Boredom is not the enemy. Here’s how to make it work for you ABC Science

By Kylie Andrews, January 5, 2019


Being bored is not an emotion limited to teenagers during the school holidays.

In fact, there’s a good reason for it and a danger in ignoring it.

Most of us experience boredom doing any number of things: in the workplace, commuting, or during the meaningful but sometimes very tedious task of parenting young children.

“Boredom is an unpleasant or uncomfortable feeling of being unoccupied,” according to James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

“It’s commonly accompanied by restlessness and agitation as well, because you recognise that you have this desire to engage with the world but you can’t figure out what will satisfy that desire.”

Boredom is a negative emotion, but it’s a motivationally driven one. Essentially, it’s a call to action to change your circumstances.

And it’s how you respond to boredom that makes all the difference. It could be an opportunity for growth or re-engagement, or it could lead you to a more pervasive state of boredom.

Some believe that boredom has an evolutionary function — that it’s related to the need to both explore and exploit our environment.

In the same way that fear and anxiety are emotions designed to make us to react to our environment, boredom pops up to tell us that what we’re doing is no longer working for us — and we really need to find something that is.

“From an evolutionary point of view, if you stay in one place for too long … you make yourself vulnerable to predators and you miss out on opportunity costs,” Professor Danckert said.

“Boredom is one signal that says, you’ve been here too long, go do something else.”

Prolonged boredom is not trivial and has been linked to issues with self control, depression, anxiety, a lack of purpose, low self-esteem and self-efficacy.

Tristan Berrell, a PhD student at Swinburne University, has been studying boredom proneness in young adults aged 18-25 years.

“We identified this [boredom] as a distinct emotional experience … these individuals feel like there is a lack of purpose in their life, and a lack of control over where they were going,” Mr Berrell said.

“They’re not engaging with the world and they’re feeling like there is no one there to support them.”

And there’s a reason that tweens and teens complain so much about being bored.

Boredom proneness seems to peak from 9 to 14 years of age before declining from age 17 to 22, said Professor Danckert, who puts this down to the developing brain.

“The theory I have is that as you head into the pre-teen and teenager years, you’re starting to develop adult style cognitive skills … but their world is still massively constrained — by school, by parental control. So they get these skills and they can’t fully utilise them.”

To study the physiology and neuroscience of boredom, Professor Danckert and his team induce boredom in their research participants by making them watch a video of two guys hanging washing for eight minutes.

Boredom was associated with higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol than in participants induced into a state of sadness or interest.

“That buys into the description we have for boredom that it’s not something that you take lying down,” he said.

“It’s agitating, it’s restless and it’s unpleasant.”

In the brain, boredom shows up as a variation on the “default network”, which is the pattern of brain activation that occurs when you’re in a resting state.

But the bored brain had one significant difference to the resting brain: an area known as the anterior insular cortex is less active.

This is the part of our brain that affects our ability to work out what things we should notice in our environment, suggesting that when we’re bored, we’re also unengaged.

There’s no one size fits all for engagement. It’s about finding the things that use your brain or give you meaning or both.

And you need to find that for yourself.

“If you’re in a situation when you can choose, then choose to engage a skill and cultivate a practice,” Professor Danckert said.

“If you can’t choose, then reframe the situation to be more meaningful to you.”

The latter approach may work in situations where you can’t change what you’re doing, such as at school, or work. It can be as simple as setting yourself goals or competing against yourself.

Mr Berrell agreed that how you respond to boredom is important.

“[Boredom] gives you that opportunity to sit back and reflect on what you want in life,” he said.

But he also offers a caveat to those of us who reach for our phones each time we feel bored: “Being bored is an uncomfortable experience and it’s very easy to get on to Facebook…and not sit back and think about what the meaning of things are for us.

“We’ve got so many things that we can engage with these days that don’t provide any intrinsic reward, they do engage the reward centres of the brain, which is why we’re more inclined to do them.”

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