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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 June 2007, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
Surviving boredom
Boy bored in class

By Joe Boyle
BBC News

Time to rethink those dreams of becoming an astronaut. Space chiefs planning a trip to Mars want to lock a group of volunteers away for 500 days to see what prolonged boredom does to us. Suddenly, Big Brother seems quite appealing.

"Boredom is what boring people feel." So goes the parental adage used against restless offspring. If true, then ours is a nation of very boring people.

You're stuck in an instant that appears to be an eternity, but it appears to be a bad eternity
Dr Lars Svendsen on boredom

Countless studies attest to the ennui stalking our lives, and psychologist Sandi Mann claims that "boredom is the second most commonly suppressed emotion at work".

It's almost as if we have been conditioned to endure boredom, with ever-lengthening commutes and working hours. It has been blamed for all manner of ills, from stress and infidelity to obesity and overspending.

And now 12 volunteers will be locked in an isolation tank for 17 months to simulate a trip to Mars for the European Space Agency.

Bored-looking delegates at Labour conference 2005
Killing time
The aim is to gain insight into human behaviour and group dynamics under the kinds of conditions astronauts would experience - "crowding, lack of privacy, high workload, mechanical breakdowns, boredom with available food, and limited communication with mission control, family and friends," the agency says in its job advert.

But like all bosses, the agency's Dr Thu Jennifer Ngo-Anh hopes to keep her employees too busy - in this case maintaining the module and preparing scientific research - to be bored.

But they will be surrounded by the same faces - and in the same place, doing the same things - day in and day out.

"They have to be mentally capable of enduring that. Part of why we're doing this is to find people that will endure the whole programme," she says.

What is boredom?

It seems hard to imagine that a trip to Mars could be boring, However the same cannot be said of spending the equivalent time pretending to do this journey. Dr Lars Svendsen, author of A Philosophy of Boredom, says there is more than one type of boredom.

The Young Ones
Nothing to do, nowhere to go
"Situational boredom is defined by the presence or absence of something in a situation. This can be listening to a boring lecture, or waiting for a plane in an airport. Then there is repetitive boredom, where something that in itself is fun becomes boring through repetition."

So rather than complain about feeling bored, should we celebrate our ability to endure it and regard this as a valuable skill in a job market increasingly dominated by carrying out repetitive tasks ad nauseum?

Dr Svendsen thinks not, being no fan of the emotion. "You're stuck in an instant that appears to be an eternity, but it appears to be a bad eternity, and there seems to be virtually no escape. You can't just say 'I don't want to be bored now'."

But there is no easy way to grasp the concept of boredom, because it "doesn't really have any qualities", he says. Asked for a definition, he pauses before offering, "a lack of personal meaning".

Human touch

Dr Richard Ralley, of Edge Hill University, is currently researching how boredom affects people, to determine whether some personality types cope better than others.

Bored children
Sound familiar? "I'm bored, there's nothing on TV"
"People assume that the opposite of boredom is excitement, so parents take their children to a theme park. Similarly, the information contained on the internet was what everyone expected to relieve people's boredom.

"But quite obviously what humans want is social interactivity - so parents would be better off taking their children on a picnic than to a theme park. And with the internet, people want to engage with each other - that's where the blogs and the chatrooms came from. The other stuff is seen as nerdy now."

Perhaps the astronauts, and those who will simulate their voyage, can learn from oil rig workers, many of whom endure weeks of isolation in remote locations.

Jake Molloy, general secretary of the rig workers' union OILC, says that boredom can be a problem. "If you go to some of the older installations there is very little to do. You just have to sit and read a book in the evenings."

But there is no special training for his workers to deal with the psychological effects of isolation and boredom, despite it being part of the job description.

"You've just got to learn to fit in. If you are in any way easily upset or offended, or have a short fuse, then you shouldn't get into the industry. There are a lot of people who just can't cope."

So, excitable, voluble types need not apply. Yet that is exactly who turns out every year for Big Brother, the reality TV equivalent of the Mars simulation. But the volunteers - and the eventual astronauts - will not have recourse to copious amounts of alcohol, the favoured boredom tonic of the housemates. They will just have to find their own solution.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Boredom is really a form of over-excitement, where your mind has too much energy - and so you feel you want to do something - but is finding it difficult to focus the energy. Sometimes this is through lack of interest in what is around, but generally because you've become over-passive and let your mind run wherever it likes. To counter it, you just have to place your attention on something, and replace it when it moves, until your mind settles. Concentrate!
Iain, England

