Boredom may not be unique to humans, as it seems polar bears and other animals experience some kind of boredom, but did it help our species survive?
Boredom is a fascinating thing. It’s so familiar to people that the dictionary built into my Mac doesn’t even have an entry for it. Some guy called C.D. Fisher defines it as “an unpleasant, transient affective state in which the individual feels a pervasive lack of interest in and difficulty concentrating on the current activity.” We all know what it feels like, even if we can’t define it. That creeping urge that whatever we’re currently doing sucks, but no clear idea as to what else to do.
One of the things that is so interesting about boredom is difference between what makes us bored and what doesn’t. It’s tough to be bored when we’re confronted with a new situation or problem. Even if we’re uninterested or unequipped to handle it, we don’t get bored.
Things we’ve already seen or done don’t let us escape boredom when it sets in, except for a few things that, luckily, we never seem to get bored with, like breathing. Or sex (hopefully). Clearly that’s an evolutionary advantage: we wouldn’t have made it very far if people got tired of breathing and kicked off in their apathetic teen years, before that overwhelming desire to fuck kicked in.
On one side, our brain lets us do incredibly repetitive things, like blink and breath, literally billions of times without thought, without getting bored. On the other side, many people get bored of Careless Whisper after one listen, or get bored when they play the same Donkey Kong level more than one time. Why?
Let’s look at boredom like any other trait. From an evolutionary psychology perspective, boredom, like anger or strength, must be prevalent because it increased the inclusive genetic fitness of our ancestors.
How boredom did this, I’m not exactly sure. I haven’t found any good research that points to a solid answer. But, intuitively, when people get bored, they search for ways to cure that boredom. They explore, they build, they attempt, they create. Because novelty is a cure for boredom, maybe invention is the natural byproduct of boredom. Put another way, maybe boredom is the driver of curiosity.
This thought is a bit counter-intuitive, because those who are creative never really seem bored, but maybe the whole purpose of boredom is merely to serve as a trigger.
…Boredom sets in…
Hey, what’s this fire stuff? Lets harness that!
Those who were the best provided for (i.e. fittest) had the most idle time. Of those with idle time, those who got bored were triggered to explore or produce or innovate. Those who innovated or produced more were likely rewarded with the opportunity to mate more. Thinking about it this way, boredom may have contributed significantly to the survival of our species. A simple explanation, sure, but it is logical.
And even if it this theory proves to be false, it doesn’t make it any less useful in our modern lives.
Treat boredom as a trigger. If you feel that sense of boredom creep in, use it as a reminder to jump to the next project, to explore something you’ve been meaning to try, or to try to create something totally new.
Maybe your boredom can solve one of the world’s big problems.
(Note: if anyone has found any research in this area that provides more definitive answers than the hackneyed theories I’ve provided, please drop me a line. I’d love to read more about it.)