Finding your way out of boredom


Comment: Learn the tricks to force yourself out of mundane routines

13th March 2015
By Paul Dolan and Kate Laffan

In the book Happiness by Design (by Paul Dolan), a happy life is defined as one that contains a good balance of pleasurable and purposeful experiences. While this may seem a simple and obvious enough goal, it can be pretty hard to sustain in practice.

Too often we fall into the trap of focusing on the stories we tell, or are told, about what ought to make us happy; and forget to pay attention to what actually does in the experiences of our lives. Some of those stories will suggest that happiness is to be found in high status, well-paid jobs. But irrespective of how much status or money you have, a life in which you experience boredom on a regular basis is one that contains less pleasure and purpose than it might.

Routinely feeling bored makes people miserable; and it causes them to die early too. A study carried out over 25 years on a sample of 7,000 UK civil servants found that those who reported experiencing boredom in the last month, when first interviewed, were 40 per cent more likely to have died by the end of the study than those who did not. Other research finds that boredom is a spur to engaging in risky behaviours such as the consumption of alcohol and drugs, overeating and unsafe driving, suggesting that these civil servants probably turned to health-harming behaviours to alleviate their boredom; and that this in turn caused them to die sooner. It has also been found that boredom negatively impacts our ability to make good decisions, making problematic behaviours all the more likely.

Feelings of boredom and being stuck in a rut can creep up on us. When you start a new job your days are filled with meeting people, undertaking challenging tasks and developing new skills. New environments are stimulating and rewarding. But over time we form behavioural habits that can lead us slowly and usually unconsciously down the path towards boredom. Now, we all know about the power and wonder of habits. You make up to 10,000 decisions every single day and you wouldn't be able to function unless your brain created habit loops for most of them. But habits can become boring too. We are even more likely to ignore how routine our lives have become if we pay more attention to the stories about what ought to make us happy than we do to how we feel day to day.

You don’t need to overhaul your life to have new experiences: change your radio station in the morning or take the dog a different way around the park

It's not all doom and gloom, though. It is important to take stock every once in a while and to consider whether we are routinely bored in our jobs, relationships, or lives. If we find that this is the case, boredom can then act as a catalyst for us to identify new goals and explore new experiences we might not otherwise consider. So how can you improve your chances of getting off the hamster wheel, and doing so in ways that will make you happier? Many self-help books will tell you to think your way out of trouble: to take a positive approach, for example. But if you're stuck in a rut, you're unlikely to be able to do this; in fact, you'll probably feel even worse than you did before. Happiness by Design focuses on how you can change what steps you take to be happier.

So what can you do? Well, try something new for starters. Those who are open to new experiences report being more satisfied with their lives, and experience more positive emotions. Engaging in new activities has also been shown to make us more creative. It may even make us live longer, as being open to new experiences and receptive to the unfamiliar are traits more commonly found in those who have made it to 100 years of age. You don't need to overhaul your life to have new experiences: change your radio station in the morning or take the dog a different way around the park. Small changes like this will direct your attention in happiness-enhancing ways; and if they don't, well, don't do them again. Try something else.

You cannot recover time spent bored. Do something about it. Now.

It is not unusual to find ourselves in a social slump, having conversations with the same people all the time and rarely interacting with new people. If this applies to you, talk to new people. This does not have to result in some new, long-lasting relationship – casual chats with strangers will make you happier too. In one study, researchers approached commuters at a central train station in Chicago and asked them to start a conversation with a stranger in exchange for a $5 Starbucks gift card and to report back about how they felt afterwards. On average, these people reported enjoying the commute far more than people in the control group who were given the gift card but went about their daily commute in silence. What's interesting about this study is that, prior to starting the conversation, the majority of these participants stated a preference for commuting in silence. This is yet another example of how we are not very good at predicting what will make us happy.

We can often feel bored when nothing in our daily lives challenges us. If your life could use fresh purpose, consider taking up a new hobby; something you've always wanted to try. As you progress and develop skills in the area, set the bar higher rather than allowing yourself to rest on your laurels. Two potentially very rewarding challenges to consider are learning to play an instrument or to speak a foreign language. These activities have been associated with experiences of flow – or total absorption in a task – that is perhaps the true opposite of boredom. If you really need a hit of purpose, try some volunteering: our research shows this to be about as purposeful as any experience can get.

As well as trying some new experiences, you should also consider stopping some old ones. What do you do if you realise you're sticking with something because you think it should make you happy and not because you actually get pleasure or a sense of purpose out of it? It is not always easy to know when to quit a job, a relationship or a pastime but, if you have been thinking about getting out or giving up for a while, it is probably time to bite the bullet and do so. Staying in a boring job or allowing your social life to remain firmly in a rut is not good for you. You cannot recover time spent bored. Lost happiness is lost forever. Do something about it. Now.


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