Boredom is generally viewed as an unpleasant emotional state. It is characterized by feelings of dissatisfaction, restlessness, and mental fatigue (Eastwood et al., 2012).
For a bored person, mental fatigue gets worse with the perception of a slower passage of time. For instance, when you are bored and waiting for the end of a workday, 10 minutes can seem to take too long.
Boredom is a great source of unhappiness and meaning. We desire to escape from boredom. The usual reaction is to seek outside stimulations for distraction (e.g., play a video game or watch a movie). However, these short-term solutions only serve to strengthen the grip of boredom. It’s like an addiction where we need more and more intense stimulation to fight boredom. And this may ultimately lead to more boredom in the long run.
Proneness to boredom is associated with self-control problems, including addiction, gambling, and binge-eating. Idle hands, the Amish will remind us, are the Devil’s workshop. People highly prone to boredom tend to have an impulsive mindset and are constantly looking for new experiences (Danckert, et al., 2018). This may be especially true during adolescence, a time when they are developing the skills needed to deal with boredom in adulthood.
Although boredom is known for its role in leading to negative outcomes, boredom has also its benefits. Boredom can be a catalyst for action. Here are five benefits of being bored.
1. Boredom can improve our mental health. In this age of information, our brains are overloaded with information and distractions. The wealth of information means a scarcity of attention (Wojtowicz, et al., 2020). Attention uses one’s limited cognitive resources for productive activities. So taking a break can be a valuable opportunity to help our overloaded brains relax and alleviate stress. It is beneficial to simply step away from social media and other stressors long enough to feel bored.
2. Boredom can increase creativity. Boredom can provide an opportunity to turn inward and use the time for thought and reflection. Boredom can enable creativity and problem-solving by allowing the mind to wander and daydream. In one study (Mann, 2018), people were made to do boring tasks (e.g., reading reports or attending tedious meetings). The boring tasks encouraged their minds to wander, which led to creative ways of thinking. The study showed that with mundane activities we discover useful ideas. In the absence of external stimulation, we use our imagination and think in different ways.
3. Boredom motivates a search for novelty. Without boredom, humans would not have the taste for adventure and novelty-seeking that makes us who we are—intelligent, curious, and constantly seeking out the next thing (Bench & Lench, 2013). Novelty seeking implies dissatisfaction with the status quo, and a willingness to challenge established ideas and practices. Great achievements are facilitated with dissatisfaction with the status quo. Goldberg (2009) writes that the great globe-trotting Christopher Columbus would have never embarked on his great voyage had he not been temperamentally dysphoric and had Prozac been available in those days.
4. Boredom motivates the pursuit of new goals. Boredom is an emotional signal that we are not doing what we want to be doing (Elpidorou, 2014). Being bored means that we are currently engaged not only in an uninteresting or unchallenging situation but also in a situation that fails to meet our expectations and desires. Boredom encourages us to shift to goals and projects that are more fulfilling than the ones we're currently pursuing.
5. Boredom and self-control skills. Boredom affects the ability to focus and pay attention because the interest is lost. Among students, boredom results in disengagement from class and poor performance. They can feel bored when they lack the cognitive resources to focus. The ability to focus and self-regulate is correlated with the ability to handle boredom. Learning to endure boredom at a young age is great preparation for developing self-control skills (regulating one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions).
Given these benefits, we should embrace boredom, rather than looking for an immediate escape. We should also allow our mind to wander because boredom could be an opportunity for reflection on what we want in life.
Bench, S. W., and Lench, H. C. (2013). On the function of boredom. Behav. Sci. 3, 459–472.
Danckert, J., Hammerschmidt, T., Marty-Dugas, J., and Smilek, D. (2018). Boredom: Under-aroused and restless. Consciousness Cogn. 61, 24–37.
Eastwood, J.D., Frischen, A., Fenske, M.J. & Smilek, D. (2012). The unengaged mind. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7(5), 482-495.
Elpidorou A. (2014), The bright side of boredom, Front. Psychol.,03.
Goldberg, Elkhonon (2009). The New Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes in a complex World. New York: Oxford University Press.
Mann Sandi (2018), The Science of Boredom: The Upside (and Downside) of Downtime Robinson (January 16, 2018)
Wojtowicz, Zachary and Chater, Nick and Loewenstein, George F., Boredom and Flow: An Opportunity Cost Theory of Attention-Directing Motivational States (March 13, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3339123 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3339123