Updated: Feb 1, 2019
With Christmas over, school holidays here, and people getting back to work, sometimes it seems like boredom is the enemy. According to a new study from the University of Waterloo in Canada, however, boredom can be a wondrous state that's full of potential for new and amazing things. While the negative feelings that often accompany boredom are there for a reason, you can learn to see it as a call to action rather than a reason to get anxious or depressed.
According to James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, "Boredom is an unpleasant or uncomfortable feeling of being unoccupied... It's commonly accompanied by restlessness and agitation as well, because you recognise that you have this desire to engage with the world but you can't figure out what will satisfy that desire."
It turns out that boredom could have a very important biological and psychological function, with people unlikely to look for new things until they've had enough of their existing reality. In the past, this may have manifested as exploration, new art movements, and novel scientific discoveries. Basically, anything new that hadn't been experienced before may have had its roots in boredom.
In fact, boredom may be an even more primal response to evolutionary stagnation. According to Professor Danckert, "From an evolutionary point of view, if you stay in one place for too long … you make yourself vulnerable to predators and you miss out on opportunity costs... Boredom is one signal that says, you've been here too long, go do something else."
As we all know, however, boredom is not always a positive thing. While it's full of potential, the actual state of boredom is negative, agitated, and often feels out of our control. When these feelings are prolonged, they can lead to serious issues such as anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and problems with impulsive and compulsive lack of control. The distinct emotional experience of boredom is more common in children and young adults, with negative behavioural patterns possibly enduring into adulthood.
According to Professor Danckert, this is all down to the developing brain: "The theory I have is that as you head into the pre-teen and teenager years, you're starting to develop adult style cognitive skills … but their world is still massively constrained - by school, by parental control. So they get these skills and they can't fully utilise them." Kids need to learn how to harness these feelings at an early age, not covering them up with pointless activities but recognising them and transforming them into something productive that's integrated with their wider personality.
From a practical perspective, you can either let something new grow from the boredom or develop a fresh insight by changing your perspective. According to Professor Danckert, "If you're in a situation when you can choose, then choose to engage a skill and cultivate a practice... If you can't choose, then re-frame the situation to be more meaningful to you."