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.
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.
Tedium can push you to self-destruction (Thinkstock)
Without boredom, humans would not have the taste for adventure and exploration that makes us unique (Thinkstock)
Fiddling with your smartphone may relieve your immediate tedium but it can't solve longer-term ennui (Thinkstock)