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We’ve Been Thinking About Boredom All Wrong

According to the scientists who study it, being bored is actually great for your brain — as long as you approach it the right way

Have you ever tried to coin a word, and then get the entire English-speaking world to use it? It’s really hard — especially when the people at the Oxford English Dictionary stop taking your calls. I thought I was onto something a few years ago with “boregasm,” a term I invented to describe the feeling you get when you’re trapped in some dull meeting, conversation or perhaps inscrutable religious ceremony, and you’re forced to stifle a big old yawn. In doing so, sometimes, if you’re lucky, the yawn will kind of rebound at the back of your throat and wash back down internally, flooding your nervous system with undeniably pleasant tingles. Not sexy ones, admittedly — still boring ones — but pleasant nonetheless.

You know that feeling, right? Just me? Okay, fine. 

But aside from believing myself to have struck upon the perfect portmanteau for our times (and I still do), I found the act of defining this creepy interior phenomenon brought other benefits. In giving all the dreary episodes in my life the prospect of a private treat-shiver, it allowed me to embrace the tediousness; one gratifying upshot was that I’d actually look forward to weekly team meetings as prime multiple-boregasm territory.

Sadly, though, this has so far remained very much a perk personal to me. No matter how many casual conversations and emails I’d offhandedly drop my new word into, it never seemed to ignite as office slang or internet meme. And yet, a couple of years down the line, we get the million-times-less-catchy and endlessly more boringASMR” popping into common usage to characterize a similarly tingly feeling. You people of the internet with your weird collective choices, just what are you like?

In any case, it turns out that I’m not the only one to have found a warm and fuzzy side to the near-universally detested feeling of boredom. Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the U.K.’s University of Central Lancashire, for example, has been studying boredom since she discovered it was “the second-most commonly suppressed emotion in the workplace” while researching her Ph.D. thesis (no surprise that the leading one is anger). She describes an experiment she carried out on campus, “where we got people off the street and into a sound-proof room, where they were persuaded to leave their phone behind.” She and her team simply wanted to see what would happen to people when they were fully deprived of distractions. 

“Obviously a lot of them ran screaming from the room — they couldn’t take it,” she says. “What we found with those people who did stick with it was that first they went through this very agitated phase, but once they got through that, they found it really relaxing. People were saying that it was like a respite, like having a warm bath. They just found it really pleasant.”

The more she’s looked into it, the more beneficial Mann has found boredom to be, as detailed in her book The Science of Boredom — The Upside of Downtime. The pre-eminent bored-reward being that, in her view, it’s the emotion that gives you a direct line to creativity. “If you actually have nothing to do, then your mind will create things,” she says, describing a common mental trajectory she’s observed in subjects in her isolation booths. “Because our minds are never still, they’re always active. And that’s when we start daydreaming — and daydreaming is really the key to relaxation and creativity.”

Anatomy of Monotony

Try telling that to a bored teenager, though. As any harassed parent will tell you, a well-timed “I’m so bored!” is one of the most powerful weapons in a child’s arsenal of things that draw an instant reaction — either you jump to entertain them, or yell at them for having the spoiled-brat temerity to suggest they have nothing to do.

To another of the world’s leading boredom researchers, though, the latter is entirely the wrong reaction. “I think of that as akin to someone who’s out drowning in a lake and you say, ‘Well, just swim to shore!’” says John Eastwood, associate professor of psychology, York University, Toronto, and co-author of the book Out of My Skull — The Psychology of Boredom, which is due to be published in March. “Intellectually, they know there are things to do, and if they could become engaged in one of them, they would, right?” 

“I’ve got kids myself,” he adds. “Studying boredom, I get in particular hot water, because [when they get bored] they just look at me: ‘What are you going to do, Mr. Boredom Researcher?’”

For young people themselves, agitation brought on by dullness seems to be an intensifying problem. In November, the results of a nine-year study led by Elizabeth Weybright at Washington State University indicated that boredom levels are worryingly on the rise among American teenagers. Surveying eighth, 10th and 12th graders between 2008 and 2017, the researchers found that self-reported episodes of abject and unwelcome nothing-to-do-ness have been steadily increasing since 2010 — at a rate of more than 1.6 percent per year — with a sharper rise among girls than among boys. According to Eastwood, these findings are “really important, because to my knowledge, it’s the first study to definitively show that boredom levels are increasing. People have suspected this for a long time, but [until now] there just wasn’t great data.”

