imagination. We can get out of the box and think in different ways.” Without the capacity for boredom, then, we humans may have never achieved our artistic and technological heights.

Embracing tedium

Given this benefit, Mann thinks we should try not to fear boredom when it hits us. “We should embrace it,” she says – a philosophy that she has now taken into her own life. “Instead of saying I’m bored when I’m stuck in traffic, I’ll put music on and allow my mind to wander – knowing that it’s good for me. And I let my kids be bored too – because it’s good for their creativity.”

Eastwood is less enthusiastic about boredom’s benefits, but admits we should be cautious about looking for an immediate escape. “The feeling is so aversive that people rush to eliminate it,” he says. “I’m not going to join that war on boredom and come up with a cure, because we need to listen to the emotion and ask what it is trying to tell us to do.”

For instance, simply looking for instant gratification on a smartphone or tablet may be counter-productive, he thinks. “We live in tech-driven society where we are overly stimulated – we are constantly yanked around by interruptions,” says Eastwood. That puts us on a kind of treadmill, he says – we keep on expecting quicker and easier ways to revive our curiosity. “One possibility is that this actually makes people more bored.”

Instead, he suggests that it would be wiser to question whether there are more serious, long-term issues that are causing us to feel disengaged. His work, for instance, has shown that priming people to feel their lives have a greater purpose and meaning tends to make them less bored during subsequent tests. Although our feelings of tedium during a work meeting or family gathering might seem superficial annoyances, they could therefore be a symptom of a deeper existential crisis and need for fulfilment that extends far beyond immediate circumstances.

“To feel you can have an effect on the world and that things in life make sense, these are inherently important things for human beings – just like sunlight, fresh air and food,” says Eastwood. As we enter the New Year, that could be as good a reason as any to re-evaluate your life, what you are trying to achieve with it, and to rethink what you actually mean when you say you are bored.

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