Boredom has, paradoxically, become quite interesting to academics lately. The International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference gathered humanities scholars in Warsaw for the fifth time in April. In early May, its less scholarly forerunner, London’s Boring Conference, celebrated seven years of delighting in tedium. At this event, people flock to talks about toast, double yellow lines, sneezing, and vending-machine sounds, among other snooze-inducing topics.

What, exactly, is everybody studying? One widely accepted psychological definition of boredom is “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.” [1] But how can you quantify a person’s boredom level and compare it with someone else’s? In 1986, psychologists introduced the Boredom Proneness Scale, [2] designed to measure an individual’s overall propensity to feel bored (what’s known as “trait boredom”). By contrast, the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale, [3] developed in 2008, measures a person’s feelings of boredom in a given situation (“state boredom”). A German-led team has since identified five types of state boredom: indifferent, calibrating, searching, reactant, and apathetic (indifferent boredom—characterized by low arousal—was the mellowest, least unpleasant kind; reactant—high arousal—was the most aggressive and unpleasant.) [4] Boredom may be miserable, but let no one call it simple.

Boredom has been linked to behavior issues including bad driving, [5] mindless snacking, [6] binge-drinking, [7] risky sex, [8] and problem gambling. [9] In fact, many of us would take pain over boredom. One team of psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes. [10] Probing this phenomenon, another team asked volunteers to watch boring, sad, or neutral films, during which they could self-administer electric shocks. The bored volunteers shocked themselves more and harder than the sad or neutral ones did. [11]

But boredom isn’t all bad. By encouraging contemplation and daydreaming, it can spur creativity. An early, much-cited study gave participants abundant time to complete problem-solving and word-association exer-cises. Once all the obvious answers were exhausted, participants gave more and more inventive answers to fend off boredom. [12] A British study took these findings one step further, asking subjects to complete a creative challenge (coming up with a list of alternative uses for a household item). One group of subjects did a boring activity first, while the others went straight to the creative task. Those whose boredom pumps had been primed were more prolific. [13]

In our always-connected world, boredom may be an elusive state, but it is a fertile one. Watch paint dry or water boil, or at least put away your smartphone for a while. You might unlock your next big idea.

The Studies:

[1] Eastwood et al., “The Unengaged Mind” (Perspectives on Psychological Science, Sept. 2012)

[2] Farmer and Sundberg, “Boredom Proneness” (Journal of Personality Assessment, Spring 1986)

[3] Fahlman et al., “Development and Validation of the Multidimensional State Boredom Scale” (Assessment, Feb. 2013)

[4] Goetz et al., “Types of Boredom” (Motivation and Emotion, June 2014)

[5]Steinberger et al., “The Antecedents, Experience, and Coping Strategies of Driver Boredom in Young Adult Males” (Journal of Safety Research, Dec. 2016)

[6] Havermans et al., “Eating and Inflicting Pain Out of Boredom” (Appetite, Feb. 2015)

[7] Biolcati et al., “ ‘I Cannot Stand the Boredom’ ” (Addictive Behaviors Reports, June 2016)

[8] Miller et al., “Was Bob Seger Right?” (Leisure Sciences, Jan. 2014)

[9] Mercer and Eastwood, “Is Boredom Associated With Problem Gambling Behaviour?” (International Gambling Studies, April 2010)

[10] Wilson et al., “Just Think: The Challenges of the Disengaged Mind” (Science, July 2014)

[11]Nederkoorn et al., “Self-Inflicted Pain Out of Boredom” (Psychiatry Research, March 2016)

[12] Schubert, “Boredom as an Antagonist of Creativity” (Journal of Creative Behavior, Dec. 1977)

[13] Mann and Cadman, “Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?” (Creativity Research Journal, May 2014)