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.
Thursday 25 August 2011
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)
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