Curiosity may kill cats, but being “bored to tears” or even “to death” is a common sentiment, too. Boredom is an emotion typically associated with mindlessly repetitive tasks, or even worse, with absolutely nothing to do and engage with. But boredom itself is far from boring.
It’s not a common research subject in psychology, but studies on boredom have found both good and bad aspects of this emotion.
Apart from just being a real drag, the state of boredom can lead people to dangerous and unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking and drinking amongst teenagers. There’s even a link between reporting being bored and having a shorter life expectancy, as indicated by a 2009 paper on the Whitehall II Study of civil servants in the UK. However, the authors noted that boredom was “almost certainly a proxy for other risk factors.”
On the positive side, being bored can make us more creative. A 2014 study in the Creativity Research Journal had people perform tedious writing tasks - such as copying telephone numbers out of a directory - followed by tasks which require creative thinking (how many uses can you think of for a plastic cup?). The researchers found that a boring writing task led to more creative thinking afterwards.
“Until recently, boredom has been viewed as a negative emotion with only negative outcomes, but these studies add weight to the evidence that suggests that boredom can sometimes be a force for good,” wrote the authors.
That line of thinking rings true when we think about what boredom motivates us to do. As Thomas van Kalken explains in the latest episode of The Science of Everything, boredom “propels us to seek out stimulation”. The most infamous example of that is the contentious 2014 study published in Science which showed some people willing to give themselves electric shocks rather than just sit there alone with their thoughts.
But it can also mean creative or positive stimulation - anything to just get you out of that state of tedium. Hence the findings about boosted creativity; boredom leads to lack of concentration, and a wandering mind can take you fun places.
Lastly, what’s also great about the science of boredom is the need for creating scientifically-proven boring stimulus. For example, that “most boring video ever” referenced by Kalken, which you can enjoy below.