I'm dying of boredom,” complains the young wife, Yelena, in Chekhov’s 1897 play Uncle Vanya. “I don’t know what to do.” Of course, if Yelena were around today, we know how she’d alleviate her boredom: She’d pull out her smartphone and find something diverting, like BuzzFeed or Twitter or Clash of Clans. If you have a planet’s worth of entertainment in your pocket, it’s easy to stave off ennui.
Unless it turns out ennui is good for us. What if boredom is a meaningful experience—one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness or creativity?
That’s the conclusion of two fascinating recent studies. In one, researchers asked a group of subjects to do something boring, like copying out numbers from a phone book, and then take tests of creative thinking, such as devising uses for a pair of cups. The result? Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. In a second study, subjects who took an “associative thought” word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver.
Boredom might spark creativity because a restless mind hungers for stimulation. Maybe traversing an expanse of tedium creates a sort of cognitive forward motion. “Boredom becomes a seeking state,” says Texas A&M University psychologist Heather Lench. “What you’re doing now is not satisfying. So you’re seeking, you’re engaged.” A bored mind moves into a “daydreaming” state, says Sandi Mann, the psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire who ran the experiment with the cups. Parents will tell you that kids with “nothing to do” will eventually invent some weird, fun game to play—with a cardboard box, a light switch, whatever. Philosophers have intuited this for centuries; Kierkegaard described boredom as a prequel to creation: “The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings.”
The problem, the psychologists worry, is that these days we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We eliminate them. “We try to extinguish every moment of boredom in our lives with mobile devices,” Mann says. This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums. Noodling on your phone is “like eating junk food,” she says.
So here’s an idea: Instead of always fleeing boredom, lean into it. Sometimes, anyway. Mann has found she gets some of her best thinking done when she’s commuting by car and therefore can’t self-distract with her phone. When novelists talk about using Freedom, the software that shuts down one’s Internet connection, they often say it’s about avoiding distraction. But I suspect it’s also about enforcing a level of boredom in their day—useful, productive monotony.
And there is, of course, bad boredom. The good type motivates you to see what can come of it: “fructifying boredom,” as the philosopher Bertrand Russell called it. The bad type, in contrast, tires you, makes you feel like you can’t be bothered to do anything. (It has a name too: lethargic boredom.)
A crucial part of our modern task, then, is learning to assess these different flavors of ennui—to distinguish the useful kind from the stultifying. (Glancing at your phone in an idle moment isn’t always, or even often, a bad thing.) Boredom, it turns out, may be super-interesting.