Everyone is bored sometimes. You find yourself at loose ends, with nothing to read, nobody to talk to, and maybe not even anything interesting to look at…driving alone from Regina to Saskatoon, for example.
Yet science has carried out relatively little research on boredom. About four years ago, Richard Ralley, a lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University in England, set out to change that. Ralley believes that boredom must serve a useful purpose, or it wouldn’t have evolved. He suspects it may be a matter of energy conservation: boredom is the brain’s way of telling the body it’s time to rest, that the task it’s engaged in isn’t worth the expenditure of energy.
Some positive aspects of boredom have been identified in previous research, which has shown that business people who take time off to relax during the day perform better than those who spend 12 hours at a time at their desk. It’s also been found that being bored at work can motivate people to develop themselves professionally.
Ralley’s research is ongoing, as far as I can tell. He had the idea to research boredom in 1999, he started his research in 2006, and the last mention I could find of it was from 2008. There haven’t been any results published. Maybe he’s bored with the whole thing.
Still, Ralley’s suggestion that boredom may actually be good for us has gotten some traction. A long column by Carolyn Y. Johnson in the Boston Globe from March 2008 points out that we live in a society where we’ve done everything we can to banish boredom. Find yourself at loose ends for five minutes? You whip out your cell phone and play a quick game, or text somebody. Boredom is so feared that you’re practically forced to watch television everywhere you go, from banks to pubs.
But, writes Johnson, “We are most human when we feel dull. Lolling around in a state of restlessness is one of life’s greatest luxuries—one not available to creatures that spend all their time pursuing mere survival. To be bored is to stop reacting to the external world, and to explore the internal one. It is in these times of reflection that people often discover something new, whether it is an epiphany about a relationship or a new theory about the way the universe works.”
She quotes Dr. Edward Hallowell, a Sudbury psychiatrist and author of the book CrazyBusy: “If you think of boredom as the prelude to creativity, and loneliness as the prelude to engagement of the imagination, then they are good things. They are doorways to something better, as opposed to something to be abhorred and eradicated immediately.”
In this view, creativity is the brain’s internal defense against boredom. Like a kid who, in the absence of a toy, amuses herself with by playing with the silverware, bored people have no choice but to busy themselves with their own thoughts.
There’s certainly some truth to that. I’ve plotted more than one novel in my head while driving on Saskatchewan’s highways.
But now comes the disturbing news that bored people die younger than less-bored people. Annie Britton and Martin J. Shipley of University College London followed up on a survey of boredom levels in more than 7,500 civil servants between the ages of 35 and 55, carried out between 1985 and 1988, to determine how many were still alive as of last April.
They found that those who had high levels of boredom in the original survey (about 10 percent reported being bored within the previous month, women, younger workers and people with menial jobs being the most bored) were 37 percent more likely to be dead.
Were they literally bored to death? Probably not: the scientists suspect bored people are more likely to adopt unhealthy habits such as smoking, drugs or drinking.
So it seems boredom can be either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on how you deal with it.
Which puts the quest to abolish it into perspective, I suppose. Better you should deal with boredom by playing games on your cell phone than by drinking yourself into an early grave.
Should you be feeling especially bored right about now as this column finally winds down, I hope you’ll keep that in mind.