Embracing boredom is a proven way to live like a champion
Boredom is the miserable sensation of not having any damn thing worth doing. It’s an afternoon at grandma’s house, when her only means of entertainment are crossword puzzles and Yahtzee. It’s a long road trip through some godforsaken place with no cell phone service. It’s sitting through a PowerPoint presentation. It’s an appointment at the DMV.
In fact, many people would rather feel pain than boredom. In a psychological study where participants were simply asked to sit alone with their thoughts in a boring laboratory, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women willingly self-administered electric shocks just to escape the monotony. In a follow-up study, researchers asked volunteers to watch boring, sad, or neutral movies, allowing them to electrically shock themselves at any time. The bored volunteers shocked themselves more often and harder than all other participants.
But as of late, scientists are beginning to recognize the many benefits of an occasionally unoccupied mind. Parents noticed it long ago — that kids with “nothing to do” will invent imaginative, resourceful games using cardboard boxes, popsicle sticks, or a moldy potato. Philosophers from centuries past went so far as to credit boredom as the impetus behind mankind’s creation: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”
Today, academics are gathering at the International Boredom Conference in the capital of Poland, and at the Boring Conference in London (created after the cancellation of the Interesting Conference) to investigate ennui's advantages. These researchers are recognizing that paradoxically, boredom can breed productivity, creativity, and innovation.
There’s a reason that our most creative epiphanies occur while we’re in the shower — it’s one of the only moments during the day that our minds aren’t actively engaged. When we’re bored, our brain needs different ideas, thoughts and things to do. The wheels in our heads start turning, and creative revelations emerge.
In a widely-cited study of the relationship between boredom and creativity, experimenters asked participants to complete word-association exercises. The researchers discovered that the more time participants had to come up with responses, the more inventive they became. In the exercises with abundant time allotted, once all the obvious answers were exhausted, participants came up with more and more creative answers to fend off their boredom.
Building on the preceding experiment, a new group of researchers asked subjects to do something boring, like copying numbers out of a phone book, and then take tests of creative thinking. The results: bored subjects came up with more solutions and more innovative ideas than the non-bored control group.
However, in today’s overstimulated society, these beneficial instances of boredom are becoming rare. Psychologists worry that these days, we no longer grapple with humdrum moments — we just eliminate them. The moment we’re put on hold or told to stand in line, we’ll pull out our phones. We’ll absentmindedly scroll through Buzzfeed or Twitter, not because we want any level of cognitive engagement, but because we’re desperate to avoid an instant of boredom.
But if instead, we sometimes endure a minute of our own wandering mind, we might stumble upon an imaginative idea, a prolific epiphany, or Reddit’s next big “shower thought.” If we occasionally enforce boredom and embrace monotony, we can replace mindless cell phone twiddling with daydreams and deeper, introspective thinking.
So at your next tedious opportunity, don’t self-distract. Try prying your hands away from your phone and just sitting alone with your thoughts. Doing “nothing” could be the key to creating something new.