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Boredom – good for you or bad for you?

Boredom thresholds vary from person to person, but it isn't clear why this is so.

Boredom thresholds vary from person to person, but it isn't clear why this is so.

Published Jan 22, 2013


London - When our lives are filled with routines and monotonous meetings, we can all fall victim to the effects of boredom.

But is boredom necessarily a bad thing? Recently psychologists reported that staring into space at work can have a positive effect on creativity by giving the mind a chance to wander.

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Nor is this the first time that boredom has been linked to a boost in creativity. Last year the eminent neuroscientist Baroness Greenfield suggested boredom is good for children because it encourages them to use their imaginations and develop a sense of identity from having to find things to do.

“My own view is that it’s a very good lesson to learn,” said the Oxford University professor.

Boredom thresholds vary from person to person, but just why is not known. Men are more likely to complain of boredom than women, as are people who fit the profile of “sensation-seekers”.

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In his book Boredom: A Lively History, Professor Peter Toohey of the University of Calgary in Canada says boredom is linked to the amount of dopamine in a person’s brain.

Studies have found that people with lower levels of the brain chemical suffer from longer and more frequent bouts of boredom.

Toohey suggests that monotony makes it harder for brain cells to connect to each other.

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However “a fair amount of aerobic exercise can make a person boredom proof”.

Boredom’s effects are not limited to creativity: It has implications for your health, too, and can even be harmful.

Here we review precisely how good – and bad – boredom can be for you.

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It increases infections

People who are bored by their job are more prone to “underload” syndrome – the term for a collection of symptoms including depression, headaches, fatigue and recurrent infections.

Boredom has the same effect on the body as stress, raising levels of stress hormones, which has a negative effect on health.

Psychologists at the University of Northumbria found high-fliers are most vulnerable to this because they have perfected their skills and therefore are able to perform their jobs with little stress.

They have more sick days than those without underload syndrome.

It keeps weight off

According to nutritionists at the Universities of Buffalo and Vermont, eating the same food every day leads to fewer calories being consumed overall.

In their trial, women who ate macaroni cheese every day for seven days consumed 100 fewer calories each day by the end of the week.

Those given a more varied diet typically ate more.

It boils down to human beings having a habituation threshold – which is why, for example, if you hear the same music too many times, it eventually becomes boring.

It boosts fitness

Find yourself fidgeting and drumming your fingers on the desk through boredom? It could have a positive effect on your fitness and weight.

A 2008 study by nutritional scientists at Iowa State University monitored the daily movement patterns of obese and lean women.

They found the lean subjects fidgeted more often — in the process burning around 300 extra calories a day.

Other researchers in Canada reporting in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found that while a group of sedentary men and women failed to meet activity guidelines of 30 minutes exercise a day, those who drummed fingers, tapped their feet under the desk or fidgeted (known as incidental activity) boosted their aerobic fitness.

It triggers depression

An American study found that boredom was linked to low mood. Psychologists at Harvard University tracked the mental states of more than 2 000 people with the help of a mood-tracking iPhone app called Track Your Happiness.

Their results, published in the journal Science, revealed that those who were able to stay focused on a specific task were usually much happier than those who let their minds wander through boredom.

It makes you eat junk

One in four office workers complaining of “chronic boredom” turn to coffee and chocolate to lighten their day, according to a study by psychologist Dr Sandi Mann at the University of Lancashire.

Bored office workers are also more likely to have an alcoholic drink after work.

Mann presented her findings at last year’s British Psychological Society conference. She said the most significant cause of boredom was an undemanding workload.

It’s bad for your heart

People who complain of high levels of boredom are two and a half times more likely to die from heart disease or stroke than those who are satisfied with their lot, researchers at the Department of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College London reported two years ago. In their study of almost 7 000 civil servants over the age of 25, they found that those who complained of boredom were nearly 40 percent more likely to have died by the end of the investigation.

Why? Probably because their boredom leads them to take up habits such as drinking and smoking. Over time, this leads to weight gain and other risk factors for heart disease.

Epidemiologist Martin Shipley says: “People who have dull jobs should find outside interests to keep boredom at bay.”

It eases anxiety

A little bit of tedium can be a good thing, particularly if you are stressed, says Dr Esther Priyadharshini, a senior lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia. “We all need down-time, away from the constant bombardment of stimulation. There’s no need for a frenzy of activity at all times.”

It can help improve memory

Jackie Andrade, professor of psychology at the University of Plymouth, compared how well 40 people recalled details of a dull two-and-a-half-minute phone message.

Those who’d doodled throughout retained more information than those who tried to sit and listen.

“Doodling may be something we do because it helps to keep us on track with a boring task,” Professor Andrade suggests.

It makes you help others

Some bored people feel their lives are so meaningless that it prompts them to get involved in what researchers call pro-social behaviour.

A series of studies by Dr Wijnand van Tilburg, a psychologist at the University of Limerick, a couple of years ago discovered that “

boredom makes people long for different and purposeful activities, and as a result they turn towards more challenging and meaningful activities, like donating to charity or signing up for blood donations”, says Van Tilburg. – Daily Mail

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