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Big Ideas

Understanding Boredom

It’s not a pleasant state of being, but under the right lens it can spur creative growth and reengagement.


We are living in an age of constant connectivity. Much has been made of this, as it should be – on-demand access to a limitless digital world has changed the way we live, for better and for worse.

One popular area of focus (and hand-wringing) is the Internet’s ability to fill every sliver of downtime, eliminating blank periods and, by extension, the opportunity to experience boredom. “Let Children Be Bored Again,” urges a recent op-ed in the New York Times. Jenny Odell wrote a whole book on how to reclaim your brain amidst this madness. Published this April, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, is part manifesto, part instruction manual. Illustrator Kyle T. Webster opened his 99U Conference talk this May by lying on the floor to prove a point about the discomfort of boredom. 

Yet a narrative has emerged that boredom, by providing space for the mind to wander, is a fertile vehicle for creativity. Without it, we lose something vital. But what is boredom exactly, and what is its impact on the creative process? Below, we explore the state-of-being, including its relationship to daydreaming and its impact on creativity.

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Boredom is an unpleasant state that nearly everyone experiences. According to Merriam-Webster, boredom is “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest.” By definition, it’s a negative, taxing experience. Søren Kierkegaard described it as the condition of paralyzing blankness: “The only thing I live on is emptiness, the only thing I move in is emptiness.”

When we are bored, we experience an “unfulfilled desire to be engaged with the world,” says James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo. Unlike apathy, which stems from true disinterest, boredom is rooted in the urge for meaningful activity or engagement that finds no satisfying avenues of expression.

Boredom can be divided into two general categories, says Peter Toohey, a professor of classics in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary and the author of Boredom: A Lively History. There’s situational boredom, a temporary state of disengagement that nearly everyone encounters, and then there’s existential boredom. Toohey defines the latter as “an unrelieved sense of emptiness, isolation, and disinterest,” a condition so intertwined with depression that he isn’t sure it exists as an independent entity.

There are many strategies for satiating boredom, from pursuing a lifelong goal to surfing the Internet. However, because of the state’s association with the search for meaningful engagement, short-term fixes often “fail to satisfy the lack of long-term satisfaction boredom indicates,” Dancker says.

“The best response to being bored is to listen to the why. What is it about the current circumstances that is not satisfying?”

It isn’t the same as daydreaming. Where boredom is passive, daydreaming can be an active experience. “Observing what is around us and registering errant impressions is a state not so much of passive inaction as of alert receptivity. Allowing ourselves to notice, and to be open to our surroundings, is a way of awakening our curiosity in the world outside ourselves,” the author and academic Eva Hoffman writes in How to Be Bored, a book that, despite the title, is more about daydreaming and self-reflection than it is about boredom.

What’s more, boredom is an aversive emotion linked to disgust, whereas “lots of people like to daydream,” Toohey says. When enjoyable, daydreaming is, by definition, not boring.

We often rail against the ceaseless stimulus of our digital devices for its removal of boredom from daily life – but the real harm may be its elimination of blank time during which our minds can drift. A period spent in traffic bored out of one’s mind isn’t helpful. The same period spent daydreaming, however, could lead to useful insights. While distinct, the introduction of constant internet connection has threatened both conditions. 

Seeking respite from boredom on the Internet is not inherently a bad thing, Danckert says. “It becomes problematic for the individual when it is a chronic response – you are failing to articulate and pursue more meaningful goals.” Interestingly there is an association between one’s susceptibility to boredom and problematic smartphone use. While digital devices provide short-term distractions, they often don’t ameliorate an overarching lack of engagement. 

“It’s a call to action: whatever you are doing right now isn’t working. Go do something else.”

Unlike daydreaming, the link between boredom and creativity is disputed. In How to Be Bored, Hoffman writes about a composer friend of hers who “spends a part of each morning sitting at his kitchen table with a cup of coffee and letting thoughts and sensations arise as they will, without imposing particular order or meaning on them.” A prolific, productive artist who understands the value of disciplined work, “he says that his seemingly lazy mornings are important to his process of composition.”

Hoffman goes on to make the case that we should all follow suit, giving ourselves the space to daydream. After all, “insight can catch us unawares in almost any situation – as we are taking a bath or boarding a bus – and such small epiphanies can constitute clues to our particular predisposition and personalities.”

Indeed, “there are strong links between daydreaming and problem-solving and creativity,” Toohey says. This is supported by the research as well as high-profile anecdotal evidence, such as the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s reliance on long showers for fresh revelations and details to include in his work. Neuroscientists have found that during periods of idle daydreaming or sleep, the brain “goes into problem-solving mode.” But this is not the same as boredom.

The link between boredom and creativity – which has been made in a few studies and amplified in popular culture – is tenuous at best, Danckert says. Much of the confusion, he feels, stems from the conflation of boredom and daydreaming, as in the New York Times op-ed urging parents to allow their children to be bored. Here, the author describes an early, monotonous job:

Working at an import factory after school, I pasted photos of ugly Peruvian sweaters onto sales sheets. My hands became encrusted with glue as the sweaters blurred into a clumpy sameness. For some reason, everything smelled like molasses. My mind had no choice but to drift into an elaborate fantasy realm. It’s when you are bored that stories set in.

The end result, however, wasn’t boredom – it was imaginative daydreaming.

Boredom may still serve as an important warning sign – and reminder to engage in self-reflection. While not directly associated with creativity, boredom can indirectly lead to a more creative state.  “Emotions exist to help people prosper,” Toohey says. Anger, in moderation, is a useful, protective force. And so it is with boredom; An unpleasant state, boredom functions by motivating us to escape its clutches by seeking reengagement. 

“It’s a call to action: whatever you are doing right now isn’t working. Go do something else,” Dackert says. Like curiosity, boredom’s more positive, productive cousin, the state “pushes us to learn more about our environment.”

So how can we better harness boredom to move towards creativity or productivity? First, don’t panic. “The answer isn’t to say, I’m bored and immediately go to ‘I need to get out of it!’” Dackert says. Instead, he recommends engaging with and interrogating the feeling, however unpleasant, to discover its root cause. Attempt to answer the question “why am I bored?” as thoroughly as possible. Maybe it’s because you feel directionless at work; maybe it’s because you lack personal short-term goals for the long weekend. “Boredom doesn’t do any of the work to tell you what to do,” he says. “When you are bored, its objectless, target-less.”

But it can reveal the changes you need to make in order to successfully reengage, he continues. “The best response to being bored is to listen to the why – what is it about the current circumstances that is not satisfying?”

Laura Entis

Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in FortuneThe Guardian, and GQ, among other publications.


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