Boredom

Symphony in White, No. 2: The Little White Girl 1864 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Arthur Studd 1919 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03418

Boredom is one of the most common and universally understood human emotions. During quarantine, many of us are, understandably, bored. However, many other people are also being creative and coming up with new ideas that they probably wouldn’t have had if they’d continued being as busy as normal. Two friends have launched blogs, one has started a podcast, and one has completed a course on ML, and these are just the people posting about it in public. Could us getting bored be linked to the creativity we’re seeing?

To start us off, what is boredom? There are two definitions of boredom that are used in psychology, both of which work for this discussion. The first definition describes boredom as Unmet Arousal. Arousal in psychology isn’t the same as sexual arousal. It means being physiologically alert, aware and attentive. When you have Unmet Arousal it means your body and brain are expecting more activity and stimulation than the environment is currently providing you with, causing a mismatch between your internal states and your environment. However, what is exciting for one person can be mind-numbingly dull for someone else, depending on what is important to them (i.e. watching the opera vs watching football).

The second definition is a comes in the form of three conditions, all of which have to be met for boredom to occur. These conditions are:

  1. You are not able to satisfactorily engage with stimuli in the environment.
  2. You are aware that you cannot satisfactorily engage.
  3. You blame the environment for this situation.

This definition also allows for different people to find different scenarios exciting or boring. Although these two definitions have taken different approach to boredom, one more physiological, the other more cognitive, they agree that an environment itself is not boring, boredom comes out of our interaction with the environment. This is important to note. Most of use will experience a boring scenario and, as in the second definition, blame the environment for being boring. According to both definitions, it isn’t the environment that is boring, but us that is bored.

In fact, boredom is something you can manipulate. In one experiment they had a participant read in one room while the experimenters played the radio with the volume low in the room next door. Even this low level distraction stopped the participant from being able to satisfactorily engage with the reading, and increased how boring the participant found the text.

But there are large inter-individual differences in how we experience boredom. Some people are more boredom prone than others. They get distracted more easily, jump to something else, and look for stimulation when most other people would be satisfied. These people are unfortunately much more likely to be depressed, use and abuse drugs, be more hostile, and report less flow in their lives.

“Easily bored people are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, drug addiction, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, eating disorders, hostility, anger, poor social skills, bad grades and low work performance.”

Scientific American – Bored to Death

So how can boredom be good? In the same way that boredom is not innate in the environment, there is nothing “good” about boredom itself, but only in our interaction with it. I often feel that many of my best ideas happen when I’m not directly working on the problem, but when performing a dull repetitive task like folding laundry. An experiment in 2019 showed that people who are asked to perform a boring task before doing an idea generation task come up with more and better ideas. Why does this happen?

The link between boredom and creativity appears to be dependent on the framing of the scenario. In the same study, they found the benefit of boredom only appeared for a certain subset of people, specifically those who have good self control and those who find themselves motivated by cognitively demanding tasks. These people are more likely to be able to frame the boring task as a temporary distraction than as something they have to pay complete attention to. When I am bored in a lecture, I feel like I should be paying attention. However, when folding laundry, I feel like it is OK for my mind to wander, so it does. When your brain is allowed to wander it slips into the default mode. The default mode network is a brain network that is active during mind wandering, thinking about the self, and planning for the future. It is involved in a broad range of activities, such as understanding emotions of others, reflecting on social dynamics and understanding or creating a narrative. So if you let your mind wander while doing a boring chore, you embrace this default mode. This allows you to synthesize all the other thoughts you’ve had throughout the day, you can start to put together the pieces in the background, and new solutions and ideas can pop up.

However, boredom is only good if it creates a contrast from the rest of experience. In chronic boredom, when there is nothing exciting at all, so there is nothing to process. There is a balance that needs to be struck between so much going on that we are unable to process it all, and not enough happening to stimulate our brain. In the fast paced world of deliverables and deadlines that many of us live in, we tend to fall more heavily on the side of too much stimulation and not enough rest.

A generation that cannot endure boredom will be a generation of little men, of men unduly divorced from the slow process of nature, of men in whom every vital impulse slowly withers as though they were cut flowers in a vase.

Bertrand Russel

But there is a circle to square here. How can being prone to boredom be bad, but boredom itself be good? In my opinion, the key is in how boredom is managed. When we get bored, there are two possible reactions. The first is a knee-jerk reaction to distract ourselves. We reach for our phone, put on a podcast, play some music or message a friend. The other is to accept the fact that we aren’t cognitively engaged, and let the mind wander. If there are three conditions for boredom, then by either by re-engaging with the environment or by letting the mind wander, we can disrupt boredom.

Now saying “just engage with the environment” is like saying “just don’t be bored”. It doesn’t work like that. But we do have many options on how to alter boredom. If we need to focus externally, we can take a couple of moments to review why we are doing what we are doing, what the benefits of doing it are, and the costs of not doing it. Just like a horse race that you have bet on is more interesting to watch, increasing the importance that the task has in your mind will make it more stimulating, and you will be less likely to become bored.

If you blame the external environment for not being stimulating enough, you can instead turn your mind inwards and let your mind wander. You can change your perception of how engaging the stimulus is or re-frame your boredom as a privilege. It is a chance for cognitive relaxation. In fact, being able to be bored, to have time to do nothing, is a real privilege. In all of human history boredom hasn’t existed that long, and even now not everyone has the chance.

Escaping boredom by distracting yourself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is important to keep in mind the difference between temporary distraction and chronic distraction. It’s fine to need a break sometimes, we all do. But we need to ask ourselves, is this distraction a habit or a treat?

If people don’t have the inner resources to deal with boredom constructively, they might do something destructive to fill the void. Those who have the patience to stay with that feeling, and the imagination and confidence to try out new ideas, are likely to make something creative out of it.

Teresa Bolton, PhD

So let yourself be bored sometimes. Schedule some time to do nothing and be strict about it happening. Book cognitive inactivity, drive silently, do your chores without music. Not doing something could be the most productive thing you do this week.

When was the last time you did nothing purposefully? I’d love to hear about it, email me at contact@callumacdonald.com.