‘Mu-u-u-um-my!’, a little boy tugged the sleeve of the young woman sitting beside him. ‘Are we there yet?’
‘Not yet, darling’, his mother replied, looking around, as if apologising to other passengers of the train carriage for her impatient son.
‘Mu-u-u-um, I am bo-o-o-red!’, the little boy’s lips trembled and tears swelled in his eyes. I could almost hear the unanimous intake of breath by my fellow passengers, preparing themselves for a tantrum that surely must follow.
‘Are you, darling? Good! You know what that means, don’t you?’, the young woman said to him with a gentle smile.
‘A game! We will play a new game!’, the boy’s face lit up instantly.
‘That’s right, a new game. But first, we need to create this new game, don’t we? Are you ready?’
‘Yes, Mummy, I’m ready.’, he nodded and moved closer to his mother.
The rest of their journey was spent whispering and giggling as they created and played the new game right there, in front of me. The look on my fellow passengers’ faces (and, probably, on my own face too) was priceless: a mix of relief, surprise and curiosity. What had happened here?
This prompted me to think: Why are we so afraid of boredom – our own and that of our children? Could it be because the feeling of boredom is so unpleasant that we are prepared to do whatever it takes to prevent or reduce it?
I was surprised to find out that, while the concept of boredom is not new (apparently, there are many known Latin graffiti about boredom that dates back to the first century), the word boredom did not exist in the English language until Charles Dickens created it and used in his novel Bleak House published in 1852.
There seem to be a growing interest in boredom among academics with the International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference being held in Warsaw annually since 2014. Also, a study published in 2013 pointed at five types of boredom which are differentiated by our level of mental arousal (from calm to fidgety) and by how we feel about our state of boredom (positive or negative).
- indifferent boredom (relaxed, withdrawn, indifferent);
- calibrating boredom (uncertain, receptive to change/distraction);
- searching boredom (restless, actively looking for change/distraction);
- reactant boredom (bored but highly motivated to leave a situation for specific alternatives); and
- apathetic boredom (low arousal levels and high levels of aversion).
The study concluded that people do not randomly experience the different boredom types over time, but they tend to experience one type which might, to some degree, be due to personality-specific dispositions. According to researchers, apathetic boredom is a particularly unpleasant form that resembles learned helplessness or depression. Worryingly, it was reported by 36% of the high school students who were sampled in this study.
Numerous studies established serious negative consequences of boredom, including:
- mindless snacking or eating, which occurs both in obese and non-obese individuals;
- a greater risk of mental health issues, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and paranoia for people who are most prone to boredom;
- academic failure;
- risk of depression and delinquency in adolescence;
- problem gambling;
- counterproductive work behaviour, poor performance and a higher risk of accidents associated with workplace boredom
This list may offer some explanation as to why we are so afraid of boredom and are trying to eradicate it from our lives. The Internet is awash with tips and advice – when I googled ‘How to overcome boredom’, 18.6 million results appeared in less than a second.
Yet, there is now a different school of thought emerging – the one that highlights the benefits associated with being bored. For example, in his article (The bright side of boredom), Professor Andreas Elpidorou argued that: ‘Boredom motivates us to pursue a new goal when the current goal ceases to be satisfactory, attractive, or meaningful to us. Boredom helps to restore the perception that our activities are meaningful or significant.
In the absence of boredom, we would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. 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. Neither apathy, nor dislike, nor frustration can fulfil boredom’s function.’
Researchers from Bar-Ilan University established that mind-wander (also known as daydreaming) often associated with boredom, doesn’t harm our ability to succeed at an appointed task, but rather helps it. Furthermore, another study discovered that engaging in simple external tasks that allow the mind to wander may facilitate creative problem solving.
Findings of the research undertaken in the Republic of Ireland revealed that boredom can (counter-intuitively) make people behave more prosocially if this behaviour presents an opportunity to act meaningfully.
According to the research published in 2014, undertaking a boring task (especially a reading task) might help to increase our creativity. Another recent research highlighted positive links between personality, proneness to boredom, curiosity and creativity.
As Dr Neal Burton pointed out: ‘Most of our achievements, of man’s achievements, are born out of the dread of boredom’. Therefore, we must embrace boredom rather than fight it.
We all get bored occasionally in many situations and for a variety of reasons. And, according to science, some degree of boredom in our lives is a good thing as long as we can find a happy balance between constant boredom and constant engagement of our attention.
A spot of boredom may give us an opportunity to unplug, daydream and let our creativity flow – just like that little boy and his mother did while travelling on the train.
Zoryna O’Donnell, MBA, MSc, FInstLM is an international speaker, an author, an ICF coach and a mentor of the Warwick Business School (WBS) Mentoring Programme