The boredom paradox: how to turn boredom to your advantage

When did you last feel bored? Was it during a never-ending Zoom call, or one hour into a mind-numbing dinner party conversation?  Although many assume boredom reflects our increased leisure time and reliance on technology, people have complained about boredom since ancient times.

For instance, the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote of the restlessness of boredom, noting its potential to reduce motivation and increase inaction. However, boredom does not need to be a negative experience. When recognised and harnessed correctly, it can be used as a tool to boost both happiness and creativity. That’s the boredom paradox.

A rainbow of boredom

Boredom may seem like one and the same, but researchers have actually identified five different types of boredom. Depending on their personality, most people experience just one of these forms of boredom throughout their lifetime.

Dr Thomas Goetz explains: “We speculate that experiencing specific boredom types might, to some degree, be due to personality-specific dispositions.” Understanding the type of boredom you tend to experience is the first step in turning it to your advantage. Here are the five types of boredom identified by researchers:

  1. Calibrating boredom. Calibrating boredom is the unpleasant feeling of wanting to do something different, but not knowing what. If something appealing comes up, then you will likely have the drive to pursue it. The difficulty lies in thinking of any alternatives.
  2. Searching boredom. Like calibrating boredom, your experience makes you feel unhappy. However, you remain proactive and focused in searching for something that will appease restlessness. If a suitable alternative cannot be found, some will then find themselves experiencing reactant boredom.
  3. Reactant boredom. Reactant boredom is associated with anger and frustration. You twitch and squirm, feel tense and are desperately seeking an escape route. It is the most unpleasant type of boredom.
  4. Indifferent boredom. Rather than feeling irritable or restless, you might appear calm, relaxed, or withdrawn. Some people who experience indifferent boredom do not find it to be an unpleasant experience, but rather a chance to relax and recoup.
  5. Apathetic boredom. The most recently discovered form of boredom, apathetic boredom, can feel like helplessness and has the potential to contribute to depression. Feelings of unhappiness are present, but you may have little drive to do anything about, leading to a vicious cycle of chronic apathy.

Boredom is a universal experience, but some of us are far more susceptible to it than others, and may be more susceptible to one type of boredom compared to another. Whatever the type of boredom you experience, it is a signal that it is time to make a change. Instead of suffering through it, you can use boredom as a springboard to something new and exciting.

The two sides of boredom

Some people have an increased propensity to boredom: they get bored more easily, and they stay bored for longer. These people experience more negative outcomes related to boredom including attention deficits, reduced motivation, withdrawal, unhealthy eating, low mood, fatigue, and counterproductive behaviour. 

In a quest to rid themselves of the unpleasantness of boredom, unhealthy behaviours such as gambling or internet addiction can be triggered. People who suffer from substance abuse have a predisposition towards sensation seeking, but when boredom occurs, they may turn to drug use to satisfy the need for arousal. The increased desire for sensory stimulation may also lead to other risk-taking behaviours.

Conversely, those who are less prone to boredom may be better at noticing the signal and acting upon it. If boredom occurs due to a lack of sensory stimulation, a proactive search for an activity to offset this feeling begins. These people may be strongly motivated to strive for new achievements, try novel experiences, or reframe a dull situation to make it seem more interesting. Or they may decide to embrace the moment and let their mind wander.

Being bored at work can actually increase creativity because it gives us time to daydream. Dr Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman reported that “boredom at work has always been seen as something to be eliminated, but perhaps we should be embracing it in order to enhance our creativity.” Boredom can also increase arousal levels, making it easier to focus and respond to events. Experiencing boredom can therefore be the perfect opportunity to strive for happiness or embark on new creative projects.

Reframing boredom

With technology at our fingertips, it is easy to think we can placate boredom by mindlessly scrolling through social media. However, a study showed that using your smartphone to manage boredom could leave you feeling increasingly bored and even more fatigued.

Instead, finding ways to reframe boredom will allow you to use it as a constructive tool, rather than suffer through a negative experience. There are several simple strategies you can employ to advantageously deal with boredom when it arises.

First, reframe the situation. Commit to noticing when boredom, and any associated negative thought patterns, slip in. By being mindful of your thoughts, you can take steps to challenge them. If you feel bored, what can you do to change your current emotional state? If you can see boredom as a challenge to overcome, rather than a threat, you will be able to turn it into a more positive experience.

For example, if work has become exceedingly boring, or you are going through a dry spell as a freelancer, see your quiet days as an opportunity to approach new clients, embark on an exciting project, or to undertake the online course that you now have time for.

You can also use boredom as a way to ignite your intrinsic motivation for creativity. Teresa Amabile writes that “people will be most creative when they feel motivated primarily by the interest, satisfaction and challenge of the work itself — and not by external pressures”. Think about what you would like to achieve, or what you enjoy, and use your boredom to create something for the sake of creativity.

If you have calibrating boredom and cannot think of anything to do, try something completely new. Paint a picture, go for a cycle ride, or follow a new recipe. The activity might be outside your comfort zone, but it will alleviate boredom and could spark an unexpected interest.

As an ambitious person, it can be hard to let go of the drive to accomplish something in every minute of your day. If you can resist filling your day, periods of boredom could become reserved for relaxation. Rather than haphazardly searching for something to alleviate uncomfortable feelings, you can think more constructively about how best to spend your time to recharge and recoup. Read the novel you bought but never found time to open, start a journal or give yourself time to soak in the bath. With your batteries recharged, you will not only feel energised but will be better equipped to manage future episodes of boredom.

Finally, you could also… Do nothing! Being bored can be reframed as a luxury. If you can put up with the initial restlessness, being bored could lead to a sense of peace that may even see you daydreaming of new ideas to shape your life for the better.

However you experience boredom, its symptoms are a signal of an ongoing emotional process. When it feels like there is nothing to do, or you notice you feel restless or weary, you can avoid relying on harmful behaviours to counteract your distress. Pay attention to how you feel and begin reframing your thoughts positively to motivate your innate creativity. You can even turn boredom on its head by cultivating a peaceful environment for self-care, allowing time to recharge and refresh your mind.

Join 80,000 mindful makers!

Maker Mind is a weekly newsletter with science-based insights on creativity, mindful productivity, better thinking and lifelong learning.

One email a week, no spam, ever. See our Privacy policy.