Bored yet? You should be

By Kate Bussmann

Sloth, torpor, idleness. Forget the negative connotations, for it turns out they might actuallybe good for us. Kate Bussmann managed to put down her iPad and allowed her mind to wander for the purposes of research.

When was the last time you were bored? I'm not talking about the last time you felt boredom encroaching and reflexively reached for your phone or the remote control. I mean, when was the last time you allowed yourself to be bored? If you're anything like me, it's a sensation that you're heavily insured against.

I have a persistent pain in one shoulder from constantly carrying around an iPad containing several half-read books and four newspaper subscriptions so that I always have something to read over lunch or on my commute. I keep my set-top box loaded with episodes of series I want to watch, so that I don't need to risk there being nothing on television. And, like most people, I have a never-finished to-do list of financial and life admin that could fill all the spare, zoned-out minutes in the world - if only I could focus long enough to put my mind to it.

Boredom is something we avoid and even fear. We associate it with idleness, so, as we consider idleness a vice, it gets imbued with the same negative associations.

Today's children are scheduled like never before and, when they're not learning Mandarin, they have video games and tablet computers to entertain them. Adults are just the same.

In our culture, we don't take siestas when we're off-duty, we are in a perennial state of achieving tasks or absorbing information. We garden and cook, read books and Buzzfeed, retweet and "like" - if, that is, we're ever actually off-duty. "Being over-scheduled and overworked is the new status symbol: it shows we're in demand, that we've earned our good fortune," says Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, the author of the recent book The Distraction Addiction. "We're like landed gentry in reverse: we can't be seen to be at leisure." Today we rarely even realise we are experiencing boredom, so quickly do we move to mediate it. We fill a spare moment with distractions as soon as it materialises - and some believe that, as a result, we're missing out on something important: creatively, psychologically, even biologically.

Boredom, say many creative thinkers, from Grayson Perry to Michael Chabon, is the very thing that made them into creative thinkers in the first place. If we don't allow ourselves to be bored, some experts worry that our imaginations suffer or never develop at all. In the 1990s, after studying stories written by children and discovering many of them to be distinctly unimaginative, Teresa Belton, a researcher at the school of education and lifelong learning at the University of East Anglia, posited the theory that television was to blame.

"My reasoning was that if children felt bored they were likely to turn to the screen to fill the vacuum rather than pursue their own thoughts, invent their own occupations or watch the world go by, all of which are likely to support imaginative development," she tells me.

"Being bored lets you stand back from life and observe it. And because our minds don't like to be unoccupied, it gives you the impetus to create your own mental activity."

Boredom needn't only mean doing nothing; it can also be what you feel as you do something ostensibly mindless, such as hanging out laundry. There is evidence to suggest that simple activities can foster more creativity than letting your mind drift totally or even concentrating hard. When people are given a creativity problem, such as to think of as many different uses for a brick as possible, and then, given either a hard task, no task at all or an easy, boring task to perform before they write down their list, those in the last group come up with more uses than anyone. It's an effect called the "incubation advantage", and according to Jonathan Smallwood, a psychologist at the University of York who specialises in the study of mind-wandering, "it suggests that people use this free time to consciously or unconsciously generate solutions to problems".

This is just one of many recent discoveries made in what is a very fertile area of science.

Over the past decade scans have shown that, contrary to what people used to believe, the brain "at rest" is incredibly busy, with distant regions acting in a co-ordinated way. This, says Smallwood, "suggests there is a deeper underlying biological necessity for this to take place" - although what that necessity is has yet to be established.

More clear is what's going on psychologically. Recently Smallwood's team discovered that when our minds wander we tend to think about the future, an important skill because it gives our species "freedom from immediacy", meaning we can make decisions based on future rewards - such as saving for a pension rather than spending all our cash at once.

What's more, his team has found that "the people who tend to be the most patient over long-term decisions were the same people who did most of the daydreaming".

But not all boredom is the same.

Thomas Gotz, a professor of empirical educational research at the University of Konstanz in Germany, last year brought the number of types that scientists have identified to five.

