The Surprising Benefits of Boredom
A boring life may not be something many of us strive for, but the truth is, occasional boredom may actually have a number of health benefits.
That’s right — allowing yourself to be bored more often can pay off in terms of your productivity, creativity, and ability to handle stress. On the other hand, if you force yourself to be focused and productive 24/7, you might actually be self-sabotaging your ability to be calm and content long term.
Psychologists believe there’s a happy medium when it comes to boredom: We don’t want to experience too much or too little. Let’s look at what causes boredom, what types of problems and perks it can lead to, plus the best ways to handle it when it arises.
What Is Boredom?
Boredom is defined as the state of being bored, meaning lacking enthusiasm or interest.
You can think of boredom as a deficit in meaning. It happens when you aren’t engaged in anything active or you are doing something but you don’t care about it.
According to experts who have studied boredom, there are three different types:
- mundane boredom, such as waiting inline
- profound malaise, meaning a feeling of discontent with the general experience of life
- the ineffable deficit or feeling like something is missing, usually, something that is familiar to us
In other words, what’s called “simple boredom” (or mundane) seems to be easier to manage and even beneficial, since it can cause us to notice more things around us and seek out interesting tasks. On the other hand, “existential boredom” describes a sense of emptiness and alienation, which can take a toll on one’s mental health.
What does boredom do to a person?
Ultimately it depends on the individual since some enjoy downtime and boring moments more than others.
Boredom can sometimes lead to behaviors and symptoms such as:
- Feelings of restlessness and anxiety
- Emotional eating
- Brain fog
- Sadness or disappointment — in other words, the sensation that something is missing or that we’re missing a worthwhile opportunity (aka FOMO)
- Depression symptoms — depression can have a connection to boredom, which experts believe might be due to how some bored people perceive their lives; they may think that they lack meaningful relationships, purpose, passion, imagination, or initiative
- Higher risk for substance abuse (researchers show that teenagers who report being bored frequently may be 50% more likely to start smoking, drinking, and using illegal drugs compared to non-bored peers)
- Higher risk for reckless acts, like driving dangerously, dropping out of school, becoming unemployed, or gambling irresponsibly
What causes boredom?
What are the underlying reasons why we feel bored? Experts believe that the main causes of boredom include a lack of meaning (we don’t care much about something we’re doing) and a breakdown in attention (we can’t seem to focus on a task or activity).
When we’re in a situation that doesn’t feel engaging or seems pointless, this is when boredom strikes.
There are lots of different times in our lives when we might feel bored, such as:
- When doing monotonous chores around the house.
- When driving or commuting to work.
- When exercising, if we don’t find the activity to be fun or rewarding.
- When having conversations with people we don’t find interesting.
- When watching, listening to, or reading something that we find dull.
Certain personality traits make people more susceptible to being bored, including low self-control, anxiety symptoms, impulsivity, depression, and substance use. Those with certain personality disorders, such as borderline personality disorder, may also struggle with feeling bored, which can cause anxiety.
Those who struggle with fatigue, due to health issues or poor sleep, may also find themselves in boring situations more often because they lack the energy to seek out fun experiences. Even people who have suffered certain brain disorders or head trauma that impact the orbitofrontal cortex are more prone to boredom since this area of the frontal lobe affects feelings of reward.
Interestingly, researchers have found that people tend to experience the most boredom when they are teenagers and the least when they are in their 50s. It makes sense that there would be fewer boring moments midlife because this is when most people have the most responsibilities, such as work, family, school, volunteering, hobbies, etc.
Boredom tends to increase slightly among the elderly, as this is when many people are retired, socialize less, have less energy, and may be more cognitively impaired.
Potential Benefits of Boredom
Here’s the good news: Although it doesn’t feel very exciting to be bored, if you lean into the experience it can actually wind up improving your life. As one article published by Psychology Today put it: “Boredom is a catalyst for change and an opportunity for reflection.”
Potential benefits of boredom can include:
- Increasing self-awareness about what you do and don’t enjoy.
- Tapping into your imagination and creativity, in part because you’re more likely to daydream when bored. Boredom can be especially helpful for children because it encourages self-entertainment and self-reliance.
- Boosting relationship skills and conflict resolution, since it gives you the opportunity to think over past arguments or mistakes.
- Encouraging you to rethink your priorities and shift to something more fulfilling. (For example, if you’re frequently very bored at work you might choose to consider another career.)
- Making you seek out novel experiences, which can open your mind and perspective.
- Reducing procrastination. If you have free time, this can be the push you need to start a project or complete a task. That being said, some people use procrastination and boredom to avoid confronting painful thoughts.
How to Relieve/Treat Boredom
How can you relieve boredom, and also importantly, should you even try to?
The key to using boredom and downtime to your benefit is to find activities that are both meaningful and engaging. Here are some ideas for doing that:
1. Less Screen Time, More Self-Care
Instead of scrolling on your phone or other devices when you have spare time, use the opportunity to unplug and focus on self-care, such as by meditating, doing breathing exercises, taking a walk outside, or straightening up your living space.
Researchers believe that lots of electronic device use during free time, including social media use, can increase anxiety and depression. If you use this time to take care of yourself in other ways, you’re much more likely to feel calm, content, and clear-headed, which helps you deal with stress.
2. Get Into a Flow State
A “flow state” describes being fully engaged in a task. It happens when a task is neither too hard nor too easy, but just hard enough that it requires our full effort and concentration.
It’s naturally rewarding to be in flow and basically the opposite of being bored.
What are some ways to get into flow? Pick an activity that challenges you, and do it while undistracted. Try:
- a different type of exercise or sport
- a new board game or computer game
- something creative, like making art of music
- riding your bike somewhere scenic
- concentrating on a work project for 30 minutes straight
- building something with your hands
3. Combine Something Stimulating With Something Boring
When you’re doing something mundane, such as chores or commuting, try also doing something that’s enjoyable at the same time. For example, redirect your attention to a different activity, such as listening to music or a podcast or doodling when studying, cleaning, or exercising.
4. Sharpen Your Mental Abilities
To keep your brain in tip-top shape as you age, do things that stimulate your mind, such as crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles, learning a new language or new recipes, taking an outline course, and so on. Bonus: Many of these are great for improving your focus and memory.
No matter your age, when you’re sitting around daydreaming or relaxing, you can also try planning or preparing for the day or week to come.
Make mental lists in your mind, or try practicing visualization, in which you imagine in detail how a scenario will turn out. You can also mentally list things that you’re grateful for that happened that day, which is great for lowering stress.
5. Use Your Skills and Talents for Something Meaningful
Find activities that give you both a sense of agency and that contribute to the greater good. You can volunteer your time or resources to a local organization, or do something such as writing helpful blog posts giving other people advice.
When you use your free time to make other people’s lives better, it’s a win-win, since it also boosts your happiness and sense of meaning at the same time.
- When we’re bored, we lack enthusiasm or interest. We might be doing nothing at all or doing something that doesn’t hold our attention or doesn’t seem to have a real purpose.
- What are the symptoms and signs of boredom? There are both pros and cons of boredom. Too much can cause anxiety, restlessness, and depression, while too little doesn’t leave enough time for us to rest, reflect and be imaginative.
- Psychologists believe that a little boredom is a good thing because it has the power to motivate us to pursue new goals and novel experiences. It can help improve self-awareness, conflict resolution, and planning.
- If you find yourself in boring situations more often than you’d like, seek out activities that are stimulating, new and meaningful. You can volunteer, read, exercise, make art, listen to music, cook, or clean.