Does Technology Spell The End Of Boredom?

Next time you want to reach for your smartphone because you’re bored, consider resisting – the benefits of boredom are surprisingly plentiful.

What do people do when they’re bored? Pull out their smartphone. That’s pretty much guaranteed to be the answer for people under 30, according to a study by Pew Research. “Younger users stand out especially when it comes to using their phones, for two purposes in particular: avoiding boredom, and avoiding people around them,” the report concluded. Over 90% [93%] of respondents aged 18 – 29 actually reported using their phone to alleviate boredom immediately before the study took place, suggesting the behaviour is pretty near universal.

If smartphones spell the end of boredom, what does that mean? Believe it or not there are actually some pretty interesting positives to being bored, some of which have far better long-term benefits than filling every spare second of the day with Twitter. There’s an element of restlessness to boredom which can be described as the combination of being keen for something to happen, but at the same time being unable to do so. Say you’re in an airport departure lounge and your flight’s been delayed, you’ll easily become bored because you’re keen to get going, but lack any power to make this happen.

“What boredom does, effectively, is to open the shutters on some very uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, which we normally block out with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings,” Dr Neil Burton wrote in ‘Psychology Today’. While the example of the airport, or being stuck in traffic, are things we can’t do much about, there are other kinds of boredom which may be more interesting: the post-lunch slump where you’re bored and don’t want to work, for example, or having drinks with people you don’t have that much in common with.

“Boredom can be your way of telling yourself that you’re not spending your time as well as you could, that you should rather be doing something else, something more enjoyable or more useful, or more important and fulfilling,” said Burton.”And so boredom can be a stimulus for change, leading you to better ideas, higher ambitions, and greater opportunities.”.

So by filling every spare minute with Candy Crush or Facebook, are we depriving ourselves of something meaningful? According to a study from Pennsylvania State University, this may well be the case: bored people outperformed those who were relaxed, elated or distressed on creativity tests. These findings have been replicated by separate studies at the University of Central Lancashire, where the candidates who were made to read the phone book actually tested better on creativity tasks than those who were exempt from the boring task.

Researchers don’t know exactly why being bored makes you more creative, although there are theories: being bored makes you seek out things that may alleviate those feelings, such as coming up with fun, creative answers to problems. While letting the mind wander may not be as immediately satisfying as getting the phone out, the research is clear on this: if you suffer your boredom for a while, it will make you more creative – or it could even make you realise you need to make some changes in life. “In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences,” wrote Andreas Elpidorou of the University of Louisville, in an interview with FastCompany. “Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”


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