Life

The science of boredom: when did we lose the ability to be bored?

Posted by
Meena Alexander
Published
Bored redhead with origami swan

Stylist’s Meena Alexander explores our inability to be bored, the science behind boredom and the creative power it may in fact hold.

When was the last time you were really, truly bored? It’s a feeling we remember well from childhood, gaping yawns spreading across the maths class and cries of “I’m boooored” on rainy half-term days, but nowadays it seems like a distant emotion. There’s always an email to send, a new podcast to get into, some life admin to tick off our to-do lists. Many of us can’t even go to the bathroom without our phones in hand – even there, sitting idle has become impossible.

With 24/7 entertainment at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever to avoid those quiet lulls. We listen to music while we walk, scroll through Instagram while we wait in a queue and lug a book or magazine around lest a five-minute window in our day open up that isn’t spoken for. There’s rarely a moment when our brains are not subject to some form of external stimulus.

A 2014 study from the University of Virginia found that people “typically didn’t enjoy spending six to 15 minutes in a room by themselves” and that “many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts”. And at this time of year, when we pile even more pressure on ourselves to fill our time with self-improving activities, our fear of doing nothing goes into overdrive.

woman on the phone on the toilet
Look familiar?

Even the world around us is built to protect us from nothingness: in a 2013 BBC report, it was found that buttons at pedestrian crossings across the UK serve no purpose other than giving us something to fidget with, and in Mary Mann’s 2017 book Yawn: Adventures In Boredom she writes that most ‘close door’ buttons in American lifts are simply there to help people pass the time.

But what actually is boredom, and why are we all so afraid of it? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word first appeared in Charles Dickens’s grim Victorian saga Bleak House, published in 1853. If you, like me, were forced to read all 1,088 pages of it at school, you might find that quite fitting. Tolstoy described it in Anna Karenina as “a desire for desires”. In fact, until quite recently, the best understanding we had of boredom came from literature – the world of science saw it as trivial.

Today, psychologists consider it to be one of the most understudied emotions. One of the area’s leading experts is Dr John Eastwood, a psychology professor who runs a ‘boredom lab’ at York University in Canada and defines it as “the uncomfortable feeling of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity”. Eastwood says there are two key psychological mechanisms at play when we feel a bout of boredom coming on: the “desire bind” – desperately wanting to do something but not wanting to do anything in particular – and the “unoccupied mind” – the issue that whatever we’re doing isn’t exercising our cognitive capacity.

And the discomfort we feel when ennui strikes is written into our biological make-up. “We’re wired to want to be engaged with the world, exercise our abilities and realise our potential to stop us stagnating as a species,” Eastwood says. “So we’ve evolved to find the state of being unoccupied quite aversive.”

Bored woman in car
"But what if being bored isn’t the negative emotion we think it is?"

CREATIVE SPACE

But what if being bored isn’t the negative emotion we think it is? Bruce Daisley, EMEA vice president at Twitter and author of The Joy Of Work, is a big advocate of the theory that an unoccupied mind is a fertile one. “In our frantic lives and our hectic offices, many of us just don’t have any space at all for those moments where our minds wander and we end up a million miles away,” he says. “But there’s so much evidence that our brains are at their most creative and prolific when they’re in that state.”

At a talk he gave to Stylist staff in November, Daisley said that giving ourselves the chance to be bored was the key to sparking brilliant ideas. He used the example of Aaron Sorkin, the Oscar-winning screenwriter and director behind The Social Network and The West Wing, who found that no matter how hard he racked his brains at his desk, inspiration was most likely to strike while he was unwinding in the shower. So, naturally, he had one installed in the corner of his office and proceeded to bathe eight times a day.

Similarly, Bill Gates – arguably one the world’s greatest minds – knew the power of nothingness while he was head of Microsoft, carving out a biannual ‘think week’ when he would head to a hideaway to do nothing but ponder the big technological questions of the day.

One of the defining studies behind this link between a state of boredom and creativity was conducted by Dr Sandi Mann, psychology professor at the University of Central Lancashire and author of The Science Of Boredom. She asked two groups to think up as many different uses for a pair of plastic cups as they could, but one group was given the mind-numbing task of copying from a phone book first. The study found that the boredom induced by the passive activity resulted in a “daydreaming state” that helped them come up with more ideas afterwards.

“Doing nothing stimulates the creative juices, which means you can problem-solve and learn how to engage yourself,” says Mann. “It’s also stress-releasing because you come up with solutions to things that have been worrying you.”

When we look back to our childhood, this relationship makes sense. As kids, stretches of free time lent themselves to imaginative play, when we created whole worlds in our heads and all fancied ourselves as crayon artistes. Today, parents have the dilemma of whether to leave
 a restless child to figure out how to entertain themselves, or opt for the quick fix of putting an iPad in front of them. But, just as adults reach impulsively for smartphones in quiet moments, resorting to the glossy lure of technology isn’t always the healthiest thing to do. Experts compare it to eating junk food rather than putting in the effort to cook a nourishing meal.