Boredom is classified using two scales running from one to five: from positive to negative (its "valence"), and from calm to fidgety (or "arousal"). Two of the types, "indifferent" and "calibrating" boredom, are quite upbeat, and the most likely to be creative: the former is rated two in valence and one in arousal, and is something you might experience when you're very relaxed; the latter is rated 3/2 and is an open-minded feeling. "Searching" boredom (3/3) is more neutral, while "reactant" (4/4) and "apathetic" (4/1) boredom, which may be associated with depression, are the most unpleasant.

Over the past few weeks I've been trying to let myself be bored and to note the type. A confirmed distraction addict, I often found it torturous but, at times, surprisingly rewarding. One Saturday, when my hairdresser was running 15 minutes behind schedule, rather than going through my unread emails, I left my phone in my bag and simply looked around - a state that was definitely "indifferent". Long car journeys without the radio and solo lunches without reading matter were harder: "searching" verging on "reactant". And given its association with depression, I was alarmed to find that a 4pm slump can register as "apathetic" - though it didn't last long enough to need medicating with anything stronger than chocolate.

The most dangerous of those states, though, might not be ones that feel most negative.

"When you look at violent behaviour, a number of people say they did it because they were bored," says Gotz. "This might be the result of searching boredom when it goes in the wrong direction - even though it's actually neutral in nature." A case in point: one of the people convicted of sending threatening tweets to the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, Isabella Sorley, said that she was "bored" when she did so. And, of course, when our minds wander, bad things can happen. An article in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) in 2012 suggested that half of all car crashes may be caused by a driver zoning out: clearly not a concern that had occurred to the Californian woman issued a ticket last October for wearing Google Glass at the wheel. Others believe our addiction to distraction is making bad Samaritans of us. In September a student named Justin Valdez was shot and killed on a crowded train in San Francisco: security cameras showed the culprit waving his gun around beforehand, but not a soul noticed - they were too preoccupied by their phones and tablets to look up.

The idea that idleness is a vice is nothing new. According to Benjamin Snyder, a sociologist at Victoria University, it can be traced to 4th-century Benedictine monks who tried to devise ways "to push each other to pray as constantly and intensely as possible day after day. The monks frequently encountered sleepiness, boredom and exhaustion, so they came up with ways to deal with that. They designed special seats that would prop the body upright so that it was harder to fall asleep while praying through the night."

Fast-forward 1000 years, and that religious "culture of vigilance" (working constantly at one thing) had evolved into the modern "culture of busyness" (working constantly at as many things as you can). Busyness, Snyder argues, "arose in response to the new ambitious, competitive, urban lives pursued during the Renaissance and Reformation by European elites who were engaged in the outer world of business".

That competitiveness persists to this day, from the workplace to the classroom. "I think it has something to do with our need to be shown to be doing, producing, achieving or attaining something at school," says Belton. "And I also think, because we live in this commodified world, it can be easy to feel that we're no longer responsible for our own lives, that it has to be presented to us from outside. In this fast, competitive, productive and self-conscious world, simply sitting and gazing into the middle distance doesn't happen very much."

"Distraction has become commodified, and technology companies have become very good at designing traps for capturing our attention," agrees Pang. He cites the example of Netflix, which automatically queues up the next episode of a show, and apps that flash notifications on the home screen of your phone. The solution, he believes, is "contemplative computing": taking back control from the devices in our lives.

The author Jonathan Franzen has taken this idea to an extreme: he writes on a computer erased of all possible distraction, having removed not just Solitaire, but the wireless card that connects it to the internet. Others swear by "digital sabbaths", switching off their phones one day a week.

The German anthropologist Joana Breidenbach has gained a level of fame for her annual out-of-office message, which explains that all messages sent while she's away in August will be automatically deleted. Presumably, she also favours the trend for "digital detox holidays", popular with Silicon Valley execs, where you hand over your phone at check-in.

Still for many of us, the idea of letting boredom bloom remains too petrifying to contemplate. But after my distraction sabbatical, to my surprise I've learnt that leaving my phone in my bag on the Tube makes me happier and calmer.

So what exactly are we afraid of? In her recent novel The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt writes, "People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and practised yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their houses and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbours and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organisations and supported political candidates and attended the US Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were."

Could it be, heaven forbid, that we might be bored with ourselves?

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