In 1902, Albert Einstein applied to become a patent clerk at the Federal Office for Intellectual Property in Bern. Although he would have rather worked as a teacher or lab assistant, the monotonous job turned out to be a vital step in his career. While his body was busy organizing files and mulling over stacks of paperwork, his unstimulated mind was free to wander, leading him to some of his greatest scientific discoveries.
This anecdote, slightly embellished over the course of its retelling, has prompted many a psychologist and neurologist to reconsider the nature and purpose of boredom – an emotional state we rarely pay attention to, not even when we’re bored.
Once thought to be pointless, even harmful, research indicates that being bored could actually have some unexpected benefits.
What Is Boredom?
Long before boredom could be observed in clinical studies, it was being examined by philosophers. Seneca of ancient Rome believed people were intolerant of boredom because it is “the nature of the human mind to be active and prone to movement.” More than a millennia later, in the 19th century, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer defined boredom as a “tame longing without any particular object” — and proof that existence was fundamentally meaningless.
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In the 20th century, Theodor Adorno interpreted boredom not as an existential phenomenon but a material one. “Boredom,” he declared, “is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work, and under the strict division of labor.” Just as weekends and vacations help us cope with the backbreaking regimens of capitalist economies, so does boredom help us express our dissatisfaction with those regimens.
Why Do We Get Bored?
Modern-day researchers agree on a rough description of boredom: “The negative experience of wanting, but being unable to engage in a satisfying activity,” to name one example. But they're still unsure of its underlying causes. Some activities bore us because they are not stimulating, either because they are too easy (like waiting in line at the DMV) or because they are too challenging (studying for a big test).
Other activities are boring because they are unreceptive to stimulation. Think of the guitarist Kurt Cobain, whose suicide note mentions he had not “felt the excitement of listening to as well as creating music...for too many years now.” It is worth noting that, in scientific literature, the separation between extreme boredom and clinical depression is still unclear, as the conditions have so much in common.
Other activities, meanwhile, are boring because they are perceived to lack meaning. In a 2007 article published in American Anthropologist, anthropologist Yasmine Musharbash found that boredom among communities of aboriginal Australians resulted from their marginalization and longstanding failure to engage in productive dialogue with the country’s political establishment.
Still, boredom remains difficult to study because it differs on a case-by-case basis. As psychologists Shane Bench and Heather Lench discuss in paper published in the journal Behavioral Sciences in 2013, reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar to your child can be boring while still being meaningful, just like making the Sunday crossword can be interesting despite being meaningless. Even a trip to the DMV can be (sort of) fun; at least, if there's a brand-new car waiting for you outside.
Is Boredom Good For You?
The evolutionary function of boredom, however, is much less ambiguous. According to Bench and Lench, the unpleasant restlessness of boredom motivates us to pursue different, potentially more rewarding activities. Boredom’s physical characteristics —yawning, sighing, slouching — could have arisen to signal our dissatisfaction to others and signal that we need help.
Beyond that, boredom is found to increase risk-taking, which can be good thing. As Bench and Lench write, “If a violent river has never been crossed due to extreme danger, there is no way of knowing what potential gains are available on the other side.” From an evolutionary perspective, the daredevil behavior of a couple of listless individuals may well have had tremendous implications for the survival of our species.
On the other hand, it should come as no surprise that studies have linked proneness to boredom to gambling and substance abuse — behaviors that promise thrill, rewards, and overall stimulation. What's more, boredom may even play a role in politics, with studies suggesting that people’s desperate search for meaning increases hostility between social groups and even warps their memories.
How to Deal With Boredom
While the underlying causes of boredom are the same today as they were in the past, the effects it has on us are changing. People today have more free time than ever before, and the omnipresent distraction provided by smartphones and computers has made us so intolerant of being bored that, in one famous experiment from 2014, a majority of participants opted to electroshock themselves rather than sit around doing nothing.
The better you understand how boredom works, the better you can mitigate its negative properties. In her book The Science of Boredom, Sandi Mann lists doodling and listening to music — two side activities which stimulate your brain without distracting you from your main tasks — as ways to help you to stay focused. Einstein, who contemplated physics problems while playing the violin, would have surely approved.
Sometimes, the most effective way to deal with boredom is to simply embrace it. Far from being unproductive, boredom has been found to motivate daydreaming or mind wandering as well as boost creativity and problem-solving. Instead of numbing your brain by playing Candy Crunch, try and see where your idle mind takes you. You may, if you’re like Einstein, discover something just as groundbreaking as spacetime and general relativity.
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