“While you’re watching another Netflix episode or playing Candy Crush, you won’t be bored in that moment, but the problem is that you’ve handed over control of your attention to an external force,” explains Eastwood. “And it’s not satisfying in that deeper way because it doesn’t flow from your own internal desires.

“Boredom is a signal emotion like pain or anger, warning us 
that something needs fixing, that what we’re doing isn’t good for us. So doing something to distract from that feeling, like getting drunk to numb pain or passively consuming something to alleviate boredom, isn’t addressing the underlying problem.”

Woman bored at work wit head on desk
Nearly 45% of UK employees are afflicted by boredom at work and 54% admit they’ve looked for a new job as a result.

JUST DO NOTHING

It seems that in order to harness the power of doing nothing, we need to reset our relationship with boredom. Mann conducted another study – with fewer willing participants, she admits – in which people were asked to leave their phones behind and step into an empty, soundproof room. “Obviously a lot of people ran screaming,” Mann laughs. “But those who managed to stay said they found it pleasant after a while. They went through a pain barrier of boredom and then said it felt like respite, like having a hot bath.”

She has also
 worked with the
 Dull Men’s Club,
 a group
 dedicated to
 “celebrating the 
ordinary” who
 luxuriate in such
 mindless
 hobbies as
 composting and
 organising
 bookshelves.
 Many of these
 low-level
 thrill-seekers 
are also regular attendees of the annual Boring Conference in London, with tickets selling out to see impassioned talks on everything from the inner workings of inkjet printers to the similarities between different countries’ national anthems.

This all might sound like a very British form of meditation, but even that has been packaged as a productivity-boosting endeavour to make it feel less indulgent. Admitting you sat and stared into space on your lunch seems less acceptable than, say, practising mindfulness or taking part in a sound bath. But experts say our thirst to understand ourselves and quieten our minds can actually be quenched by embracing tedium. 

Eva Hoffman, a former editor at The New York Times and
 author of How To Be Bored, believes boredom is key to getting in touch with our true selves. “In order for us to understand what we want or enjoy, we need to spend some time with ourselves,” she says. Eastwood agrees with this. “The value of downtime is that it allows us to reclaim our agency.
 If we’re constantly being stimulated from the outside, we can literally lose sight of who we are, what matters to us or why we’re doing anything.”

So it seems embracing boredom is an important life skill; it can help us work through worries and induce bursts of creative thought. But what happens when boredom strikes in the one place it’s most frowned upon? According to a 2017 study by job site CV-Library, nearly 45% of UK employees are afflicted by boredom at work and 54% admit they’ve looked for a new job as a result – but in her early research, Mann discovered that boredom is also the second most repressed emotion in the workplace after anger. 

This is no surprise. Few of us are comfortable with looking idle when we’re being paid for our time, but the entrenched aversion to doing nothing from time to time could be making us unhappier and less efficient at work.

“A lot of the constant, frenetic activity in the workplace is to show that we’re busy, because being busy is what makes you valuable,” says Hoffman. “But if we’re able to be a bit more thoughtful at work then we can be more productive in the long-run. A cultural shift is needed to allow room for that.”

CANCEL MEETINGS

Daisley, who has spent years examining the common pitfalls of workplace culture, bemoans our tendency to bounce between meetings and emails without any stretch of uninterrupted time to 
sit and generate something meaningful. “Meetings are the enemy of good ideas,” he says. “The average British person spends 16 hours a week in meetings, then we get back to our desks and battle with never-ending inboxes. Our jobs sort of lose meaning. We have to remind ourselves what we’re there to do and why.”

And that means making space for empty time in your day; Daisley suggests turning off your notifications (“because there is always an email waiting to be read, you don’t need your phone to tell you that”) and forcing yourself to take a stroll or eat alone on your lunch break.

When it comes to free time, Hoffman says the first step is ridding yourself of the guilt and judgement around being still. “Give yourself permission,” she says. “Understand that hectic overactivity is not healthy and it doesn’t make you better or more productive. In quiet moments, slow down and let your mind go in its own direction for a few minutes. It’s not as structured as meditation. Anyone can do it, anytime.”

In a month when we’re all trying to slot more activities into our already overstuffed diaries, now might just be the perfect time to commit to doing a lot more nothing. It’s clear that we all deserve our own undivided attention sometimes. So next time you’re on a train, resist the itch to scroll and try just watching the countryside roll past; rather than automatically clicking that ‘next episode’ button, get to colour- coding your bookshelves instead. Who knows, you might come up with your next big idea or untangle that problem that’s been bugging you all week. Or you might just remember that spending time with yourself isn’t so terrifying, after all.

Images: Getty

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Meena Alexander

Meena Alexander is Stylist’s sub-editor. She prides herself on her ability to spell big words, her vinyl collection and her photographic memory for every outfit Rihanna has ever worn.

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