Boredom is like an annoying itch that flares up when you know you want to do something other than what you’re currently doing. Sometimes it’s the situation that’s to blame, such as when you’re stuck on a repetitive work shift or listening politely to a loquacious neighbour.
Other times, you might be free to act as you wish, and you know you want to do something, but you just don’t know what to do. Notice how these scenarios are different from the apathetic state of simply not wanting to do anything.
Boredom is uncomfortable and, evolutionarily speaking, its adaptive function would seem to be that it motivates us to make a change to our circumstances, to do something more personally meaningful. Related to this, there’s research showing that boredom can boost creativity, presumably because of the way it galvanises us to reflect and search for meaning.
Some people seem to experience boredom more often than others. Psychologists use questionnaires to measure this ‘boredom proneness’, which they see as being akin to a personality trait. High scorers tend to agree that time passes slowly and that they find it hard to entertain themselves, among other similar statements.
Unfortunately, the chronically bored are at heightened risk of depression and addiction – they will often turn to drink, drugs and digital devices to ease their discomfort and unease, though such strategies promise only temporary and superficial relief.
To truly overcome boredom, the secret is to find pursuits that are personally meaningful that offer just the right mix of challenge and novelty.
- Why does time seem to go slower when we’re bored?
- Is the right side of your brain really more creative?
- Why do I always come up with my best ideas when I’m trying to get to sleep?
- Has anyone ever died of boredom?
Every week on BBC World Service, CrowdScience answers listeners’ questions on life, Earth and the Universe. Tune in every Friday evening on BBC World Service, or catch up online at bbcworldservice.com/crowdscience
Dr Christian Jarrett is a cognitive neuroscientist, science writer and author. He is the Deputy Editor of Psyche, the sister magazine to Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts. Jarrett also created the British Psychological Society's Research Digest blog and was the first ever staff journalist on the Society's magazine, The Psychologist. He is author of Great Myths of The Brain and Be Who You Want: Unlocking the Science of Personality Change.