Benefit from your boredom

Poet and writer Ben Okri's new book, The Magic Lamp, is a collection of 25 highly original short stories, each one based on a painting by the artist Rosemary Clunie.

Most of us consider boredom to be aversive, something we try to avoid.

Most of us consider boredom to be aversive, something we try to avoid.

When asked how he came up with such beautiful tales, Okri explained: "I would choose one painting, and then concentrate on it for a long time – for longer than it took me to become bored … until I was beyond boredom. That's when the stories began to take shape."

Most of us consider boredom to be aversive, something we try to avoid. But can it actually be a good thing?

There's evidence that boredom leads to more productive thinking, both when it comes to generating creative possibilities (divergent thinking) and when we need to find logical solutions to problems (convergent thinking).

Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, of the University of Central Lancashire, recruited 90 participants and asked 30 to copy numbers from a telephone directory and 30 simply to read the directory, while the remaining 30 weren't given a task. They then asked all 90 to come up with as many uses as possible for two styrofoam cups – a test of divergent thinking. Those supposedly most bored, reading the directory, came up with the most solutions. Those copying numbers generated somewhat fewer solutions, although still significantly more than those spared either task.

Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood, of Pennsylvania State University, assigned participants randomly to watch one of four videos. Each one was intended to evoke a particular mood state, either positive (relaxation and elation) or negative (distress and boredom). Everyone was then tested on convergent thinking. The boredom group outperformed the others, particularly those who were encouraged to feel relaxed or distressed.

They concluded that individuals feel compelled to act when they feel the need to seek further stimulation, whether that's because they're enjoying what's happening (elation) or because they feel uncomfortably under-challenged (boredom).

If boredom is actually a good thing because it motivates us to act, why do some of our actions result in a sense of achievement, while others only generate further frustration? According to Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou, of the University of Limerick, meaning is what matters.

If you choose an activity you consider pointless, you'll only become increasingly bored – and almost certainly unhappy. If instead you decide to do something you believe is important and worthwhile, you'll not only alleviate boredom, you'll feel proud and satisfied as well.

Take some time today to become aware of the things that really matter to you.

Then next time you feel bored, welcome the energy that feeling will give you to pursue those valued activities.

Telegraph, London

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