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Bored? That might be a good thing, new book suggests

Yawn. Welcome to Tuesday, arguably the dullest day of the week. But a new book argues that there might be some surprising benefits to experiencing ennui. We asked Peter Toohey, a University of Calgary professor and the author of "Boredom: A Lively History," to explain.

Q: What could possibly be a benefit of boredom?
(Boredom) is a first cousin of disgust. When people are bored, they are somewhat disgusted -- they talk about being "fed up." So what it’s designed to do is protect you against certain situations that can be injurious.

It (makes) you change your situation. It’s a warning we almost always act upon. One of the more obvious upsides is, a lot of people link it with creativity. You’ve got to fall into the deep, the absolute misery, and then something comes out of your brain. A lot of people talk about the value of daydreaming, which can also be the product of boring or mildly boring situations, and your best ideas may come from it.

Q: In writing this book, did you have a working definition of what boredom is?
A: I think it is what I suggested it was: It’s a mild feeling of disgust. People are disgusted with boredom. It’s brought on by temporarily unavoidable or predictable circumstances. [Editor's note: Hey, that sounds like the definition of "annoying"!]

Imagine yourself stuck in a classroom or (listening to) a long speech. But it’s temporary, and it’s not going to cause you a great deal of harm. And the opposite of boredom is being completely engaged an activity completely absorbs you.

Q: I think some of us might think boredom is a modern problem. Is that true?
A: No, I don't think so. If (boredom is) an emotion, then it’s there for a good evolutionary purpose. All of us are going to feel it, but some less than others. The argument is that it’s a product of the enlightenment -- it appears in the language for the first time 17th century. They don’t talk much about it in Greece or Rome, which is what I teach for a living, but there are examples of it. There's a strange little inscription (in an) Italian town where local people thank one of the dignitaries for saving them from eternal boredom, in Latin. It's from the 2nd century.

Q: Are some personality types more inclined toward boredom?
They say so. It’s linked to the level of dopamine, the neurotransmitter linked to boredom and excitement. So if it tends to be low in a person, one of its symptoms (is boredom.) Also, there is a test called the boredom proneness test; it’s used by psychologists all the time. And people who score low on the test have low levels of dopamine.


Q: When are you most likely to feel bored?
I don’t know, sometimes when I’m working on books like this -- it’s fun to think about, it’s fun to talk about, but it can get incredibly tedious (to research and write).

Q: Any tips for overcoming boredom?
There aren’t really. There’s the "keep busy" tip. Well, that’s fine, but if you’re really bored, you can’t. There’s been a link made between monotony and the plasticity of the brain -- monotony is bad, it’s bad for neuroplasticity. So how do you encourage brain plasticity? It seems the greatest way to do it is aerobic exercise. Perhaps a fair amount of exercise in a person’s life might make them somewhat boredom-proof. (He pauses.) It's miserable, really.

What's your go-to boredom buster? Exercise? Netflix Watch Instantly? Facebook? Leave a comment telling us your strategy to overcome ennui.

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