Fleeting moments of boredom are universal, and are often what drives us to stop what we are doing and shift to something that we hope will be more stimulating.
But although boredom is common, it is neither trivial nor benign, according to Dr John Eastwood, a psychologist at York University, Toronto. Eastwood is the joint author of The Unengaged Mind, a major new paper on the theory of boredom.
Boredom, he points out, has been associated with increased drug and alcohol abuse, overeating, depression and anxiety, and an increased risk of making mistakes.
Mistakes at work might not be a matter of life and death for most of us, but if you are an air traffic controller, pilot or nuclear power plant operator, they most certainly can be.
Commercial pilot Sami Franks confirms boredom can make pilots lose attention. “When you fly long haul, there are two pilots, one of whom is monitoring all the screens while the other does the paperwork, talks to air traffic control and so on. You need to be alert for landing and takeoff, but once you’re 500 ft above the runway, the plane’s on autopilot and it can be very quiet and boring.
“In a study I saw, of co-pilots who woke up after a nap, 30% reported seeing the other pilot asleep too,” adds Franks, in a comment that will not play well with nervous flyers.
Despite having attracted the attention of philosophers, psychologists, neuroscientists and educationsts, there is no precise definition of boredom and no consensus as to how we counter it. The report says boredom is most often conceptualised as “the aversive experience of wanting, but being unable, to engage in satisfying activity.”
Dr Esther Priyadharshini, educationist at the University of East Anglia, says boredom can be seen in a positive light. “We can’t avoid boredom, it’s an inevitable human emotion. We have to accept it as legitimate and find ways to harness it. We all need downtime, away from the constant bombardment of stimulation. There’s no need of a frenzy of activity at all times,” she says. gns