Life has always had distractions, from the Black Plague to television, but these days distraction feels like a way of life. "It's hard to be bored almost anywhere," cultural anthropologist Genevieve Bell said in a 2011 TEDx talk. Digital devices seem designed to "prevent us from ever being bored"—they connect us to everything but our idle thoughts. It's not entirely a stretch to say that smartphones are to boredom what the asteroid was to dinosaurs.
Some will welcome the end of boredom with a thumbs up. In addition to the obvious benefits of digital ubiquity—being able, say, to pull up Genevieve Bell's 2011 TEDx talk on a whim—boredom was always kind of, well, boring. Studies have associated the feeling with lower work performance and job satisfaction, and higher anger and property damage. One can imagine public health impacts in the form of drug use, distracted driving, or overconsumption of food and Kardashians.
But there's also evidence that boredom has a beneficial side that's at risk of being lost in the ether. Think about it from an evolutionary perspective: If nothing in our lives ever got dull, our minds might get overwhelmed, and make it harder to pay attention to the important things (or, more critically, the urgent threats). There are compelling upsides in the shorter view, too. Bored people let their minds wander towards more productive ends. They daydream. They write a song or try a new hobby. Or nine months later they add a member to their family.
In other words, being a little bored can make people a lot more creative. Psychologists Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman of the University of Central Lancashire, in the United Kingdom, recently put this idea to the test. They asked a group of test participants either to read or copy names from a telephone directory. Afterwards, the participants tried their hand at two brainstorming tasks. Other participants, who served as test controls, skipped the boring old phone book and went straight to the brainstorming.
The tasks certainly required some creative thinking. One asked participants to come up with imaginative uses for a pair of polystyrene cups. (May we suggest holding them to your head like antlers, and pretending one of the "antlers" fell off?) The other asked them to list potential consequences to "global narcolepsy." On both tasks, the participants who had been bored by the phone book came up with more ideas—and ideas judged to be more creative—than the controls.
"[T]hese studies add weight to the evidence that suggests that boredom can sometimes be a force for good," Mann and Cadman write in the Creativity Research Journal.
Another recent study reached a similar conclusion. Researchers assigned test participants a random video clip (some boring, others exciting, distressing, and relaxing) then gave them a common creativity task called the remote association test. On the task, participants see three words (e.g. sore, shoulder, and sweat) and have to come up with a fourth word that those words have in common (in this case, cold). Those who watched the boring video did better than those who watched the relaxing or distressing ones, and just as well as those who watched the exciting one.
So boredom can be inspiring even as it's tiring. The researchers of the second study, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, interpret this to mean that the creative power of boredom lies in more than just a desire to escape a dull situation. After all, if being bored simply drove people to avoid boredom, they wouldn't necessarily score better on creative tasks—you can be distracted without being imaginative. Instead, the researchers argue, it's possible that boredom actually signals an urge to seek out new experiences.
Boredom, they conclude, may nudge people into approaching rewarding activities in a "broad and explorative manner" rather than "merely avoiding tedious activities."
What do these insights mean for the end of the boredom? The easy answer is that creativity may suffer in proportion with the rise of distraction. To some extent it might. But it's also possible—as Genevieve Bell suggests toward the end of her talk—that people will instead find ways to carve out little pockets of disconnected down time in their lives. If boredom truly assists in creativity, then the threat of its demise should inspire some pretty original ways to keep us bored.