Pros and cons of boredom

Fleeting moments of boredom are universal and can cause us grief, but those bouts of inertia can also catalyse stimulating changes in our life, reports the Sydney Morning Herald.

Although boredom is common, it is neither trivial nor benign, says Dr John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University, Toronto, and joint author of The Unengaged Mind, a new paper on the theory of boredom.

Boredom, Eastwood points out, has been associated with increased drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, depression and anxiety, and an increased risk of making mistakes. Mistakes at work might not be a matter of life and death for most of us, but if you are an air traffic controller, pilot or nuclear power plant operator, they most certainly can be.

People who have suffered extreme trauma are more likely to report boredom than those who have had a less eventful time. The theory is that they shut down emotionally and find it harder to work out what they need. They may be left with free-floating desire, without knowing what to pin it on. This lack of emotional awareness can affect anyone.

Frustrated dreamers who haven’t realised their goals can expend all their emotional energy on hating themselves or the world, and find they have no attention left for anything else. Bungee jumpers and thrill-seekers may also be particularly susceptible to boredom, as they feel the world isn’t moving fast enough for them.

”Boredom isn’t a nice feeling, so we have an urge to eradicate it and cope with it in a counterproductive way,” Eastwood says. This may be what drives people to destructive behaviours such as gambling, overeating, alcohol and drug abuse, he says, though research is needed to tease out whether there’s a direct causal link. ”The problem is we’ve become passive recipients of stimulation,” Eastwood says. ”We say, ‘I’m bored, so I’ll put on the TV or go to a loud movie.’ But boredom is like quicksand: the more we thrash around, the quicker we’ll sink.”

Dr Esther Priyadharshini, a senior lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia, in England, has studied boredom and says it can be seen in a positive light. ”We can’t avoid boredom – it’s an inevitable human emotion,” she says.

“We have to accept it as legitimate and find ways it can be harnessed. We all need downtime, away from the constant bombardment of stimulation. There’s no need to be in a frenzy of activity at all times. “

Guardian News & Media/ Sydney Morning Herald 18 October

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