You utter this phrase during those rare moments when you find yourself in waiting rooms or long lines without the comforting distraction of a book or smartphone: “bored to death.” You probably didn’t know it wasn't just an expression.
A pair of researchers from University College London surveyed more than 7,500 British civil servants in the 1980s, and found that people who reported a great deal of boredom were more likely to be dead when they followed up in 2009, especially from some sort of cardiac event.
Admittedly, the connection was merely correlative -- "someone who is bored may not be motivated to eat well, exercise, and have a heart-healthy lifestyle. That may make them more likely to have a cardiovascular event," Harvard University cardiologist Christopher Cannon told the Associated Press in 2010.
Though boredom alone won’t kill you, it does seem to go with factors that are likely to shorten your life: drug and alcohol use, depression, and impulsive behaviors like gambling. In one study where a group of 139 undergraduates was asked about what emotions prompted them to eat, boredom was most frequently cited.
Clearly, the consequences of boredom are not just in the head.
The Wall Street Journal recently profiled some of the researchers at the cutting edge of boredom research, who have to come up with ever more elaborate ways of inducing boredom in subjects and attend talks at the Boring Conference (yes, really) in East London. They’re looking for ways to better understand boredom from a neurological perspective – how neurons might fail in a way that makes attention wander.
Not all boredom is bad, though. And with everyone now equipped with a constellation of devices to amuse or distract, boredom may be an endangered feeling. “Dilbert” cartoonist Scott Adams mounted a defense of boredom as a catalyst for creativity in a 2011 article for the Wall Street Journal.
“I've noticed that my best ideas always bubble up when the outside world fails in its primary job of frightening, wounding or entertaining me,” Adams wrote.
Psychological experiments seem to confirm this phenomenon. Researchers from the University of Central Lancashire in England found that people subjected to a boring task – like copying numbers out of a phone book for 15 minutes – before a creative thinking exercise performed better than those who went straight to trying to be creative.
"I do strongly believe that we shouldn’t be afraid of boredom and that we all – adults, children, workers, non-workers – need a little bit of boredom in our lives," UCLan researcher Sandi Mann told the website ScienceOmega. "Of course I’m not saying we should make people attend boring meetings for the sake of it, but allowing staff downtime where they can daydream and let their minds wander could possibly lead to benefits for an organization."
Still, boredom isn’t something people readily embrace. Witness anyone waiting alone at a bar in New York City these days – they’re more likely to be staring into a screen than out the window.
That drive to escape boredom is understandable. In a certain light, boredom becomes almost terrifyingly fascinating – the dark flip side to the restless spirit that drives human creativity.
“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there,” ruminates one of the characters in David Foster Wallace’s novel "The Pale King." “Surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do.”