Boredom is something we all know. It’s that horrible state of mind that makes you listless or act incredibly stupid. And you still don’t stop being dreary or doing stupid things you know you’ll regret simply because you can do it and can’t think of anything better to do.
In public settings, ennui is exhibited in more subdued ways. You fidget, you doodle, you yawn, you say contrarian things to amuse yourself, or you ponder over mind-numbing issues, such as whether Prime Minster Narendra Modi secretly loves pizza, or whether men soap or shampoo their beards (soap, revealed my poll of one, after which I lost interest).
The research highlight of this week was that many people prefer hurting themselves to sitting alone doing nothing. People, especially men, hate being alone with their thoughts so much that they’d rather be in pain, reported a study this week in the journal Science.
In the study, two-third men and a quarter of women were asked to sit for 15 minutes and let their mind wander chose to administer mild electrical shocks to themselves rather than sit and do nothing.
They were then asked whether, if given US $5, they would spend some of it to avoid getting shocked again. Those who said they would willingly pay to avoid shocks were again asked to think alone with the option of giving themselves the same shock. Two-thirds (12 of 18) administered at least one shock.
One (clearly, the contrarian) did it 190 times in 15 minutes. Six of 24 women gave themselves at least one shock.
“I think they just wanted to shock themselves out of the boredom,” said study-author Dr Timothy Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “Sometimes negative stimulation is preferable to no stimulation.”
Another group was asked to sit alone in a bare lab and spend six to 15 minutes thinking.
They were not allowed to have a cellphone, music player, reading or writing materials and were asked to remain in their seats and stay awake. Most said they hated it and could not concentrate. Researchers then asked them to do the same in their homes. They got the same results, the only difference being that one in three cheated by using a cellphone or listening to music.
“Many people find it difficult to use their own minds to entertain themselves, at least when asked to do it on the spot,” said Dr Wilson. “With all the gadgets we have, people seem to fill up every moment with some external activity.”
The ennui study was part of a larger group that involved nearly 800 people. It started with college students but was soon broadened to include people from varied backgrounds and ages, the oldest being 77. The results, however, held across backgrounds and ages: most people regardless of age or gender did not like to be idle and alone with their thoughts.
Boredom is among the least studied epidemics inflicting the world, with brain doctors still being largely clueless about how tedium affects people’s lives.
In Perspectives on Psychological Science, psychologist Dr John Eastwood of York University in Toronto describes boredom as “an unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity”, where a person wants to be stimulated and do something, but is unable to connect with the world around.
Dr Eastwood’s classifies boredom into low-arousal and high-arousal states. In the first, you feel listless and somnolent, and in the other, agitated and restless. Most people oscillate between the two, pumping themselves up to deal with a dreary situation, and then losing focus to slip back into inertia.
As with other health condition, some people are prone to boredom than others. High on the list are people with attention disorders, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Risk-takers are also more likely to get bored as they often don’t get enough stimulation from the world around them.
The highly anxious are likely to end up under-stimulated, but that makes them boring for others than bored.
Boredom is harmless unless, of course, it makes you take risks (drinking, smoking, doing drugs, driving fast) that may kill. Results of the Whitehall II Study of British civil servants showed that the more bored died younger than people who could amuse themselves, reported the International Journal of Epidemiology in 2010.
The choice, then, is yours – use your thoughts to wreck more havoc than a Game of Thrones episode, or get bored to death.