A scientist’s guide to life: how to embrace boredom
As the summer holidays unfold and homes everywhere resound to the sound of, “Mum, I’m bored!” psychologist Sandi Mann reveals why it’s sometimes good to be bored.
What is boredom?
It’s a search for neural stimulation. When that search is not satisfied, we call it boredom.
Do we get bored more easily than previous generations?
I think so. With smartphones, we have the whole world at our fingertips. We’re always swiping and scrolling and searching for novelty. It gives us a hit of the ‘feel-good’ chemical, dopamine, which is addictive, so we’re always left wanting more.
The more stimulation we have, the more we need. This means we get bored more easily.
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I eat when I’m bored. Should I hide the chocolate?
Yes. Our research has shown that eating chocolate is one of the most common things we do when we’re bored.
We gave bored people a choice of snacks, and found that they rarely chose the healthy option. It’s because you get more of a dopamine hit from fatty foods.
It could be worse though. Some people have committed murder out of boredom.
Can you be bored to death?
There’s some substance to this. Research shows that people with boring jobs, like civil servants, have a lower life expectancy.
We suspect it’s because when you’re bored, you’re more likely to eat unhealthy foods, drink alcohol and take part in risky behaviours like speeding or unsafe sex. These sorts of things lead to an earlier death.
How can we stop being bored?
The paradox is that we need to introduce more boredom into our lives in order to become less bored.
I’m passionate about having a digital detox. Swim. Go for a walk without music. If you’re on a train, look out of the window.
When I commute to work, I don’t have the radio on. I let my mind wander. When get in my head is often brimming with ideas.
NEED TO KNOW…
- On your commute, turn off the music and let your mind wander.
- Hide the chocolate and crisps if you’re going to be working on a boring project.
- If your kids moan that they’re bored, tell them to entertain themselves.
Should we embrace boredom?
Yes. I’m a strong believer in being properly bored every day.
We did a study where we got people really bored by asking them to copy numbers from a telephone directory. Then we gave them tests of creative potential, like thinking up new uses for plastic cups.
The bored group were more creative than controls who didn’t do the boring task, so boredom can make us more creative.
What’s the best way to keep kids entertained?
Parents are under so much pressure to be perfect. If we’re not educating and stimulating our children, then we feel we’re failing. I want to take that guilt away and say it’s okay to let your children make their own entertainment.
Avoid giving them too much choice. We did some research for an airline company, who wanted to find ways to keep kids entertained on long flights. We found that when you give kids a whole bag of toys, they pick up each thing, play with it for a few seconds, then put it down. But if you give them one thing at a time, they spend much longer with it.
Also, when we gave them something ‘boring’ like a notepad and pen, and nothing else, they were amazing! They wrote and drew stories and kept themselves busy for ages. Sometimes the best toys can be simple.
Dr Sandi Mann is a psychologist from the University of Central Lancashire. She is the author of The Science Of Boredom: The Upside (And Downside) Of Downtime (£9.99, Robinson).