The modern world is, in many ways, a miracle. Most of us carry around amazing little devices that connect us not just to endless sources of information and entertainment, but also to one another. With so many options for distraction at our fingertips, we never have to be alone with our thoughts (not even in the bathroom). But is boredom really so bad that we need to be constantly protected from it?
For one thing, boredom represents a particular kind of privilege. The Bored are in a good place, relatively speaking, because they’re not actively fleeing from enemies, or engaged in a hunt for that day’s meal. Instead, the focus is on making their time meaningful. Put into the context of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the depletion of boredom is near the very top — represented by the desires for spontaneity and creativity.
But rather than a roadblock to becoming a complete person, it’s arguable that boredom is the bridge. When the mind is constantly engaged in business — even something as mindless as checking an email or Facebook — it doesn’t have time to ruminate or analyze. Voluntarily stepping away from the many distractions of the modern world offers the mind a chance to regroup — to catalogue the day’s events, and put things in perspective. It also clears a space in which to explore what it is we really, ultimately want from life.
For many, that ultimate “want” is to find meaning through creative expression. And for those individuals, the technological war on boredom may be getting in the way.
Graham Linehan, the writer behind the cult favorite sitcoms Father Ted and The I.T. Crowd, has found that constant connectivity actually prevents him from doing his job. He told The Guardian, “Being bored is an essential part of writing, and the internet has made it very hard to be bored.” For that reason, Linehan has copped to using several apps to help limit his internet access. And he’s not the only one.
In 2014, after deciding that he’d spent too long working on his latest book, Hugo Award-winner Neil Gaiman announced his plan to take a six month sabbatical from social media. “The best way to come up with new ideas is to get really bored,” he told The Guardian. (He went on to joke that he came up with a storyline for an entire Dr. Who episode while sitting through a school play).
In recent years, scientific research has echoed Gaiman’s ideas about boredom’s role in thinking outside the box. In a study published in 2013, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire concluded that people were more likely to be creative after doing tedious work.
In their first experiment, Mann and Cadman asked two groups of people to come up with alternate uses for plastic cups. The experimental group had just finished copying a long list of names out of a phone book, while the control group hadn’t. In the end, subjects who’d participated in the painfully boring phonebook exercise came up with a wider variety of uses for the cups.
Next, Mann and Cadman divided people into three groups. While some subjects copied names from the phonebook, and others never so much as looked at one, a third group simply read names from the book. When it came time to participate in the plastic cup activity, those who’d read outperformed both the other groups. The researchers concluded that, when people didn’t have the added responsibility of copying down names, they were more likely to daydream — a practice that made them more creative afterwards.
That same year, at Penn State University, research psychologists Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood observed that bored individuals performed better on creativity tests than those who were engaged. They noted that bored subjects were more likely to give unconventional, yet still correct responses to questions — for example, listing “camel” as a type of vehicle, rather than “car.”
To be fair, no one actually likes to feel bored, which is why people go to great lengths to keep themselves occupied. And in some cases, this is for good reason. Boredom is a known trigger for binge eating, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. And if a person is subtly upset about something, remaining idle will practically force them to confront those unpleasant feelings.
On the other hand, there’s something to be said for letting one’s guard down at the right time. In a 2013 interview with Conan O’Brien, comedian Louis C.K. talked about one of those vulnerable moments. While C.K. was alone in his car, the Bruce Springsteen song “Jungleland” came on the radio. When the song’s wistful lyrics began to make him feel sad, he considered reaching for his phone. But he decided instead to deal with the inevitable onslaught of feelings — culminating in a therapeutic crying session.
“When you let yourself feel sad, your body has, like, antibodies that come rushing in to meet the sadness,” C.K. said. “I was grateful to feel sad, and then I met it with true, profound happiness.”
Though Louis C.K.’s “antibodies” explanation might not hold up to scientific scrutiny, most therapists will tell you that acknowledging unpleasant emotions is crucial to mental health. Indeed, happiness, sadness, and even anger are part of a rich tapestry of essential human feelings. Better to deal with these emotions in a moment of relative strength — i.e., boredom — than at an unexpected moment.
So, the next time you find yourself aching with boredom, don’t fight it. Instead, put your phone down, just for a few minutes, and let your mind wander. You might feel a whole lot better afterward.