My mom used to call boredom the “b-word.” If I wanted to make her hopping mad (which I usually didn’t), all I had to do was say I was bored. Her problem with boredom was philosophical as much as anything. If you were bored, it wasn’t because there was nothing to do. It was because you hadn’t put enough effort into keeping yourself busy.
It turns out that Mom wasn’t wrong.
Boredom has become trendy. Studies point to how boredom is good for creativity and innovation, as well as mental health. For example, a 2014 study published in the Creativity Research Journal found that people were more creative following the completion of a tedious task. Another piece of research published in the same year by the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that when people were bored, they had an increase in “associative thought”—the process of making new connections between ideas, which is linked to innovative thinking. These studies are impressive, but in reality, the benefits of boredom may be related to having time to clear your mind, be quiet, or daydream.
The truth about boredom
The truth is, pure boredom isn’t pleasant. One study published in Science found that participants (67% of men and 25% of women) chose to administer an electric shock to themselves rather than to sit and think quietly for 6 to 15 minutes. In addition, a Washington State University study shows boredom is on the rise, especially in adolescent girls. This is a problem, since boredom can have negative consequences that lead to everything from overeating to issues with drugs, drinking, or gambling.
In our stimulation-rich world, it seems unrealistic that boredom could occur at all. Yet, there are legitimate reasons boredom may feel so painful. As it turns out, boredom might signal the fact that you have a need that isn’t being met.
Boredom can point to a need for more connections
Our always-on world of social media may result in more connections, but they are superficial and can get in the way of building a real sense of belonging. Feeling bored may signal the desire for a greater sense of community and the feeling that you fit in with others around you. So take the step of joining a club, organization, or association to build face-to-face relationships and create new friendships. You’ll find depth that you won’t get from your screen no matter how many likes you get on your post.
Boredom can point to a need to contribute
Similar to the need for belonging, bored people often report that they feel a limited sense of meaning. It’s a fundamental human need to have a larger purpose and to feel like we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. A 2007 University of Mississippi study found that when people are bored, they’re more likely to feel less meaning in their lives and vice versa. Conversely, a 2016 study by the University of Southampton found that when people volunteered, their happiness increased. If you want to reduce boredom and increase your sense of meaning, seek work that matters to you where you can make a unique contribution, or find a cause you can support with your time and talents.
Boredom can suggest that you need more challenge in your life
People have varying needs for stimulation and adrenaline rushes, but in general, boredom may be a signal that you need to push yourself a bit. This could be a stretch at work or in your leisure activities. After all, happiness is correlated with being challenged and developing new skills, and scrolling through your social media accounts doesn’t meet this requirement. So find opportunities to try new things, whether it’s skydiving, taking on a tough project at work, or starting a hobby that provides a fun outlet.
Boredom may suggest you need more diversity
One of the aspects of boredom is feeling like things are the same from day to day and week to week. Some predictability is good for mental health, but you may also need some variety in your life. Invite people of different backgrounds into your friend group, join the unexpected interest group at work, or read more widely on unusual topics. The key is to broaden your perspective and change what you’re exposed to regularly.
Boredom may signal the need for depth
In The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, journalist Nicholas Carr makes a strong case for the ways our brains have been rewired to glaze the surface of things, rather than to go deep. But the ability to have more depth, process deeply, and get into flow are hallmarks of empathy, connectedness, and happiness. Find a project that you can lose yourself in, because it’s so exciting, or set aside time to solve a thorny problem. These kinds of deep thinking can go far in alleviating boredom.
If your definition of boredom is being quiet, mindful, and meditative, keep it up. But if you’re wrestling with real boredom and the emptiness it provokes, consider whether you might seek new connections, more meaning, more significant challenges, diversity of experiences, or more depth in your efforts. These are the things that will genuinely alleviate boredom and make you more effective in the process.
Tracy Brower, PhD, MM, MCRw, is a sociologist focused on work, workers, and workplace, working for Steelcase. She is the author of Bring Work to Life by Bringing Life to Work: A Guide for Leaders and Organizations.