We do almost anything to avoid feeling bored.
As soon as our interest in an activity begins to decline we quickly turn to playing games, replying to messages, or engaging with some other easily-accessible distraction. We do this to avoid the mental discomfort of boredom. We're never too far away from something to stimulate us or give us a quick dopamine hit.
Contrary to popular belief, we don't just get bored because we've got nothing to do. There's always something on our to-do list , a chore we need to complete, or an essay we need to write . If anything, we've got way too much to do.
The problem then - and the real reason we get bored - is that none of these activities appeal to us right now . So although we've got lots of gadgets to play with and a stack of work we need to finish, if it doesn't immediately excite us we think "ughh, there's nothing to do". This is boredom.
In a 2014 study called 'The challenges of the disengaged mind ', participants were placed in a room alone, for up to 15 minutes, with nothing to do but think. They also had the choice to give themselves an electric shock by pushing a button placed next to them.
Even though there was absolutely no pressure on the participants to shock themselves (and many of them said they'd pay money to avoid the shock beforehand), 25% of women and 67% of men still chose to push the button.
Put simply - people would rather experience physical pain than be bored.
When we're bored our minds wander to interesting (and surprisingly productive) places. So instead of having a narrow focus on any specific task, we begin to adopt a more diffuse mode of thinking, as Barbara Oakley put it in 'A Mind for Numbers '.
In other words, our brain is free to jump between different ideas and concepts, which is the ideal state for creative problem solving and lateral thinking.
As well as increasing our idea quality (i.e. creativity), boredom also increases our idea quantity . Seriously, doing less work can apparently make us more productive.
The distressing feeling we get when we're bored acts like a mental alarm bell to tell us an activity isn't particularly pleasant, stimulating, or interesting . And therefore helps us to get out of the situation as quickly as possible.
In other words, boredom can make us reevaluate what we're doing, and motivate us to shift our goals to another activity that better meets our expectations or desires.
This is known as autobiographical planning . Essentially, when we're bored our mind-wandering becomes largely future-focused and we think a lot more about what we want from our life.
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