Everyone has been bored before. That vague and malaise feeling when crashing on the couch. The dull ache of completing homework. Or the suppressed yawn when the teacher’s lecture drags on longer than you care to listen. No one likes boredom. It can make us feel restless, anxious, and irritable. And sometimes, it can distract us from the work we’re supposed to do.
But, boredom is a bit more complex than just being bored, and can even turn out to be something beneficial.
What Is Boredom?
Boredom is an emotion we experience when participating in an activity or striving towards a goal. It's an aversive emotion that we try to avoid. We experience boredom when the goal we are pursuing starts to lose its stimulation or reward. Boredom is an emotional indicator that we should pursue a new goal or stimulus.
Boredom is a self-regulatory signal. It tells us that our situation needs to be changed. These changes can happen internally or externally. For instance, if we are feeling bored in our house, we might change our external situation by going to the park or going for a swim. On the other hand, if we are bored during class and we can’t remove ourselves, we might start daydreaming and thinking of something else.
But boredom is different from apathy. Apathy is a lack of motivation and a failure to switch to another goal. Instead of cueing us in to do something different, apathy encourages us to do nothing. Boredom is something that encourages while apathy does not.
Benefits of Boredom
Boredom itself is unpleasant, but the actions it can inspire make it beneficial. It’s a sign that things are unsatisfactory, and that we should pursue a more fulfilling task. It's a powerful motivator that can get us going. And recognizing our boredom can be what gets us out of the house and go to the gym, try a new hobby, or get better at something. We shouldn’t treat boredom as a fleeting emotion, but as a red flag that we’re wasting time not doing the things that we love.
But boredom can even stimulate our creativity. In a study, two groups were asked to find as many uses for a plastic cup as they could. Prior to the task, one group had to mindlessly copy phone numbers from a phone book, whereas the other (the control group) didn’t have to. Participants who reported being bored during the phonebook activity came up with more answers than the participants in the control group. Despite how stupefying boredom can be, it can lead us to be more creative and cognitively sharp than otherwise.
Boredom, Risk-taking, and Detriments
Despite the benefits, boredom can be harmful in that it encourages risk-taking activities. The same boredom that can motivate us to paint a landscape can motivate us to take drugs or eat more. The boredom that makes us doodle on our worksheets can compel us to drop out of school. Just because boredom can motivate us to seek new experiences doesn’t mean that we should always pursue them.
Additionally, boredom doesn’t care whether what you’re doing is important or not. It can distract us from our work and study, things that we ought to be more interested in but that bore us.
However, the largest negative consequence can come from not doing anything about our boredom. Boredom has been associated with lower life satisfaction, poor relationships, and impulse control deficits. These deficits can mean that we’re more likely to drive recklessly or participate in risk-taking as described above.
In sum, boredom is unpleasant, but it has an important job- to tell us to try something new. And choosing something that will benefit us is important, whether that means working out, reading a new book, or meeting new people. Boredom can be something that ultimately boosts our creativity and encourages us to consider more possibilities. Boredom, despite being boring, is something that we can’t do without, and we ought to pay attention to it more.