June 7, 2011 at 8:52 AM ET
Yawn. Welcome to Tuesday, arguably the dullest day of the week. But a new book argues that there might be some surprising benefits to experiencing ennui. We asked Peter Toohey, a University of Calgary professor and the author of "Boredom: A Lively History," to explain.
Q: What could possibly be a benefit of boredom?
A: (Boredom) is a first cousin of disgust. When people are bored, they are somewhat disgusted -- they talk about being "fed up." So what it’s designed to do is protect you against certain situations that can be injurious.
It (makes) you change your situation. It’s a warning we almost always act upon. One of the more obvious upsides is, a lot of people link it with creativity. You’ve got to fall into the deep, the absolute misery, and then something comes out of your brain. A lot of people talk about the value of daydreaming, which can also be the product of boring or mildly boring situations, and your best ideas may come from it.
Q: In writing this book, did you have a working definition of what boredom is?
A: I think it is what I suggested it was: It’s a mild feeling of disgust. People are disgusted with boredom. It’s brought on by temporarily unavoidable or predictable circumstances. [Editor's note: Hey, that sounds like the definition of "annoying"!]
Imagine yourself stuck in a classroom or (listening to) a long speech. But it’s temporary, and it’s not going to cause you a great deal of harm. And the opposite of boredom is being completely engaged an activity completely absorbs you.
Q: I think some of us might think boredom is a modern problem. Is that true?
A: No, I don't think so. If (boredom is) an emotion, then it’s there for a good evolutionary purpose. All of us are going to feel it, but some less than others. The argument is that it’s a product of the enlightenment -- it appears in the language for the first time 17th century. They don’t talk much about it in Greece or Rome, which is what I teach for a living, but there are examples of it. There's a strange little inscription (in an) Italian town where local people thank one of the dignitaries for saving them from eternal boredom, in Latin. It's from the 2nd century.
Q: Are some personality types more inclined toward boredom?
A: They say so. It’s linked to the level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked to boredom and excitement. So if it tends to be low in a person, one of its symptoms (is boredom.) Also, there is a test called the boredom proneness test; it’s used by psychologists all the time. And people who score low on the test have low levels of dopamine.
Q: When are you most likely to feel bored?
A: I don’t know, sometimes when I’m working on books like this -- it’s fun to think about, it’s fun to talk about, but it can get incredibly tedious (to research and write).
Q: Any tips for overcoming boredom?
A: There aren’t really. There’s the "keep busy" tip. Well, that’s fine, but if you’re really bored, you can’t. There’s been a link made between monotony and the plasticity of the brain -- monotony is bad, it’s bad for neuroplasticity. So how do you encourage brain plasticity? It seems the greatest way to do it is aerobic exercise. Perhaps a fair amount of exercise in a person’s life might make them somewhat boredom-proof. (He pauses.) It's miserable, really.
What's your go-to boredom buster? Exercise? Netflix Watch Instantly? Facebook? Leave a comment telling us your strategy to overcome ennui.
Follow Melissa Dahl on Twitter: @melissadahl.