The Creative Benefits Of Boredom
Fairlady|May 2018

Bored stiff. Bored to tears. Bored out of your mind. Bored to death. The idioms relating to boredom tell quite a story. Needless to say, being bored is generally seen as a state that should be avoided at all costs. But actually, a good bout of boredom can help ignite your creativity.

Liesl Robertson

Boredom has had a lot of bad press over the years. Author Orrin Klapp described boredom as a ‘deficit in the quality of life’; Sigmund Freud believed that people who were prone to day dreaming were neurotic; and German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called it ‘a reminder of the meaninglessness of human existence’. Even Charles Dickens, who is said to have introduced the verb ‘to bore’ into the English language back in 1852 – in his aptly named novel Bleak House – saw it as such a dreary mental state that he defined it as ‘to pierce, or wear down’.

At least some of this negativity is completely valid: boredom has been linked to the kind of behaviour one is generally encouraged to avoid, such as mindless snacking, inattentive driving, binge-drinking, risky sexual choices, poor impulse control and pathological gambling. Chronic boredom has been identified as a strong predictor of paranoia, and other studies have found that a propensity for boredom was also an indicator of a greater risk for anxiety, depression and OCD. (To be clear, boredom doesn’t cause any of these conditions, but being prone to boredom may be a contributing factor.) Poor academic performance, high dropout rates and mistakes made on the job have also been traced back to boredom.

Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feeling bored. (It’s why Candy Crush exists, if you ask me.) One study even found that, when given the choice between boredom and pain, a shocking (no pun intended) amount of people chose pain! Two-thirds of the men and a quarter of the women participating in the study chose to give themselves electric shocks rather than sit in a room alone with no distractions for 15 minutes. Another team of psychologists gave participants movies to watch – some were boring, some sad and some neutral. The volunteers watching the boring movies shocked themselves more and harder than the other two groups just to break the monotony.

A pointless emotion?

Sandi Mann, psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good, first stumbled onto her pet subject back in the 1990s while she was researching emotions in the workplace. She discovered that, second only to anger, boredom was the most commonly suppressed emotion.

‘It gets such bad press,’ she said. ‘Almost everything seems to be blamed on boredom.’

But Mann knew there had to be more to this seemingly senseless feeling.

‘Every emotion has a purpose – an evolutionary benefit,’ she says. ‘I wanted to know why we have this emotion of boredom, which seems like such a negative, pointless emotion.’ She soon discovered it actually served a greater purpose.

‘When we’re bored, we’re searching for something to stimulate us that we can’t find in our immediate surroundings,’ Mann explains. ‘So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to some place in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allowing your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place.’

‘Scientifically, daydreaming is an interesting phenomenon because it speaks to the capacity that people have to create thought in a pure way, rather than thought happening when it’s a response to events in the outside world,’ says psychologist Jonathan Smallwood, who’s been studying mind-wandering for more than 20 years and uses cognitive neuroscience tools.

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