Boredom Affects Mental Health
I live and work in a part of the world blessed by a large population of “older” people. They are magnificent—worldly, experienced, fascinating…and sometimes, bored.
I understand. As we age, the range of things we can do often gradually contracts. Those who once worked hard, played hard, jogged, golfed, or traveled no longer do so as much or as often. As options narrow down, the hours and days can seem empty and unpromising.
But what exactly is “boredom?” One researcher defines it as “the unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity,” characterized by an “un-engaged mind.”
If you’re among “the magnificent bored,” here’s good news. Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, put it this way:
“Boredom always precedes a period of great creativity.”
Why boredom is good for us
In the relatively new sphere of boredom research—yes, this is happening—there’s now scientific proof that boredom is critically important to us.
“The very fact that boredom is a daily experience suggests it should be doing something useful,” says Heather Lench of Texas A&M University. The reasoning? Our inbuilt emotional responses tend to help us in important ways. Fear, for example, helps us avoid danger. Regret can keep us from making the same mistake again.
So what good does boredom do?
Lench proposes that boredom is a trigger for one of our most valuable human traits—curiosity. Boredom pushes us out of the same-old, same-old rut and drives us to create new thoughts and try new things.
That makes perfect sense to me. Put it this way: if no one ever got bored with the same-old, same-old…where would we be as a species?
Internationally acclaimed sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor agrees:
“It’s precisely in those moments when I don’t know what to do, boredom drives one to try a host of possibilities to either get somewhere or not get anywhere.”
From YAWN … to YAY!
A paper presented to the British Psychological Society Division of Occupational Psychology described two studies.
In the first, one group of people were assigned a boring task—copying numbers out of a telephone directory for 15 minutes (YAWN). Another group had no task.
Both groups were then told to come up with as many different uses for a pair of plastic cups as they could. This would display their creativity.
The result? Those poor, bored people who copied the telephone numbers had more wide-ranging and inventive ideas than the group whose only task was to come up with uses for the cups. No phone books, just thinking.
Next, another boring task was assigned to another group: to read the phone numbers, rather than writing them. Same result, with an interesting twist: the people in the group, with no assigned task, again showed the least creativity. The twist was that the people who read the names had more creative ideas than those who wrote them out.
These findings suggest that more passive boring activities, in this case, reading, can induce more creativity. Writing, on the other hand, demands more active attention, leaving less time for the bored mind to roam into engaging new territories.
Boredom and depression
This is all fascinating, for sure. But there’s another side to boredom that turns serious and needs our full attention. Let me explain.
Boredom and depression seem in some ways similar, but researchers say they are very different mental states. That said, however, there appears to be a link between the two: the chronically bored are more likely to also be depressed.
“When people are bored,” says one researcher, “they’re disengaged from satisfying activity and more likely to become internally focused in a negative, ruminative cycle.”
We’re all well aware that depression can lead to unhealthy behavior—substance abuse and other kinds of self-harm. So pay attention to yourself and your friends and family who are often bored. Act on any signs that someone is often bored but doesn’t snap out of it into the more engaged behavior that boredom can stimulate.
Can we really be “bored to death?”
It’s a familiar figure of speech, but there’s now some evidence that it can be real. In a study that began in 1985, government employees in the U.K. responded to questions about social determinants of health, including some questions about boredom.
More than twenty years later, researchers compared workers’ responses with death records. They found that the people who said they experienced a great deal of boredom were more likely to have died young than those who were more engaged with the world.
One suggested takeaway from the results was that those who reported the most boredom were more likely to engage in self-destructive behavior.
So—as with so many things—boredom has a good side and a not-so-good side.
So let’s focus on the positives. If you find yourself experiencing boredom, don’t fret. Let your mind wander. It’s likely to take you somewhere rewarding and fun.
Last Updated: August 16, 2018
Originally Published: April 20, 2015