'It's like a little trigger': The surprising benefits of boredom

Most people have an aversion to boredom, and try to avoid it by reaching for their smartphones, but is that doing more harm than good? Some who have studied the phenomenon think so.

We spend too much time trying to eliminate tedium, says one researcher

At the first sign of boredom, many of us reach for our smartphone. (Shutterstock)

"I just killed myself," says 14-year-old Annabelle Dravid. "I died."

She's exaggerating, the way teenagers do, but what she and two of her friends just experienced may have felt like a near-death experience.

At the request of the CBC Radio show Ideas, they've just spent the entire morning, from the moment they opened their eyes until their lunch break, without turning their smartphones on.

And that sensation they're enduring is boredom.

"It's almost as if you're sitting, staring at a wall — that's how interesting it is," Dravid says. "And it's not even a form of relaxation — you're just not even doing anything at all."

Of course, boredom is a universal experience. No one escapes it. But by putting down their phones for an entire morning, these three Toronto-area high school students are revealing one of the paradoxes of boredom.

CBC producer Peter Mitton's documentary "The Tedium Is the Message" airs on CBC Radio One's Ideas tonight at 9 p.m. ET/9:30 p.m. N.L.

When our smartphones are on and at hand, we're constantly keeping the feeling at bay.

Stuck at the back of a line? Waiting for a streetcar? Flip open Facebook. Scroll through Instagram. 

Repeat ad infinitum and boredom is quashed.

But our modern unwillingness to accept tedium may actually be making the problem worse.

"We're spending too much time trying to get rid of boredom, swiping and scrolling every moment," says Dr. Sandi Mann, a UK psychologist and author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good

"In doing so, we're actually becoming more bored as a nation."

The constant feed of fresh updates on our smartphones has got us caught in a vicious cycle, she says.

"Novelty and new stuff gives us a burst of the pleasure hormone dopamine in our brain. And of course it's highly addictive. [But] once you've viewed something, it's no longer novel. So, to get that same hit, you need to keep viewing more and more stuff. And that's why it's sort of this paradox, and we're still getting more and more bored."

The science of boredom

That paradox is just one of the mysteries of boredom that science is unraveling.

While our culture seems to have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to boredom, psychologists are taking a more clinical look at it.

Dr. John Eastwood is a psychologist and professor who has studied the benefits of boredom. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

"I think it's fair to say that the science of boredom is really in its infancy. We're only just getting started," says Dr. John Eastwood, an associate professor of psychology at York University.

In a twist on the usual practice of professors unintentionally boring their students stiff, Eastwood brings subjects into his "boredom inducement lab."

There's been lots of speculation that when people are bored they might gamble more, or engage in more risky behaviour.- John Eastwood, associate professor of psychology, York University

"We want to see, does being in the state of boredom cause anything interesting or important? There's been lots of speculation that when people are bored they might gamble more, or engage in more risky behaviour." 

Another popular hypothesis is that boredom can make you more creative.

"It could lead to that eureka moment, especially if you're trying to solve a problem or come up with a new way of doing something," says Mann.

What's the point of boredom, anyway?

The possibility of creative breakthroughs and self-reflection suggest we shouldn't fear boredom as much as we do. Despite a better understanding of its upsides, a much bigger question remains: Why do we experience boredom at all?

Back at the high school, Manuella Vierra, 17, may have hit on the answer.

"I feel like [boredom] is like a warning telling you [to] get your act together and make sure that you're busy, and that you're always achieving something and making yourself a better person," she said. "It's like a little trigger."

That jibes with much of the contemporary thinking about why we experience boredom. 

As people, we need meaning in our lives, and the feeling of boredom may have come about as a spur to move us on to more meaningful situations. The Norwegian writer Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom, calls the experience of boredom a "meaning hangover."

I think that if you wish to sort of find your way out of this boredom, you really have to figure out what to care about.- Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom

"I think that if you wish to sort of find your way out of this boredom, you really have to figure out what to care about," he says. "That's the essential question."

So what should you do the next time a pang of boredom strikes? Pick up the smartphone as usual, or pause and endure the feeling?

York's John Eastwood says we should all probably get better at "tolerating unstimulating experiences," but that there's no need to "wallow" in them.

"A good reaction is, first of all, just acknowledge the feeling," he says. "The second step, and maybe the hardest one, is don't panic."

Sometimes the tedium carries a captivating message.


Peter Mitton is a writer, producer and correspondent at CBC Radio. His work has appeared on The Current, Ideas, and q.