What Boredom Does to You

Every emotion has a purpose—an evolutionary benefit,” says Sandi Mann, a psychologist and the author of The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good. “I wanted to know why we have this emotion of boredom, which seems like such a negative, pointless emotion.”

That’s how Mann got started in her specialty: boredom. While researching emotions in the workplace in the 1990s, she discovered the second most commonly suppressed emotion after anger was—you guessed it—boredom. “It gets such bad press,” she said. “Almost everything seems to be blamed on boredom.”

As Mann dived into the topic of boredom, she found that it was actually “very interesting.” It’s certainly not pointless. Wijnand van Tilburg from the University of Southampton explained the important evolutionary function of that uneasy, awful feeling this way: “Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”

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“Imagine a world where we didn’t get bored,” Mann said. “We’d be perpetually excited by everything—raindrops falling, the cornflakes at breakfast time.” Once past boredom’s evolutionary purpose, Mann became curious about whether there might be benefits beyond its contribution to survival. “Instinctively,” she said, “I felt that we all need a little boredom in our lives.”

Mann devised an experiment wherein a group of participants was given the most boring assignment she could think of: copying, by hand, phone numbers from the phone book. (For some of you who might never have seen one of those, Google it.) This was based on a classic creativity test developed in 1967 by J.P. Guilford, an American psychologist and one of the first researchers to study creativity. Guilford’s original Alternative Uses Test gave subjects two minutes to come up with as many uses as they could think of for everyday objects such as cups, paper clips, or a chair. In Mann’s version, she preceded the creativity test with 20 minutes of a meaningless task: in this case, copying numbers out of the phone book. Afterward, her subjects were asked to come up with as many uses as they could for two paper cups (the kind you get at an ecologically unscrupulous water cooler). The participants devised

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