Is boredom vital to the way we work and the way in which we create?

Britain is the fourth most-bored nation in Europe and boredom is blamed for everything from rising crime rates to this year's riots.

It's little wonder that boredom has a bad reputation. That feeling of ennui and world-weariness is the curse of classrooms, boardrooms and sitting rooms across the globe. It seems especially familiar in the UK, where the average Briton is said to endure around six hours of boredom a week in what has been dubbed the fourth most boring nation in Europe. Just describing it provokes a long yawn.

But try not to switch off just yet – because this reputation is not necessarily deserved. There is a growing argument among academics, sociologists and scientists that boredom is actually beneficial to our thought processes, creativity, society and even the economy. So beneficial in fact, that we should actively defend it against the modern onslaught of entertainment.

This is not easy to believe. How can this emotion – blamed for everything from less-than-desirable exam results to violence, looting and riots (and that's just this month) – be good for us?

"There are clear benefits to boredom," argues Peter Toohey, author of Boredom: A Lively History. "Many people don't realise that it can be a very productive emotion. Put simply, people who are bored and dissatisfied with accepted ways of doing things are liable to come up with new ways of doing them. Creativity is the antidote to boredom."

Boredom, Toohey argues, can offer a fertile state of mind for creativity for everyone from artists, inventors and entrepreneurs, to politicians, engineers and schoolchildren, and there are plenty of examples to support this notion.

Scott Adams, author of the satirical comic strip Dilbert, recently claimed that his "greatest creative output was during my corporate years, when every meeting felt like a play date with coma patients".

Indeed, boredom even became a frequent motif and a recurring source of humour in Adams' tales of death by corporate stasis. And with creative output comes economic productivity.

Marcia Kilgore's idea for FitFlops, a kind of flip-flop which claims to be able to tone their wearer's legs as they walk, "was one of those lightbulb ideas" which came to her "in the middle of a boring conference in 2005". This year, Kilgore hopes to sell two million units.

It is important to point out that there are three main kinds of boredom and while all promote a form of change, the benefits are not always clear-cut. The form of boredom both Scott Adams and Marcia Kilgore describe has been dubbed "situational boredom" by German psychologist Martin Doehlemann. It is associated with the feeling of being trapped in a tedious situation and is "often related to a childish form of weakness or lack of attention", says Toohey.

The second is "existential boredom", which has fascinated great philosophers and writers, from Jean-Paul Sartre and Heidegger to TS Eliot, Philip Larkin, and Samuel Beckett, to name just a few.

For the record, Toohey doesn't believe this should be classed under boredom, because its symptoms – emptiness of meaning, alienation and isolation – are closely related to those of depression.

The third type is "chronic boredom" – simple boredom which doesn't stop.

"This isn't usually seen as a product of environment, but a side-effect of a lack of dopamine or dopamine receptors in the brain," explains Toohey. This, he argues, is often seen as the most dangerous form of boredom.

"Boredom can be alleviated through risk-taking behaviour. Some might take up hand-gliding or sky-diving to get an adrenaline fix, but others might commit acts of crime, such as graffiti or theft," says Toohey. Chronic boredom, however, as its name suggests, often has more extreme consequences.

"I'm not surprised some commentators blamed boredom for the riots, but it's not the only cause. Essentially, boredom leads to some form of change. Whether that change is positive or negative depends on the context of the boredom – the situation and state of mind that person finds themself in."

In other words, being bored in a conference and being bored in prison can have very different consequences. As these definitions show, boredom is not a new phenomenon. Latin graffiti discovered in Pompeii and dating back to the first century AD reads: "Wall! I wonder that you haven't fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers."

But what has changed over the past 2,000 years – and changed particularly dramatically in the last 20 years – is the amount of external stimulation available to us in the form of technology such as smart phones, MP3 players, remote internet access and social networking.

Some argue that the incessant bombardment of entertainment leads to shorter attention spans, therefore increasing our tendency towards boredom.

In his book, A Philosophy of Boredom, the Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen argues that people today are rapidly becoming more bored. "While there are reasons for believing that joy and anger have remained fairly constant throughout history," he writes, "the amount of boredom seems to have increased dramatically."

Others argue that technology keeps us so entertained that it presents a threat to boredom and, as a result, our ability to innovate may be at risk.

Baroness Susan Greenfield, one of the UK's most prominent neuroscientists and an expert on brain degeneration, has long argued that over-stimulation from excessive use of such technology could be wreaking havoc on the thought processes of users, especially children.

"If you are responding to stimulus in a very fast-paced, interactive way, your adrenaline is raised. It's certainly not boring," Greenfield says. "If someone is exposed to this constant stimulation from external sources, I believe they won't be able to generate stimulation from inside."

Greenfield admits that there is no scientific evidence to support this claim ("Can you tell me what kind of experiment we could design to test this?").

But she insists the trend is clear. Does this mean boredom is dying out? "Put it this way – when I was a child, I wasn't constantly interacting with new experiences through technology as children are today. These amusements were not available. If I didn't have anything to do, if I was bored, I would draw or make up stories and use my imagination," she says. "People need to time to process their thoughts and experience, assimilate information, to produce their own views. I believe is a very important process and there isn't as much time for it today".

If this is true, the impact on our intellectual capabilities – our thought processes and analytical skills – is enormous. Just imagine where the UK's publishing and film industries and children's enthusiasm for reading would be if a young author, sitting on a train from Manchester to London, had been on her smartphone instead of sitting quietly, thinking. It is interesting to ponder: would the idea for the world's most famous boy wizard have simply "strolled into her head fully formed" if JK Rowling had been playing Angry Birds on her iPhone?

This argument suggests boredom should be actively preserved, to protect creativity and all the positive consequences – whether cultural, social, economic or political – which go with it.

But Greenfield says she doesn't advocate "turning back the clocks" to the pre-Apple, pre-Google, pre-Facebook and pre-Twitter era in which she lived in as a child – she merely calls for a balance between external and internal stimulation. Try telling that to a teenager as you attempt to prise an iPhone from their steely grip.

However, Peter Toohey does not agree with the idea that boredom could be waning, because he believes it is a Darwinian-style survival mechanism. It is not only a crucial tool for cultural creativity and economic growth, but for social and political change. "Boredom is the mind's way of warning us that we are in a situation that is potentially hazardous to our health," he says.

"We can see the way that boredom can lead to anger, frustration and violence in caged animals. For example, cockatoos pull their own feathers out when they become distressed, often because of boredom."

No wonder people can feel as though they are dying of boredom.

"Boredom is an evolutionary mechanism which tells us we need to bring about a change to survive," says Toohey.

"It's a good joke to say: 'Back in 2003, we had this thing called boredom'. But if boredom was really becoming extinct, we wouldn't be talking about it now."

Boredom: A Lively History by Peter Toohey is out now, (Yale Press, £18.99)

Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
Arts and Entertainment
TV
News
Graham Norton said Irish broadcaster RTE’s decision to settle was ‘moronic’
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
    Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

    What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

    Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
    The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

    Setting in motion the Internet of Things

    British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
    Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

    Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

    Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
    Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

    Cult competition The Moth goes global

    The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
    Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

    Pakistani women come out fighting

    Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
    Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

    Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

    The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
    LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

    Education: LGBT History Month

    Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
    11 best gel eyeliners

    Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

    Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

    The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

    Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

    After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot