What do you do when you’re bored? Do you send emails to friends? Do you play cricket in the hallways of your work place? Do you Photoshop pictures of David Hasselhoff? Or do you obsessively clean your house – not that I have done any of these things. Everyone has different ways of coping with boredom. And although most of us think that boredom is a bad thing, there is some support to the notion that boredom is a naturally occurring emotion, and far from being suppressed, it should be embraced.
Dr Richard Ralley, a psychology lecturer from Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, has embarked on a scientific study of boredom, hoping to find a scientific benefit for the emotion.
“Boredom can be a good thing,” he said to the Guardian newspaper, “Boredom is natural, so let's deal with it.”
“In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they're painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It’s the same with boredom, which also has a bad name. We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we’re not productive and that’s what boredom is associated with.”
His theory is that when there is nothing to do, when we are not being subjectively productive, we can relax in preparation for the next time there is something important to do.
He stated that: “Boredom is something, it’s not just switching off. It can be useful. When there’s nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy, so that when we want to reengage we can. There's a balance between doing something that’s rewarding and doing something that’s rewarding but not being happy about doing it.”
This has relevance for how we deal with bored kids – do we try to occupy their time, or do we allow them to be bored and figure out what to do themselves? Will allowing them to be bored ultimately be good for them?
In a more serious aspect to the emotion, boredom can also occur as a symptom of clinical depression. It may also lead to impulsive, possibly excessive, actions that serve little purpose. For example, studies in behavioural finance have shown that stock traders with nothing to do can start “overtrading” – that is, buying or selling for no good reason.
Which brings us to that strange biological phenomenon of the yawn. We all do it, especially if we are bored or tired. But does it actually do anything? There is a now discredited theory that it is caused by an excess of carbon dioxide and lack of oxygen in the blood. Another hypothesis is that yawning is used for the regulation of body temperature, or that it is caused by neurotransmitters in the brain. However these theories do little to explain why we yawn when we are bored. But for whatever reason we do it, it seems that yawning may be a herd instinct – we’ve all seen people yawn sympathetically with each other. One theory suggests that yawning synchronises mood behaviour among animals – such as wolves howling at the moon. It signals tiredness to other members of the group so that sleeping patterns and periods of activity can be synchronised.
So if you’re game, try yawning in front of your boss and see if you can make him/her tired.
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