“Only boring people get bored” … I have said this to my kids on countless occasions. Boredom has always been something I eschewed—in my mind, it is on par with laziness and suggests a lack of curiosity and purpose.
Many are uncomfortable with the thought of being bored.
A study published in Science found that people preferred receiving electric shocks to being left alone with nothing to do. How hard is it to sit alone in an empty room for 15 minutes with absolutely nothing to do? Apparently, very. Before the alone time began, the researchers administered a brief electric shock to demonstrate what it would feel like. Most participants described it as unpleasant. Some even said that they would pay money to not be shocked again. That changed once the experiment was underway. In the 15 minutes of solitude, 67% of the men and 25% of the women zapped themselves. Even the researchers were shocked by the shocks. “I’m still just puzzled by that,” commented one.
An aversion to boredom is easier to indulge these days thanks to the distraction machines in our pockets. Whenever there is a moment of downtime, cat videos and celebrity fashion faux pas and breakups beckon. In the digital age, preoccupation is a permanent state of being. Over-stimulation is our default mode. Our minds are always busy. Our attention always has somewhere to land. TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter are bottomless reservoirs of entertainment and diversion.
But what if boredom is something to be embraced and celebrated, a state of being to lean into?
What if sitting there and doing absolutely nothing is good for the brain? Researchers from Trinity College found that being bored can actually be good for us because it opens the door to creativity and meaningful activity.
German philosopher Martin Heidegger identified two levels of boredom: superficial and profound.
Superficial boredom — the most common state of boredom — refers to a situational restlessness in which people desire distractions. Waiting for a train and standing in line are typical experiences of superficial boredom.
Profound boredom — a less recognized state of boredom — refers to an existential discomfort where people struggle with their sense of self, but ultimately can result in the discovery of passion or meaning. Profound boredom stems from an abundance of uninterrupted time spent in relative solitude, which can lead to a state of apathy and existential questions like Why am I here? What is it all for? These uncomfortable ponderings pave the way for more creative thinking and activity.
Devices that promise an abundance of information and entertainment offer a temporary escape from superficial boredom but get in the way of finding more meaningful experiences. Plus, pacifying superficial boredom this way tends to backfire. Excessive social media consumption leaves people feeling empty and with regret. “The problem we observed was that social media can alleviate superficial boredom but that distraction sucks up time and energy, and may prevent people progressing to a state of profound boredom, where they might discover new passions,” said Dr. Timothy Hill, co-author of the study.
Dr. Hill continued. “Profound boredom may sound like an overwhelmingly negative concept but, in fact, it can be intensely positive if people are given the chance for undistracted thinking and development.” Letting our thoughts meander unlocks creativity and refreshes the browser that is our brain. Boredom is a window we are always trying to close. As this study suggests, throwing it open may be a better strategy.
As Neil Gaiman said, “The best way to come up with new ideas is to get really bored.”
So rekindle your relationship with boredom. Put down your phone. Turn off that podcast. Look out the window. Find more time to do nothing.
Maybe it’s time to replace “Only boring people get bored” with “Only interesting people get bored.”
I wish you all the best,
Dr. Samantha Boardman