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Boredom can enrich our lives and unleash our creativity, researchers say

Boredom can enrich our lives and unleash our creativity
Research suggests that boredom can serve as a positive catalyst for a deeper exploration of life.

Feeling bored? If so, perhaps you should read an article in the April issue of the Psychologist, the monthly publication of the British Psychological Society

In the article, reporter Ella Rhodes describes the latest research on the “exciting side of boredom” — how this very common but little understood state of mind, which is often considered a “luxury in the context of busy modern lives, where distractions abound,” has been misunderstood and thus underrated by psychologists and the public alike.

Part of the article focuses on the research of John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, Canada, who has been studying boredom for more than a decade.  Eastwood had found that boredom — which he defines as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity” — definitely has a positive side.

He believes boredom helps us “discover the possibility and content of one’s desires” and is linked to broader questions about finding meaning in our lives. Yet, as a culture, we tend to be very critical and disproving about people who say or act bored.

“‘Clinically, I work with people, especially young men, who talk about this ‘failure to launch,’” Eastman told Rhodes. “Maybe they’re still living at home in their parents’ basement and playing a lot of video games …. Their chief complaint is this unremitting boredom. We find as a culture people are very harsh towards those who get bored. They get upset or judgmental, where they wouldn’t react like that to people with another mental health issue.”

A positive catalyst 

Boredom has been linked to negative personality traits, such as difficulty controlling anger and aggression, but research suggests that it also can serve as a positive catalyst for a deeper exploration of life.

“Generally speaking, boredom feels unpleasant, and it involves feeling restless and unchallenged at the same time,” Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychologist at the University of Southampton in Great Britain, told Rhodes. “In our research we have found that boredom fulfills an important function: Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand. Essentially, the unpleasant sensation of boredom ‘reminds’ people that there are more important matters to attend to than those at hand.”

Boredom may also lead to more creativity. Writes Rhodes:

In one recent study, [psychologist Sandi Mann of the University of Central Lancashire in Great Britain) had participants either carry out a boring writing activity — copying out phone numbers from a telephone directory, or not — and then complete a creative task, in this case coming up with as many uses for two polystyrene cups as possible. Participants in the ‘boring’ condition came up with significantly more uses for the polystyrene cups compared to controls. A second study again found that boring activities led to increased creativity in the final tasks, particularly a ‘boring reading’ condition.

Mann told Rhodes that she believes it’s important to allow children to be bored.

“Unlike so many parents today, I am quite happy when my kids whine that they are bored,” she said. “Finding ways to amuse themselves is an important skill.”

Digital age: more prone to boredom?

Toward the end of her article, Rhodes returns to the question of whether boredom has become an indulgence “in the age of smartphones, social media and readily available leisure opportunities.” Eastwood, however, told her that he wonders whether the opposite may be happening — “whether we have actually become more prone to boredom through being exposed to so many potential distractions.”

“I think boredom is such an aversive state that we want to banish it as quickly as possible,” he said. “We turn to quick and easy ways to banish it, we play a video game or turn the music up or go to a movie. All these things are effective in the short term, we become engaged and we’re no longer bored. But when that movie ends or the music stops, there’s an even greater chasm of boredom. It’s like a drug, an addiction, we need more and more intense stimulation to stave off boredom. I’m wondering whether these short-term solutions are making us more prone to boredom.”

That’s something to ponder, should you find yourself bored at any time today.

You can read Rhodes entire article on the Psychologist’s website.

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