Andrew has it right. How many people read on public transport these days compared to 20 years ago? Many of the problems occur in childhood where nowadays children demand constant provision of things to watch and do. When I was a kid (and I'm only 25 so not some old crusty) I used to read by myself for hours. I'd while away whole weekends playing with friends or by myself re-enacting scenes from the aforementioned books. I'll admit I also spent a lot of time failing to shoot birds with a hand-made bamboo bow and arrow. I watched TV occasionally, but usually only for limited times. We'd never eat food in front of the TV so at mealtimes we always talked to each other. Maybe it is the decline of these values over time that adds to our propensity to boredom as well as dysfunctional families.
Ellie Thackray, Bingley, UK

I am astonished to hear that boredom is just the "second most commonly suppressed emotion at work". What is the first then? Am I missing something here?
John, Reading, Berkshire, England

I was a submariner for may years and can vouch for the boredom factor. A three month patrol will stretch the most interesting individual's patience. The type of trip the scientists are describing would probably be similar to my own experiences. Long hours, confined spaces, same faces and no contact with home. Submariners spend their life trying to avoid boredom, maybe the scientists should talk to the Navy?
John Hayzen-Smith, Northamptonshire

A desire for instant or near-instant gratification is an obvious cause of boredom in many - an inability to find out how a book develops; to hear a piece of music through to its end; to give oneself enough space without distractions to think interesting thoughts. Witness the free newspapers advertising themselves on the strength that they are "lite". Or the MTV videos that change shot twice a second. I have no evidence for making the claim, but have a gut feeling that the more we limit our capacity to wait, to think, to anticipate, to discover, the greater is our propensity for boredom.
Andrew, Bromley

What a pointless exercise. If they want to see the effects of being locked up for days/weeks/months/years, go and study a group of prisoners - they've gone through it all. We have 80,000 of them who would probably be glad of a little distraction from the mind-numbing life of being locked up.
Trevor, London

I can truthfully say that I never get bored. There are always more things that I want to do than I have time to do, and even when I have to sit and wait for a train or a bus, I can always occupy my mind with planning what I'm going to do next. Boredom is totally inexplicable in a world with so much possibility all around us.
Toby, Farnborough, England

Want to know what boredom feels like? Try invigilating public examinations day in, day out...
Rebecca Wilkinson, Lancaster

This is a PR stunt. All this work on the psychological effects of boredom has already been done by the military. British Antarctic Expedition have already done the work on selecting appropriate individuals. Big Brother merely does the diametric opposite of their recommendations.
Stuee, Bristol

The people chosen will probably be ok as they will be intelligent, highly educated and, unless suffering from personal problems or prone to depression, will be happy and satisfied thinking interesting thoughts. When you commute to work on a train it's easy to spot who wouldn't be suitable for space travel.
Jon, Manchester

As long as they can browse to BBC news then they should be able to get through... it is what every office worker in the country does!
Ashley, Falkirk, UK

Are there any spaces left? I'm an accountant so would be perfectly suited to hours of mind numbing.
Richard, Redditch

I've often heard people say they are dreading retirement as they fear boredom. Why? How can you be bored when you can choose what to do with your time? It doesn't cost money to find plenty of things to do. Boredom is being dictated to by an employer or more often these days by the programme writer of whatever computer system you are using. Roll on retirement. I wonder how many people find their paid employment interesting? There is so much tedious, repetitive and boring work that needs doing, someone has to do it so getting a more interesting job isn't always an option even for the well educated.
Linda, Aberystwyth, Wales

I only clicked on this story cos I was bored. Now I wish I hadn't, as it was a very boring story. I'm bored.
David Gow, Nottingham

Why is there no recourse to alcohol? I can see that alcohol in moderation would work very well to oil the wheels of social interaction. After all it's not going to destroy the spaceship and so long as people don't consume more than the equivalent earth-bound daily amount it's not going to harm them any more than they would do to themselves. If you ask me it's political correctness gone too far, you can ban smoking, you can ban drinking, you can ban chocolate and driving and in fact anything else that might make your life vaguely interesting, and what are you left with? Boredom.
Kevin Houghton, Norwich

I think it would be absolutely mind-numbing, I spent nine hours waiting in Heathrow for a flight and that has shops and TVs and I was bored to the point of exasperation.
Joe Jones, UK

I have a very active 16 month old toddler who gets me up at 6am and keeps me busy pre and post work till about 8.30pm. To me there's now no such thing as boredom as I cherish every bit of quiet time to myself staring into space when I'm not on the move and I can think straight. Oh for nine hours to myself at Heathrow or anywhere.
Mark Slater, Ware, Hertfordshire



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