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While we tend to scroll and swipe our boredom away, scientists suggest that boredom can spark creativity.
Being bored is usually given a negative connotation, so much so that we are scrambling every chance we get to not be bored. If we are not scrolling through social media, we are slumped in front of Netflix with a bag of chips. There is no time to just do nothing.
With the pandemic putting life as we knew it on hold, boredom is pushing people to engage in more and more activities. If we were watching one TV program earlier, we are now binging on several shows simultaneously to keep boredom at bay. Additionally, the shift to remote working is affecting creativity.
In a survey of 3,500 people under lockdown in Italy, boredom was found to be one of the most common negative psychological effects of the quarantine. Studies have also shown that people who are boredom-prone are more likely than others to flout social distancing rules, and also appear to be at a higher risk of contracting the virus.
But is boredom all that bad? Numerous writers and artists who rely on creativity have stated how boredom has given them a leg up in their creative journey.
“Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you,” said Anne Enright, the Booker Prize-winning author of The Gathering, while speaking about her recent lockdown life to The Guardian.
“I wait for boredom to kick in because boredom, for me, is a very good sign. It is the beginning of pleasure,” she added.
Similarly, Neil Gaiman, author of best-selling books like The Graveyard Book and American Gods, wrote on his website: “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored.”
The scientific link between boredom and creativity
In a study, researchers from the University of Central Lancashire asked 40 people to do a boring task like copying numbers out of a telephone directory. They were then asked to test their creativity by doing another task – devising uses for a pair of polystyrene cups. The result? The people who had to do the boring task turned up with more creative ideas than a control group who were not bored.
Meanwhile, another set of 30 people, who were asked to read the numbers instead of writing them, were found to be even more creative.
“Boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity,” said Dr. Sandi Mann, one of the researchers who conducted the study.
Similarly, in another study, researchers from the Pennsylvania State University found that respondents who were bored performed better than those who were relaxed, elated, or distressed on associative thought tests, which provide indications of creative thinking ability.
However, James Danckert, a professor and boredom researcher at the University of Waterloo, argues that boredom itself is not creative.
“The idea that boredom will make you creative, it won’t,” said Danckert. “If you have fostered and developed creative outlets in your past, then turn to them when you’re bored… But don’t hope that boredom will make you creative.”
He stated that boredom is a call to action. “When we’re feeling bored, it’s telling us that whatever we’re doing right now is not engaging us.”
Researcher Andreas Elpidorou of the University of Louisville wrote in a journal article: “Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a “push” that motivates us to switch goals and projects.”
In other words, boredom can encourage us to seek non-boring alternative activities. It can help us to pursue new goals and experiences which we might otherwise have missed.
Making the best of boredom
Our lives have become so connected due to smartphones that we are constantly looking for ways to alleviate boredom. Whether we are commuting to work, at the dentist’s, or waiting in line at the grocer’s, boredom drives us to constantly scroll on our phone.
“We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices,” Mann said, adding that while this might relieve us temporarily, it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from being bored.
In a 2014 interview, Gaiman said that he took a social-media holiday for a couple of months because he “began to miss time to be bored in.”
“If you’re a creator of fiction, boredom is invaluable,” he added. “Boredom is the place you create from in self-defense. So I took a holiday to get my boredom back.”
In his book Creative Quest, the musician QuestLove wrote about how he was distracted by the Internet while he was writing his memoir. He explained that whenever he found himself going to more than one website rapidly, he would stop. “I shut the computer or at least close my eyes for a second… and I let the distraction become boredom,” he wrote.
“And when the distraction shifts into boredom, that’s the seed of something creative,” he added. “On the face of it, it doesn’t make any sense. Boredom seems like the least creative feeling. But it’s actually a way of clearing space for a new idea to spring back up.”
Thus, instead of trying to always run away from boredom, it can be beneficial to tap into it. Unplugging yourself and taking a break from social media or keeping your phone away can let your mind wander.
Many famous writers have stated that they came up with the most creative ideas when they were moving furniture, taking a shower or pulling weeds. Moral of the story: instead of turning to your phone when you’re bored, take up an activity that requires less concentration, such as a walk in the park, meditation, or even just sitting with your eyes closed. You never know when inspiration will strike.