For a number of years, Eastwood has run the marvelously dystopian-sounding Boredom Lab at York University, which has been attempting to further our understanding of the dreaded B-state by arming psychologists with a clear definition of what it actually entails, as well as a consistent scale with which to measure it. At first glance, the description he and his colleagues have arrived at might seem counterintuitive: Boredom, Eastwood says, is “the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity,” and as such, it’s a mental state of “both high and low arousal,” perhaps an incessant switching between the two.

While some might quibble with the apparent contradiction here, intuitively it makes sense. Happily or serenely doing nothing doesn’t constitute being bored, he contends; restive frustration is a key ingredient: “When you ask people about their emotional experience, their feelings or their energy level when they’re bored, they say they’re both animated and restless and that they’re lethargic.” Aside from this oscillation between high and low energy states, the bored-out-of-their-minds also typically report a handful of other all-too-familiar symptoms: “A feeling that time is passing slowly; difficulty concentrating; feeling that whatever one is doing lacks meaning.”

Digging beneath all this surface ennui, Eastwood says he and his team have identified a psychological structure made up of two essential features. The first is that a bored mind is something akin to an idling engine: In a bored state, we’re tormented by the sense that our brain power is being grossly underutilized. Performing a simple, repetitive task on an assembly line, for example, demands a degree of concentration but leaves the larger portion of your cognitive capacity unfulfilled; “unfortunately in this circumstance you can’t completely give yourself over to some other activity, like daydreaming or surfing the internet on your phone.” Boredom tends to strike when you’re minimally engaged, and it’s, on this account, the dangling-on-hold music of your brain.

Eastwood draws on literature to add a second, even more unpleasant layer to the structure. “Tolstoy talked about boredom being ‘the desire for desires,’” he explains. “The idea is that when you’re frustrated you have a desire, but it’s thwarted: Something stands in your way.” This is why boredom can’t be reduced to passive states, like listlessness or apathy, in which “you lack a desire” in the first place. Instead, it’s almost the opposite — an urgent “desire to find something that can be done in the moment”; it’s just that, like a hungry vegan in a steakhouse, not one of the options at hand is going to work for you. So it’s not just incapacitation; it’s an incarceration.

You’re Probably Already Way Past Peak Boredom

This brooding, rattling-the-bars aspect of being bored might also begin to explain why it feels so much worse for kids and teenagers than it does for adults. “Adolescents are constrained by rules, by parents and by teachers. And we know that constraint is a big situational cause of boredom. So when you’re not free to choose your activities or determine your fate, you’re more likely to struggle with boredom,” suggests Eastwood, with the caveat that any conclusions about the connections between boredom and teenage development should be seen as speculative, since research in the area is still in its infancy.

With that in mind, there might also be biological factors in play. As our brains develop, the frontal lobes — responsible for planning, organizing and regulating behavior — are a region that “doesn’t fully mature until the early 20s,” says Eastwood. “And we know that people who report a lot of boredom also report having poor self-control. We also know that people who have damage to that front part of the brain experience more boredom. So it stands to reason that adolescents developmentally don’t yet have the self-control fully online to be able to regulate their behavior, engage in activities and avoid boredom.” He also notes that people who are sensation-seekers — “people who want to jump out of airplanes and do exciting things” — are also more prone to boredom than the average homebody. “And there’s some reason to think that sensation-seeking increases during adolescence.”

The good news for all those increasingly stupefied 12th graders — and for us all, in fact — is that it does ease off over time. In a typical life-course, says Eastwood, “We know that from age 10 to about 16, boredom increases quite dramatically, and then it kind of peaks; depending on the study, you get a different peak point.” But from late teens, “you see an almost equally rapid drop in boredom, until you get to around mid-life, like to your 40s. Then what you see is that boredom continues to drop but at a much more gradual rate.” The least-bored in the population, he says, are those aged around 50, with some studies showing an uptick again after 65 (potentially, this could have something to do with retirement). Thankfully, then, attacks of boredom are the inverse of hangovers — they get less powerful as we get older.

Try a Little Tiresomeness

This doesn’t explain why teenage life throughout the notoriously distraction-filled 2010s has gotten more boring. The authors of the study had no definitive answers to this (and remain fairly stumped as to why girls should be getting it worse than boys), although they suggested it might have something to do with the notion that sensation-seeking tendencies have also been on the rise in the population at large, or that it might be related to teens spending more time on social media, in tandem with more solitary patterns of behavior.

