Imagine this, you’re led into a room and asked to sit quietly.
You look around.
The room is white. Your chair is functional. There’s no other furniture; no pictures, no rug on the floor.
There’s no sounds or smells.
You are alone.
Instinctively you reach for your phone, then recall it was taken from you.
You become edgy, uncomfortable. You feel lost. Minutes pass, but nothing happens. Seven, maybe eight more minutes pass – each minute slower than the last. Nothing. Your mind whimpers with boredom, complaining over and over again that there’s nothing to do.
You look down at the switch-box in your hand.
You see the wires running from the box to your chest, and you recall the instructions:
- If you press the switch-box button, you’ll instantly receive an electric shock.
- It will hurt.
- It’s your choice whether to push the button.
What would you do?
People vs Boredom
When Professor Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia led hundreds of undergrads one-by-one into a nondescript room and asked them to sit quietly for up to 15 minutes, two out of three male students (interestingly, only one in four females) became so uncomfortable that they pressed the button and shocked themselves. They picked pain over boredom.
Let me say that again in case you missed the what-the-fuck tone:
Two thirds of young men would rather inflict pain on themselves than sit quietly and think.
Cavemen & Boredom
Evolution can only partly explain why we dislike boredom so much.
Our club-dragging, monobrowed ancestors were more likely to live long and procreative lives if they explored, created or solved problems rather than sit around the cave bored out of their tiny minds, staring at the space where a TV would appear in another 100,000 years.
But surely, two thirds of cavemen and a quarter of cavewomen did not detest boredom so much that they self-administered pain rather than sit around doing nothing – presumably, a good-sized portion of the troglodyte weekday?
The Boredom Epidemic
Boredom researcher Sandi Mann (this piece draws on his book The Science of Boredom: The Upside and Downside of Boredom) says the avoid-at-all-costs type of boredom that Professor Wilson’s experiment highlights is a relatively new phenomenon.
Modern humans seem to be more susceptible to boredom. It’s also becoming clear that ever-increasing screen time is fuelling the boredom epidemic.
The Opposite of Boredom is not Excitement
Watching television, scrolling through social media or aimlessly surfing the net take about as much brain power as scratching.
Researchers call this type of screen time ‘passive stimulation’. It’s brain candy.
It doesn’t fire up your brain, so it quickly recedes into boredom. There’s only so much Kardashian news post-pubescent humans can tolerate.
There’s no doubting our screens are addictive.
Like any other addictive activity (eating, shopping, heroin), screens reliably deliver that warm, gooey spurt of endorphins we love so much.
We’ve become screen junkies. Boredom to buzz. Buzz to boredom. Repeat. Never really satisfied.
Sound familiar? That’s because it’s classic pleasure seeking, which distracts from happiness rather than builds it.
Sandi Mann believes boredom doesn’t deserve its newly-acquired reputation for being universally despised.
Boredom is a helpful trigger for creativity, problem solving and reflection. It’s particularly important for kids. They need to get out of their screens and feel boredom. This boots their brains out of ‘passive stimulation’ and connects them to the real world or the infinite worlds of their imagination.
Luckily, Mann is not suggesting we sit around all day practicing being bored. He advises us to not reach for the iPhone at the first hint of boredom. Instead, find something to do that switches on your brain.
It’s far better to occupy ourselves with ‘active stimulation’, such as sports, hobbies or interests. Or something that challenges or inspires. Or, if you want to veg out, reading is far better than screen time.
Another way to beat boredom is to change the way you see it.
Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 movie The Room was so boring it became known as the Citizen Kane of bad movies.
Time Magazine described it as:
…a Koch snowflake of badness, wherein any scene has an infinite number of things wrong with it.
They weren’t kidding, take a look at the trailer:
For film buffs, the movie was 99 minutes of cringey, tedium. Variety reported fewer than 200 people attended the opening weekend screenings. Boring with a capital Zzzzz.
Yet The Room became a cult favourite akin to the Rocky Horror Picture Show, with midnight screening playings to packed houses for years. It was so beloved, James Franco and Seth Rogen made a film about it last year. The Disaster Artist was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 90th Academy Awards. Huh?
Tommy’s movie scrapped in $1600 on its opening weekend. Franco and Rogen’s raked in $1.2 million.
Why? The audiences had different expectations. It’s all perspective.
Sometimes we resign ourselves to a long, boring drive to get to our destination. Other times, we wind down the windows, crank the tunes and yell ‘ROAD TRIP’. Same road. Same car. Different experience.
Generation X and Boredom
So, what does this mean for Generation X?
Short of ailments or being hit by a bus, nothing will shorten your retirement like boredom.
Boredom can lead to depression, anxiety, anger and a bunch of behavioural issues, like alcohol and drug addictions.
Fast lanes to the grave.
Researchers are also finding that some people are naturally more prone to boredom.
If you’re curious, here’s a quiz (developed by researchers Richard Farmer & Norman D. Sundberg) that rates how susceptible to boredom you are.