In praise of boredom

8th June 2007 at 01:00
Tempted to spice up lessons to prevent the spread of ennui? Stop, says Stephen Briers: overstimulated pupils become insatiable.

When a much-loved aunt saw me in the throes of adolescent ennui, she informed me rather tartly that she had never been bored in her life. At the time I was pretty sceptical about this. The possibility that anyone could live into their nineties and not have experienced significant boredom seemed to me an almost superhuman achievement.

My aunt evidently regarded boredom as a pathological state, as do the various social scientists who, since the 1970s, have informed us that our culture is in the grip of a "boredom epidemic". This perception has naturally placed teachers under increasing pressure to spice up the content and methods used in lessons in order to counteract this perceived modern malaise. But is boredom such a bad thing?

Conventionally, boredom has been understood by psychologists as a state of mind resulting from an inadequate level of stimulation (see Fisher 19931).

However, the opposite may also be true - we might become more prone to boredom when we are constantly overstimulated. Researchers have found that when the brain is flooded with competing demands, we lose our capacity to integrate different streams of data. Consequently, attention becomes selective in ways that forestall a meaningful analysis of the situation and we may become disengaged or demotivated as a result.

Furthermore, as we get used to stimuli, they have to become ever more arresting to achieve the same level of impact. Augustin de la Pena, a psychophysiologist, points out that: "The brain's ante for stimulation is always being upped, just as a drug addict needs a larger and larger dose to get high" (see Spalding 20042). The result is what Raposa has described as an "ADD culture", governed by an insatiable appetite for novel stimulation.

Educators therefore need to make sure that by employing the high-tech tools and "enriched" idiom of the modern classroom to combat boredom among pupils, they are not perpetuating the very problems of inattention that such techniques are designed to solve. Perhaps they need to teach pupils strategies for sustaining and focusing their attention rather than compensating for their inability to do so. As Raposa (19993) puts it: "We can avoid boredom, in which case we develop habits of distraction, or we can heed our boredom and develop habits of attention."

Research suggests the state of boredom can yield some valuable lessons. A recent study by Eastwood and colleagues4 this year found that high levels of boredom were experienced by those who were more externally focused and less able to identify their own emotions.

One implication is that boredom is a state that has the potential to heighten self-awareness and help sensitise us to the currents of desire and passion which, as Eastwood et al observe, "provide the compass points for satisfying engagement with life". So aversive is boredom that it tends to throw us back on our inner resources and galvanizes the forces necessary for its own relief. My aunt was evidently one of those rare individuals lucky to be born with heightened powers of attention, sensibility and self-discipline. The rest of us may require the tutelage of a little intermittent ennui.

The danger is that we are now becoming so adept at keeping pupils constantly stimulated that we could be raising a generation who will never get the chance to learn the important life skills that boredom has to teach.

Dr Stephen Briers is a clinical pyschologist


Keep work relevant to pupils' lives and priorities. Professor Rob Briner of Birkbeck College, London observes that: "Boredom is a protest when the job doesn't seem to be part of who you are."

Teach pupils how to structure dull tasks to make them more rewarding. Can they find neat ways of doing them faster or more efficiently? Or combine two tasks to get more done?

Train children's powers of observation. Point out and isolate details. Set aside time to examine things closely. Use as many senses as you can. How often do we really pay attention to what something sounds, smells or tastes like?

Don't fight it. Help children to recognise that some level of boredom is normal and inevitable. But make a boring task more bearable by giving children effective feedback on their progress and a reward when it is completed satisfactorily.


1 Fisher C. D. (1993) Boredom at work: A neglected concept. Human Relations, 46 (3) 395-417

2 Spalding, J (2004) A Boring Story, in Science and Spirit, Nov-Dec 2004, Heldref publications

3 Raposa, M (1999) Boredom and the Religious Imagination, University of Virginia Press

4 Eastwood, J. D., Cavaliere, C., Fahlman, S. A. and Eastwood, A. E. 2007 A desire for desires: Boredom and its relation to alexithymia. Personality and Individual Differences, 42, 1035-1045

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