Positive effects of boredom

Workplace Wellness / Category / Emile Du Toit / May 10th 2014

It appears that there might actually be some positive effects of boredom! However, many of the ‘positive’ effects mentioned in the pop-psych literature appear to have errors of logic and mostly wishful thinking.

Definition of boredom

The actual definition of boredom is really important here, as it has been misunderstood by many paraprofessionals out there. Perhaps the most accurate and clearly thought out definition of boredom comes out of a paper designed to look at the definition of boredom. It states that boredom is ‘“the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”

The important part to note here is something that all scientific definitions have in common: Boredom is not an objective state (‘If I have nothing stimulating to do then I suffer from boredom”), but rather a subjective experience (‘I feel so bored as I don’t feel stimulated by anything”).

Confustication of causality

Hah, see what I did there – a confusing and alliterative heading for a thorny problem indeed! Whilst reading through some research on effects of boredom it occurred to me that a lot of the confusion and disagreement has to do with causality versus correlation. Put simply, because events are correlated (for example if more depressed people were generally also more bored) this does not mean that one causes the other. And even if this is the case, the causality might run both ways, or a third factor could be involved.

So if depression is correlated with boredom this could mean any of the following is true, or indeed any combination of the following:

  • Depression and boredom are correlated due to them both correlating with a third factor, and/or
  • Depression can cause boredom, and/or
  • Boredom can cause depression.

  • Are there positive effects of boredom?

    As an example, I came across one opinion piece that listed several positive ‘effects’ of boredom, including that it helps one to avoid technology addiction, cultivate mindfulness, develop new hobbies and relieve stress. I couldn’t agree less! Let me give you my take on the above:

    Does boredom help one to avoid technology addiction?

    I assume the line of thought here was that people who are bored clearly aren’t busy on Facebook or playing Angry Birds. But if we look at this more rationally it is quite possible to be bored whilst or between engaging in these kinds of activities. Equally, the state of boredom is one of the factors that often in fact leads people into a variety of addictions, including tech addiction


    Does boredom lead to the cultivation of mindfulness?

    This assumes that the state of boredom has largely to do with one’s external situation, rather than more personality based factors, and that it tends to be transitory. ‘I was bored so I chose to meditate’. But people who embrace alternatives from boredom clearly don’t struggle with chronic boredom.

    So although boredom OUGHT to lead to more mindfulness it clearly DOES’T!


    Does boredom lead to the cultivation of more hobbies?

    This is the same as the above example. Once again there is no longitudinal research showing that people who went through large phases of being bored later on developed more hobbies than average.


    Does boredom relieve stress?

    There is no evidence showing that boredom ‘relieves stress’. I must confess I had to do a double take to even follow this line of thought. It appears to be that if you are bored then you are not too busy, which means that your mind must be getting a break, and that this should help with stress reduction.

    As with some of the examples above it confuses the state of being inactive with the state of boredom. I can be bored and have lots going on in my head – just nothing captivating. This might depend a lot on which of the 5 types of boredom you struggle with.

    Conversely, I can be taking a mental break or daydreaming or be mindful and not be in the least bit bored.

    Most conjecture around boredom and stress has actually been in the other direction. Take a look at my blog on the negative effects of boredom if you are interested in reading more.


    2 actual positive effects of boredom

    Despite all of the above there actually do appear to be at least 2 positive effects associated with boredom:

    Boredom can make us more creative!

    This statement may actually have some validity to it. However, we need to note from the outset that the research that has been conducted didn’t actually correlate boredom and creativity, but rather completion of a monotonous, repetitive task and creativity. It is possible that the state of boredom itself has a bearing hear, although the subjective experience of boredom was not actually measured. It might also be that daydreaming and/or the rest given to parts of the brain when they are not overloaded is a far greater factor in the causation of creativity.

    People also appear to have different boredom thresholds, so where one person might be quite chilled, another in the same situation might experience this as excruciating. You might want to check out 5 types of boredom for more information on this.

    It does appear likely though that something in some types of boring situations, and plausibly boredom itself might have a unique role in creativity.

    We just need to keep in mind that boredom is not the absence of stimulation, but rather a subjective experience that occurs (sometimes) as a result of a lack of stimulation.

    Boredom could increase our working memory!

    Working memory is the short-term active part of your memory system that helps you to juggle different tasks. It has been shown to be positively correlated with IQ. Once again, it is probably not boredom itself that leads to increased working memory, but rather the state of your mind wandering (daydreaming). It is quite possible to daydream even when you are not bored.

    Nevertheless, an interesting research paper did in fact show that a wandering mind is indeed correlated with enhanced working memory!

    Negative effects of boredom

    If you are now feeling amped for boredom, you might want to consider the negative effects of boredom to get the other side of the story too!

    References

    1. British Psychological Society (BPS). "Being bored at work can make us more creative." ScienceDaily, 9 January 2013. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130108201517.htm)
    2. J. D. Eastwood, A. Frischen, M. J. Fenske, D. Smilek. The Unengaged Mind: Defining Boredom in Terms of Attention. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2012; 7 (5): 482 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612456044
    3. The persistence of thought: evidence for a role of working memory in the maintenance of task-unrelated thinking. Psychol Sci. 2012 Apr ;23(4):375-80. doi: 10.1177/0956797611431465. Epub 2012 Mar 14.
      (http://www.investigatinghealthyminds.org/ScientificPublications/2012/LevinsonPersistenceAssociationForPsychlogicalScience.pdf)

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