We usually think of boredom as a state to be avoided. The existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard even went so far as to say that “boredom is the root of all evil”. But in a new paper in Qualitative Research in Psychology, Tim Lomas at the University of East London says there is under-recognised value in this much maligned emotional state. To prove his point, Lomas deliberately subjected himself to an intense period of boredom, and then introspected on each minute of the experience. He claims his findings show that “boredom is not necessarily the dull, valueless state that it is commonly taken to be but rather can facilitate a fascinating array of experiences and insights.”
Lomas waited until he was four hours into a 13 hour flight between Singapore and London and then began a two-hour period in which he refrained from any kind of entertainment or distraction, including avoiding meditating or engaging in any kind of interesting mental activities. Now feeling thoroughly bored he began an hour-long period of intense introspection. During this time he set his phone to vibrate every minute, at which point he made brief notes about his mental experiences on a laptop. At the end of the hour, he returned to each note and extended it into a full sentence.
Lomas says he “truly was bored” during the hour, but that analysing his notes shows that by embracing the experience and entering deeper into it, it changed, and there were benefits, including an altered perception of time: “sensations of time quickening and slowing appeared to alternate and even co-exist.”
He also developed a newfound curiosity for his surroundings, such as the “beautifully ornate patterns on the uniforms of the cabin crew. In other words, he “found value in stimuli that [he’d] previously judged as lacking.”
Finally, Lomas says the hour gave him the opportunity for self exploration – he noticed that his thoughts “appeared to emerge unbidden” like fish appearing in an ocean. “More generally,” he says “I was intrigued by how slippery, elusive, and strange the mind was, a fleeing dance of vague ephemera.”
Introspecting on one’s own mental experiences as a way to make broader inferences about the human psyche – as Lomas has done here – used to be one of the primary methods of the discipline’s founding fathers, such as Wilhelm Wundt and Edward Kitchener. In our age of brain scanners and computer modelling, there’s something pleasingly nostalgic about seeing a paper published on the back of such as simple exercise. However, the same methodological problems that afflicted introspection in the nineteenth century are just as relevant today.
Lomas claims that his paper is “a case study to suggest that boredom has the potential at least to not be an entirely negative and unfulfilling state of mind.” Perhaps, but one obvious issue is that Lomas is a psychologist and highly experienced meditator. Can he do boredom?
Another thing is that during the hour of introspection, Lomas actually gave himself a challenging task to perform with frequent prompts to reflect on his own mental experiences. Perhaps he was actually meditating rather than being bored. But that’s precisely the point, Lomas says. The only difference between the two states, he writes, is that “boredom is conventionally appraised as negative (and hence people tend to denigrate or devalue it), whereas meditation is usually regarded as a worthwhile and beneficial mental activity. Consequently if people were to regard boredom as a meditative experience, it may no longer be appraised as negative; indeed, it may no longer even be boring – as I found during the hour, the boredom became interesting.”