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The psychological importance of being bored

Being bored is a horrible feeling, but psychologists are starting to believe that it is a necessary part of the human experience that drives us to expand our own creativity, improve self-awareness, problem-solve, and take on new challenges.

When was the last time you were truly bored?

Most of us remember having a prolonged experience of it during the lockdowns of recent years. But I’d argue that those born before smartphones, social media, and the internet belong to a group that holds a better understanding of what true boredom is.

I’m referring to the kind of boredom that made kids and teenagers want to crawl out of their skin, but usually saw them run outside to practice cartwheels, repetitively kick a ball against a wall, or lay in the garden to look for shapes in the clouds.

Life in the 21st century scarcely presents us with situations where we can’t distract ourselves from being bored. After all, we do have tiny computers within arm’s reach most of the time.

Still, brewing amongst the masses is a looming dissatisfaction with the ease and convenience offered by our modern, technological era. This kind of boredom may very well be most prevalent amongst young people who’ve never known a world any different.

Despite having hundreds of films to stream, unlimited content begging to be viewed across various social media platforms, and dozens of unread novels stacked on bookshelves, the thought of engaging in any one of these activities doesn’t always seem to pacify young people’s feelings of restlessness.

But what if having this sensation is a necessary good, rather than a temporary lacklustre state of mind? Psychologists are starting to ask these questions, identifying why sudden boredom arises and how it plays a role in our overall well-being.

Let’s look into their findings.

Who gets bored, how often, and why?

Boredom, as you may already know, is a subjective experience.

Its pervasiveness and severity vary from person to person, but it generally manifests in an uncomfortable state of mind whenever we’re uninterested, unengaged, or under-stimulated by our current activities or surroundings.

When bored, time appears to pass slowly because we can’t seem to find purpose or joy in what we’re doing. We also become consumed with the passage of time, resulting in agitation and dissatisfaction.

Maybe you feel a project at work is uninspiring. Or you’re at a family function where taxes have been discussed for the better part of an hour. Perhaps it’s Saturday and the sun is shining and you want to have fun, but all your friends are out of town.

Admittedly, these situations are undesirable for most people. But the more scientists look into boredom as a mind state, they find its triggers largely depend on individual preferences, personality traits, and the context in which we find ourselves.

Studies have claimed that people who rarely report being bored have highly-adaptable personalities, with a greater ability to regulate their own emotions and behaviours. Creative types, especially, report being bored less than any other group.

On the contrary, those who regularly report feelings of boredom are more likely to find obstacles in regulating their own moods and behaviours. These individuals are also more likely to have reduced levels of self-control, which can lead to impulsive and risky behaviour.

That said, psychologists are investigating the upsides of boredom. Many now claim that boredom is beneficial to our well-being when experienced in moderation because it helps us spark creativity, boost motivation, and engage in emotional processing – simply by allowing our minds to wander.

How To Cure Boredom at Work: 10 Productive Things to Do When Bored

The benefits of being bored

Scientists have identified several ways that boredom encourages us to break personal barriers, by engaging in inner-mind activities we wouldn’t have if we gave into mindlessly scrolling through TikTok for a couple of hours.

This is because being bored means our minds are more likely to drift internally, enabling us to explore creative thoughts and ideas more deeply without the influence of external stimuli.

Boredom forces us to tap into our imagination, sparking curiosity and leading to unique insights – sometimes even towards innovative problem-solving. By looking inward for entertainment, our brain is able to forge new neural connections and has a chance to think outside the box.

This process is closely linked to daydreaming and introspection, too.

Letting our mind ‘rest’ from the distractions of everyday life, we are better able to hear our inner thoughts, feelings, and desires. This type of self-reflection enriches our identity and can help us further our personal growth.

Speaking of growth, acknowledging the root of our boredom can force us to make necessary, positive changes in life.

When our boredom stems from a repetitive or unstimulating environment – like an unfulfilling job or stagnant social life – it can motivate us to seek out new experiences, participate in novel activities, or pursue meaningful goals we’ve been putting off for some time.

Acknowledging our own boredom may help us develop an inclination for experiences that offer a break from the monotony of daily routines, such as having our eyes glued to blue light during all of our waking hours.

A prime example was when the pandemic saw us all resort back to activities like baking, board games and puzzles, and home workouts. In the pursuit of escaping intolerable boredom, millions of people rediscovered old hobbies they still enjoy today.

One scientific paper writes, ‘When people have low arousal and there is not much happening in the world, then they often feel relaxed. When they have high arousal, though, they have the energy they would like to devote to something, but they cannot find anything engaging.’

In other words, sometimes it’s beneficial to find a moment to block out the noise. Anyone who struggles with overstimulation will understand that when presented with too many options – no matter how good or exciting – choosing one thing seems impossible and the situation feels extremely stressful.

Perhaps situations of boredom are opportunities to dig deeper into our minds and eventually carve our own paths.

The science-backed value of boredom at work- Work Life by Atlassian

Are you bored yet?

In summary, we can’t be bored all the time or we’ll simply be depressed.

But boredom is a natural and valuable part of our experience as humans, one that – when channelled correctly – can push us to start that creative project, reflect on our values and desires, or even seek out new challenges and opportunities.

Perhaps that’s why we’ve seen Gen Z become hobbyists of thought-to-be outdated technology such as 35mm film cameras, albums pressed on vinyl, and even retro cell phones. Boredom has pushed many young people to take a break from the norm.

In a world where routine is the reality, there’s nothing wrong with feeling a little bored from time to time. But rather than wallowing in it or turning to self-sabotage for a little excitement, perhaps it’s time to see boredom as a sign to make a change – and let it be our guide.