Is boredom always bad? Here Dr Tim Hill explores how boredom can be beneficial, and how social media may be stopping us from realising these benefits.
We’ve heard the phrase ‘unprecedented times’ a lot in recent years. The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted society at almost every level – reshaping our economy, our workplaces and our lifestyles. The lockdown restrictions imposed by many governments across the globe also isolated us in a way that most people had never experienced before.
Time passed differently across these two years. We were forbidden from seeing our loved ones and participating in our normal routines. For the first time in most people’s lives they experienced real solitude; endless days at home with little to do. Those who’d been furloughed from their jobs in particular must have experienced a truly unique sense of monotony and restlessness.
During this period, social media was a lifesaver for many. It gave us a way to connect with our friends and family; a respite from the seclusion. With nowhere else to get stimulation, it was a way to pass the time, and break the tedium of isolating at home.
A rare chance to get really bored
Our recent study looked at how people experienced boredom during the pandemic, and the effect this had on their lives. Contrary to popular belief, our research found that boredom could in fact be a positive state. But we also found that social media use may have had detrimental effects, by preventing us from getting to the point of ‘profound’ boredom.
This work, co-authored with Professor Pierre McDonagh, Dr Stephen Murphy and Amanda Flaherty discovered an unexpected side effect to the enforced solitude and lack of stimulation brought by the covid restrictions. This state provided people with a rare opportunity to get beyond ‘superficial boredom’ and realise ‘profound boredom’.
Though it may seem preferable to avoid ‘profound boredom’, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger tells us that it actually lead to more creative thinking and activities. When we reach profound boredom we’re likely to take steps to do something about our lethargy – for example learning a new skill or developing a new hobby.
Heidegger’s theory of boredom
Heidegger tells us that there are two types of boredom:
Superficial boredom – the most common state, in which we feel restless. We experience this fairly regularly, for example while waiting for a train or in a queue. This is a familiar state and many of us choose to distract ourselves using social media and mobile devices to escape this restlessness.
Profound boredom – a state of existential discomfort. We reach it only after extensive amount of uninterrupted solitude. It can lead to apathy, indifference and depression but may also lead to inspiration and new ways of thinking.
Profound boredom would be unusual outside pandemic conditions, in which certain “lucky” individuals had huge amounts of paid spare time which needed filling. Indeed, we saw examples of how this state spawned new skills and hobbies from the sudden interest in baking that seemed to proliferate across the country (banana bread anyone?).
However, our research showed that social media can alleviate superficial boredom and stop people progressing to profound boredom.
Though it may have felt better in the moment, people who used social media in this way may have missed an opportunity to enter a state in which they could have found more meaningful passions or interests.
The benefits of boredom
Marketing research sees boredom as a relatively new phenomenon, linked to the development of consumer culture. Boredom is the inevitable opposing condition to the state of stimulation/ interest/enjoyment that brands tell us we should continually seek out. In fact, most consumer research presents boredom as a negative state – a condition to be relieved through spending money.
In our study we wanted to understand what would happen if people were denied the opportunity for most of the shared ‘consumption experiences’ (for example, going to a restaurant, a cinema, a museum, a concert, a shopping centre etc) that bring us stimulation or enjoyment, and allow us to participate in society. We wanted to find out how people would connect, and create their own experiences, divorced from the regular market.
Our research shows that boredom can be incredibly positive, if people get the opportunity for uninterrupted thinking and development. While our social media finding was fairly incidental, it’s an important reflection on our ‘always on-culture’, where we feel lost without our phones on a train journey or need to start scrolling through twitter as soon as we’re alone.
Though we obviously can’t – and wouldn’t want to – replicate the extreme isolation and disconnection that we experienced during the pandemic. But perhaps we should learn to appreciate boredom - lean into occasional nothingness. It might be the route to new discoveries.