People who grew up before the flowering of the digital age may have thought that the constant connection to social media, news and entertainment would have seen boredom disappear. So what does the fact that it hasn’t tell us about the nature of boredom, and how to tackle it?
One in ten people claim never to be bored, but the other nine are firmly in the camp of those of us who are bored on average for an average of six hours per week, or nearly a fortnight of non-stop boredom every year.
Research into boredom is shedding light on how we bring our attention to bear on different tasks, and the evolutionary reasons behind boredom as well. Animals in the wild who have not had any stimulus for a time will go out and look for stimulation, whether that is hunting for prey or simply exploring their territory again. The evolutionary reason behind boredom then seems to be as a motivator for animals to keep engaging with their environment, and stay aware of potential dangers and opportunities.
Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the UCLAN, believes that boredom in humans may not only be a motivator, but also a catalyst for creativity. Experiments with people asked to copy or read entries in the phone book has shown that they are more creative. Mann believes that this is because boredom allows our minds to wander, and so make connections and associations that it would not normally do.
These experiments might be seen as distorted in as much as the task, no matter how tedious, did not carry any consequences in the real world. Boredom in undemanding or routine tasks can however result in higher levels of error and of workplace stress. It’s not just the kind of task that determines the level of boredom – it’s also the personality of the person involved.
People who look for novelty and pleasure in experiences will, unsurprisingly, be more prone to boredom. What might be more surprising is that people with higher levels of anxiety are also more prone to boredom, and this may be linked to the difficulty in recalling whether individual tasks were carried out correctly. And whilst high self-control might not be a surprise as a trait in those who have high boredom thresholds the presence of a high degree of curiosity might be more noteworthy, until we remember boredom’s evolutionary role as a motivator to investigate our surroundings.
Research has shown that the easiest way to alleviate the boredom of a task is to immerse yourself in it as much as possible. People who try and mitigate the boredom through multi-tasking, distraction or avoidance report overall higher levels than those who simply get on with the task at hand. Where that distraction or reward involves more mental stimulation, such as through social media, the overall level of boredom rose again.
Whether this is through increasing the apparent mundanity of the task, or because the constant stimulation of social media doesn’t prevent it from being boring, isn’t clear. What is clear though is that getting stuck into the boring task is the surest fire way of addressing it.
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