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Leadership

The Science Behind How Boredom Benefits Creative Thought

Recent studies show that a little boredom in your day opens up the potential for more creative thinking.

[Photo: Flickr user Louis Rabin]

Boredom gets a bad rap. Truly amazing ideas and offbeat solutions have often come from endless hours of daydreaming.

If space and time is what you need to make unusual connections, then why does the daydreaming that comes out of boredom have such negative connotations?

The popular belief is the result of numerous past studies that found people with "boredom proneness" as lacking excitement and becoming easily frustrated or weary in challenging situations. But recent research finds that being bored promotes creative association and pushes one to find deeper meaning and satisfaction.

In one study, researchers Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood of Pennsylvania State University found that participants who were bored outperformed those who were relaxed, elated, or distressed on creativity tests. First, the participants were asked to watch video clips designed to elicit specific feelings. Next, the participants were given two creativity tests. One is called the remote associate’s test where you’re given three seemingly unrelated words and you have to figure out the connection to provide a fourth word. In the second test, Gasper and Middlewood provided their participants with a category and asked them to come up with an example.

"If you were asked to think of vehicles, the first thing that comes to mind might be a car," Gasper tells Fast Company, "but if you’re bored, you might be more likely to say that a camel is an example of a vehicle. So you see how things that might remotely seem connected are connected to what you’re thinking about," she says.

In another recent study researchers Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire tested the creative-boosting power of boredom in two studies. In the first study, the 80 participants were asked to either copy numbers from a phone book or not (control group) followed by an exercise to think of as many possible uses for a pair of plastic cups. The group who had suffered through the phone book task thought of more creative uses.

In the second study, Mann and Cadman created three groups: one that copied numbers, one that read the numbers, and the lucky ones who were excused from all mundane tasks. Again, the researchers found that the group reading the phone book, or the most bored, had the highest creativity juices.

The study says: "The writing task might hinder the daydreaming thought to be necessary for creativity to be enhanced, due to it interfering with the propensity for attention to wander. For example, doodling when bored improved cognitive performance for students and it is thought this was due to it interfering with daydreaming."

Why does boredom lead us to such great creativity powers?

Researcher Andreas Elpidorou of the University of Louisville writes in a journal article that "boredom helps to restore the perception that one's activities are meaningful or significant," meaning it acts as a "regulatory state that keeps one in line with one's projects. In the absence of boredom, one would remain trapped in unfulfilling situations, and miss out on many emotionally, cognitively, and socially rewarding experiences. Boredom is both a warning that we are not doing what we want to be doing and a ‘push’ that motivates us to switch goals and projects."

Gasper and Middlewood also found that bored individuals seek out and engage in satisfying activities—much like happy people do."Boredom operates similarly to feeling happy or excited," says Gasper. "It results in you trying to approach something that, in this case, is more meaningful or interesting. It encourages people to explore because it signals that your current situation is lacking so it’s kind of a push to seek out something new."

In more industrial times, people who had boredom proneness might have slowed down work because creativity wasn’t as important as it is today. The next time you find yourself bored at work, go ahead and let your mind wander. Based on the recent findings, you should embrace this state of boredom because feelings and emotions highly affect the things you think about.

If you allow yourself to daydream, then you’re allowing yourself a chance to make positive connections. If you find yourself without any great ideas, try boring yourself even more by answering emails or doodling.

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