Your Instagram, TikTok obsession may keep you from creative benefits of ‘profound boredom’

BATH, England — Millions use social media to fill in the extra minutes and interludes throughout their days, but noteworthy new research suggests we should all find more time to do nothing. Boredom is usually viewed as a bad thing, but researchers posit people who habitually use social media to escape from superficial boredom are unknowingly preventing themselves from progressing to a state of “profound boredom.”

Profound boredom may sound a bit silly, but when we have nothing to do it often leads to more creative and meaningful activity, this latest research from the University of Bath School of Management and Trinity College, Dublin, shows.

Study authors report that the pandemic, furloughs, and enforced solitude afforded many people the rare opportunity nowadays to experience two levels of boredom, first identified by German philosopher Martin Heidegger : superficial and profound.

Superficial boredom can be considered the most common state of boredom, and defined as a feeling of restlessness. For example, being bored in a situation such as waiting for a train where we seek temporary distractions from everyday life – in most cases via social media and mobile devices.

Profound boredom, on the other hand, stems from an abundance of uninterrupted time spent in relative solitude. This variety of boredom can foster indifference, apathy, and even provoke people to question their sense of self and their existence. While not all of that sounds super pleasant, Heidegger taught it could also pave the way to more creative thinking and activity.

Researchers examined the experiences of boredom during the pandemic of people either placed on furlough schemes or required to work from home for an extended period.

“The problem we observed was that social media can alleviate superficial boredom but that distraction sucks up time and energy, and may prevent people progressing to a state of profound boredom, where they might discover new passions,” says Dr. Timothy Hill, co-author of the study, in a university release. “This research has given us a window to understand how the ‘always-on’, 24/7 culture and devices that promise an abundance of information and entertainment may be fixing our superficial boredom but are actually preventing us from finding more meaningful things. Those who engage in ‘digital detoxes’ may well be on the right path.”

Why scientists want you to be profoundly bored

Dr. Hill explains profound boredom was only possible for so many modern people because of the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Profound boredom may sound like an overwhelmingly negative concept but, in fact, it can be intensely positive if people are given the chance for undistracted thinking and development. We must recognize that the pandemic was a tragic, destructive, consuming experience for thousands of less fortunate people, but we are all familiar with the stories of those in lockdown who found new hobbies, careers or directions in life,” Dr. Hill adds.

Dr. Hill notes the entire research team was intrigued to see the pandemic survey results connect so clearly with the ideas of Heidegger, who first described these two kinds of boredom around 1930 during a series of lectures, at the time highlighting the existential possibility offered by the profound variant.

A sample of 15 subjects, all of varying ages, occupational, and education backgrounds in England and the Republic of Ireland, who had been put on furlough or asked to work from home, were surveyed for this project. Study authors admit the survey was rather small in scope, and future work should account for more factors like material conditions and social class.

“We think these initial findings will resonate with so many people’s experiences of the pandemic and their use of social media to alleviate boredom, and we would like to see this research taken further,” Dr. Hill concludes.

The study is published in Marketing Theory.