“I know exactly why these kids are more bored than ever,” says Mann. “We’re creating bored kids by giving them too much stimulation. From the start — even from before they’re born — we’re stimulating them with music in the womb, Beethoven, Mozart…” She points to a combination of wall-to-wall schedules for school kids, packed with clubs and extracurricular activities, and an unfettered access to technology that’s ensuring they’re experiencing precious few moments of genuine, undistracted downtime. “The more stimulation we give them, the more they seek. It’s a dopamine hit,” she says. “And with every new hit, they’re constantly seeking more, so their boredom threshold changes. They need more and more activity to beat the boredom.”

In a world of smartphones and 24/7 opportunities for communication and entertainment, Mann points out, boredom, as “a search for neural satisfaction that goes unsatisfied,” simply shouldn’t exist. “It should be one of those emotions that people’s grandparents tell them about, and today’s generation should be, ‘Ooh, gosh, what does that feel like?’” Yet having amusements and diversions on tap has only made the comedowns that much harder to endure. “They’re not learning to manage their own boredom,” she says. “They’re learning that other people can solve their boredom problems, and if they’re bored they can swipe and scroll it away.”

Her prescription is to reframe boredom no longer as the villain but as the gateway to a more fulfilling kind of mental life. “We need to see downtime as something to be valued rather than something to be denigrated,” she says. “We need to see people doing nothing as a good thing.”

This doesn’t just apply to teenagers scratching each passing minute into the walls whenever they’re deprived of YouTube for any length of time: It’s an injunction for all of us to down-devices. “While waiting in line, don’t get your phone out,” Mann advises. “The time when you’re waiting at the playground for your kids, don’t get your phone out; on the train, at the train station, seek that time. Go for a walk without your phone. Go for a swim — swims are really good, because you can’t take your phone in with you. When you’re commuting in your car, don’t put the radio on.”

If we can “look for opportunities to let our minds wander,” Mann reckons, we can all become accustomed to breaking through the pain barrier of boredom once again, and relearn how to get lost in our own thoughts and till the fertile fields of our imagination. “When we’re daydreaming, we see things in different ways, and we kind of do all this lateral thinking and thinking outside the box — all those processes that are inhibited by consciousness. That’s why we need more boredom in our lives, so we can daydream and we can have the creativity back that I fear we, and the next generation, are losing.”

Eastwood, meanwhile, also wants us to focus on boredom as an emotion that’s in some ways beneficial to us, for all its bleak frustrations. He likens it, just as millions of teenagers do every day, to the experience of physical pain. “It’s good that we experience physical pain; if we couldn’t, we’d be in a lot of trouble.” As long as we respond well to it — we flinch away from the lit stove, or take positive steps to get a slipped disc properly treated — pain is the signal that “keeps our bodies safe.” We should see boredom in exactly the same light, says Eastwood: “Boredom is the signal that tells us our mental faculty is under-utilized. In a nutshell, boredom saves us from the possibility of stagnation.”

Throwing back some codeine for that slipped disc and hoping it will go away would be a terrible idea for your long-term pain prospects; similarly, it’s up to us to respond to boredom’s warning messages in the right way. “Just like pain, we could say, ‘This feeling of boredom is so aversive, I want to get rid of it as quick as I can: Let me play another game of Candy Crush,’” says Eastwood. “And so the boredom goes away, no doubt. But you haven’t addressed the underlying problem. Arguably, you’ve just made it worse.” Learn to listen to it, though, and respond to it in the right way, and boredom “can keep us moving toward the good life, toward flourishing.”

If we’re driven to passively consume games, gossip, current affairs, videoclips, feature articles about the psychology of boredom or anything else that’s sloshing around our own news feeds each time we’re threatened by the specter of an empty half-hour, we’ll always be, as Eastwood puts it, “a cork in the ocean that’s buffeted around by currents and pushed this way and that way.” Instead, what our brain is really telling us with its bored-now antsy-ness is that we should be actively propelling ourselves forward with purpose, to go out and do something meaningful instead. “The problem is, we have to be able to tolerate a little discomfort to find ourselves,” says Eastwood. “So boredom helps us: We’re thrown out of our interaction with the world; we’re stuck with ourselves for a moment. We don’t like it, but we have to stick with that and say, ‘Okay, who am I? What do I really want to do? What matters to me?’ And it provides that opportunity to reclaim our agency.”

Seize the day or seize the daydream — either way, we should stop seeing boredom as a thing to be dreaded, according to the people who study it for a living. For a life that’s more enlivened, fulfilled and creative — and ultimately just a whole lot less fidgety — we need to let a few more little creaky patches of boredom back into it. If that sounds too hellish a prospect, perhaps you shouldn’t hunker down for the full boregasm to begin with: Try a little light boreplay instead. 

Now that one has to stick. Come on, this time, people!