Unless you’re a front-line worker, the chances are that, alongside the fear and anxiety coronavirus has brought with it, you will have experienced extended periods of intense boredom this year that could be dangerous for your health.
Dr Sandi Mann, a psychologist specialising in its damaging effects, defines it as “a search for neural stimulation that is not satisfied” and today warns of the “serious repercussions” it can have on our health if it becomes chronic”.
The physical effects
Research shows boredom can actually reduce your life expectancy.
A study in the 1980s of civil servants aged 35 to 55 showed those most prone to it were 30 per cent more likely to die within three years – in particular from a cardiovascular disease.
“We can literally be bored to death,” says Dr Mann. “We don’t know exactly what it is about being bored that might lead to cardiovascular-related death.
“However what we do know is that when people are bored they look for ways to ‘unbore’ themselves and a lot of the things they do to alleviate it are unhealthy. Also boredom is stressful.”
People most prone to boredom are often those who constantly crave excitement to escape everyday life, such as alcohol and drugs.
One South African study showed boredom was key to booze, cigarette and cannabis use among teenagers.
It’s also a huge factor in post-rehab addiction relapse. Recovering addicts with too much time to think will often start glamourising their substance abuse because it seemed like fun in comparison.
Boredom during this pandemic definitely appears to have pushed us into drinking more. An Alcohol Change UK survey found more than a quarter of participants upped their intake in lockdown.
And around the same number in a British Nutrition Foundation study admitted they ate more comfort food – with nearly two-thirds blaming boredom.
Why boredom leads to negativity
It’s been found that many of us would rather experience pain than suffer the monotony of it.
In a study where people were left in a room for 15 minutes, with nothing other than a button they could press to give themselves an electric shock on the ankle, two-thirds of men and a quarter of women chose to try it just for something to do.
“We’d rather do anything than be bored,” says Dr Mann. “Even if it means getting an electric shock. It is a very intolerable experience and people would rather have an unpleasant stimulus to relieve it rather than have to cope with it.”
Although this seems like an extreme reaction, it’s more understandable once we appreciate that boredom can exacerbate negative thinking, leading to depression and anxiety.
“That means those who feel they are disengaged from any satisfying activity can often find their mental health spiralling downwards as a result.”
Boredom is also thought to provoke anger and aggression.
And a study published last year showed people who are more prone to it took more risks when it came to finances, ethics, hobbies, health and safety. This is because boredom can make us more likely to indulge in risk-taking behaviour as a way of seeking excitement and creating that adrenaline buzz lacking from their lives.
“When we’re bored we look for neural stimulation,” explains Dr Mann.
“We can get the stimulation we’re seeking through novelty or from dopamine hits – the brain chemical associated with reward.
“Dopamine is very addictive and we get it from eating fatty and sugary foods or even from the thrill of shopping and buying new stuff.
“And these dopamine hits can lead to addictions.”
How to take advantage
Despite the negative impact tedium can have on our lives, boredom does have an upside.
It’s a necessary emotion because it can provide some much-needed respite from the constant stimulation around us.
It pushes us to be curious and find alternative ways to escape from any monotony in our lives. That can mean searching for a new job or simply making some positive changes to your life. In addition, research has shown people who feel their actions are meaningless can often be motivated to engage in meaningful behaviour, making them more unselfish, helpful and charitable.
For example, they would be more likely to give blood or donate to charity. “We’re so scared of boredom we’ll do anything to avoid it and the problem with that is if we get rid of boredom, we’re also getting rid of its benefits,” says Dr Mann.
“My research has shown bored people are very creative and if we lose the boredom itself we’re losing that creativity. We’ve seen this very much during the pandemic. We’ve seen all sorts of amazingly creative solutions to problems that have sprung up because we had that time to stop and think.
“I think it’s very important that we harness the benefits of boredom by stopping trying to get rid of it.
“Let your mind wander, and let that feeling of boredom rush over you so you’ve got nothing else to do.
“That’s when we daydream and that’s when we can actually be our most creative.”
The Science of Boredom:
The Upside (and Downside) of Downtime by
Dr Sandi Mann (£9.99, Little Brown) is out now.