You're reading

“There is something more terrible than a hell of suffering,” the French novelist Victor Hugo wrote in his book Les Misérables in 1862. “A hell of boredom.”

It is an observation that apparently remains true even today. In our modern society, boredom is something to be escaped, whether it's with a quick game of Angry Birds or by scrolling through your social media feed.

You might also like:

It is perhaps not that surprising that we find boredom so uncomfortable. Just look at the importance society places on being busy. The wealthiest among us work longer hours  while being busy has become a status symbol and a mark of prestige.

Boredom and idleness, by contrast, are for the underachievers, the lazy, the loafers. It is something associated with mental dullness and lacking in aim or purpose. In a society where happiness and positivity are often linked to productivity, those who are bored must by extension be unhappy.

Modern technology such as mobile phones, social media and video games provide an easy distraction from boredom (Credit: Getty Images)

The psychoanalyst Martin Wangh described boredom as an “inhibition of fantasy” and a number of studies have indicated that those suffering from “boredom proneness” lack external stimuli and are easily frustrated in challenging situations.

But perhaps we have got boredom wrong. There is a growing body of research that suggests by not allowing ourselves to be bored once in a while, we may be missing out on something important.

Channel your idleness

Many of our best ideas come to us during idle moments, such as while commuting to work, or taking a shower or a long walk. In fact, we may be at our most creative when we are bored.

In a study at Pennsylvania State University, psychologists Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood found participants who were bored performed better in creativity tests than those who were relaxed or feeling elated. They asked volunteers to watch video clips to evoke certain feelings, before testing their ability to think up words. The researchers found that when asked to think of vehicles, most people say “car,” but if someone was bored, their minds might wander, even as far as to respond with “camel".

The most tedious parts of our jobs may be harbouring a potential for creativity that might surprise us.

In a series of experiments conducted by psychologists Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman from the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, participants were asked to copy numbers from a telephone book before being asked to think of as many possible uses for a pair of plastic cups as they could. Compared to a control group, those who were given the tedious task beforehand were more inventive. In a second study, Mann and Cadman added a third group and assigned them an even more boring task: reading the phone book. Again, the most bored group outscored everyone else in generating significantly more uses for the pair of plastic cups.

Letting your mind wander, especially with today's technological distractions, is crucial for creativity

The researchers say that being in a state of boredom encourages you to explore creative outlets because your brain is signalling that your current situation is lacking and you need to push forward. Letting your mind wander, especially with today's technological distractions, when there’s always another email to read and feed to scroll through, is crucial for creativity and we can really only be in this state if our mind is idle.

Quiet the noise

When we daydream, we tap into our subconscious, which is not constrained by a need to put order to things, explains Mann. “Our subconscious is much freer.”

During idle moments our brains can piece together disparate ideas, leading to those precious lightbulb moments (Credit: Getty Images)

She says the key to thinking more creatively is to make sure you have some downtime to allow your mind to wander. While most of us probably have some idle moments in our day, we probably fill them with social media and email. Instead, Mann suggests scheduling “daydreaming” time or do activities like swimming, where you mind is able to wander without electronic distractions.

It is something that some of the world’s most successful business leaders already do – both Warren Buffett and Bill Gates famously schedule in time just to sit and think.

According to Jerome Singer, who has studied positive constructive daydreaming (PCD), a type of mind-wandering, for decades, intentionally allowing your mind to wander like this allows it to access memories and meaningful connections. When you’re bored, you’re tapping into your unconscious brain, picking up long-lost memories and connecting ideas.

It is this ability to fully access our knowledge, memories, experiences, and imagination that helps lead us to those precious “lightbulb” moments when we least expect them, according to Amy Fries, author of Daydreams at Work: Wake Up Your Creative Powers.

MRI brain scans have shown that the connections between different parts of our brains increase when we are daydreaming

“This calm and slightly detached state, which is the hallmark of daydreaming, helps to ‘quiet the noise’ so that we can experience the answer or connection,” she says.

Studies using MRI brain scans have shown that the connections between different parts of our brains increase when we are daydreaming compared to during focused thought.

“This is how people are able to link up to disparate ideas and even envision things and experiences that haven’t happened in the realm of their knowledge or experience,” says Fries.

Plant the seeds of the problem in your mind by first mulling it over and then tucking it away

But to be a better problem solver, Fries advises steering your daydreams away from more personal thoughts and onto the challenges you want to tackle.  She says the best approach to this is to try to actively plant the seed of the problem in your mind by first mulling it over and then tucking it away with the confidence that when you “sleep on it”, it will return to the fore when you least expect it.

She also suggests doing activities that give the opportunity for this to happen. Walking, for example, is a great way to spark a daydreaming state of mind –  provided you can avoid plugging in your earphones.

Boredom may also help us to be more productive. According Andreas Elpidorou, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Louisville, who has spent years studying the topic, “boredom helps to restore the perception that one’s activities are meaningful or significant". He believes boredom acts as a “regulatory state” that can help to motivate us to complete projects.

Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a “push” that motivates us to switch goals and projects

“In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences,” says Elphidorou. “Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”

For many of us, finding the time to take steps to actively allow ourselves time to feel bored is tricky, and may feel like quite an indulgent measure, but Josh Bersin, a corporate human resources expert and founder of advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte, says “slack time” should be an essential part of modern business.

Going for a swim can be a good way of letting your mind become idle and wander in unexpected directions (Credit: Getty Images)

“Something like 80% of the US stock market capitalisation is driven by intellectual property, patents, software - things that are made by people,” says Bersin. “It's not driven by oil that is pumped out of the ground or inventory or physical assets, which means that almost every company is in the people business.”

“And because people have a need to regenerate, if you run people like machines, and you try to minimise their expense, then you don't get the right output.”

Why are you bored?

It seems boredom is nothing to be fearful of, but we should perhaps also be aware that not all boredom can be useful. While being under stimulated can lead us to greater creativity and productivity, chronic boredom is also found to have insidious effects that can slash years off your lifespan. Mann has shown that boredom can lead people to crave fatty and sugary foods because they are seeking stimulation.

“Being bored or not having enough stimulation is one thing,” says Mann. Feeling that things in your life are pointless is something more precarious, she adds. “You could have plenty to do, but it lacks meaning and purpose: you might be suffering from chronic boredom.”

It’s that listless feeling that can be detrimental to both your physical and mental health.

In the past, only the very rich could enjoy the luxury of boredom and idleness was even considered a symbol of wealth and success. The modern world of business tries to convince us that the opposite should be true – our schedules must be packed to get the most out of our days. But it also comes at a time when the digital economy is crying out for creative, out-of-the-box thinkers.

So perhaps it is time to embrace boredom – and rather than dreading Victor Hugo’s hell, remember it could be simply a lightbulb moment waiting to happen.

To comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Capital, please head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.

Around the bbc