Health and wellness

Why boredom on the Hong Kong commute can be bad for your health, and how to beat it

Studies show uninteresting and meaningless activity is associated with health and psychological problems, from obesity and binge drinking to substance abuse, but combating it can lead to a happier and more productive life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 October, 2017, 1:15pm
UPDATED : Monday, 16 October, 2017, 7:07pm

The daily commutes most Hongkongers dismiss as boring are not a waste of time for journalist Katie Kwok – she uses those hours to come up with story ideas. “While most commuters choose to lose themselves in their smartphones, I prefer to use that time to observe the people around me … I relish these mindless moments on public transport to draw inspiration from my environment and think of story ideas based on what I see.”

Boredom also is not an issue for Reena Rodrigo, who has a creative job in the retail industry. Instead of taking a nap on her way to and from the office, she browses Instagram photos or watches YouTube videos on her smartphone.

“This inspires me to think of point-of-sale materials for our products and come up with new promotional ideas for our store,” she says. “It’s easy to get bored during these long rides, so I always try to put the time to good use.”

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While boredom can foster creativity by relaxing the brain, encouraging our minds to wander and pushing us to develop inner resources, it has been linked to health problems – from obesity to substance abuse. A British study, published in 2015 in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, revealed that when we’re bored, we are more likely to gorge on high-calorie, fattening foods. Another study, published in 2010 in the International Journal of Epidemiology, found that people who are easily bored are more likely to smoke, binge drink and take drugs.

According to Joyce Chao, a clinical psychologist at Dimensions Centre in Central, boredom is associated with a lack of stimulation and engagement. It’s easy to feel bored during activities that don’t stimulate us or seem meaningless.

When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting
Jon Kabat-Zinn

“It’s all about the need to feel engaged,” says Chao. “We do boring, repetitive things every day, but we don’t always feel bored doing them because we’re engaged with them in some way. On the other hand, if we find ourselves in situations that don’t engage us, we start to feel bored, and this boredom can show up in negative ways.”

Besides destructive behaviour, other negative consequences of chronic boredom include depression, absenteeism from work or school, reduced job satisfaction, and the sense that life has no meaning.

An American study about boredom, published this year in the journal Emotion, found that it is more likely to accompany negative emotions such as loneliness, anger, sadness and worry, rather than happiness, hope, or relief. Also, it is more prevalent among men, youths, the unmarried, and those on lower incomes. The study showed the differences in how these demographic groups spent their time accounted for up to one-third of the observed differences in overall boredom: for instance, situations involving monotonous or difficult tasks, such as working or studying, or contexts where autonomy might be constrained – such as time with colleagues or at school – translated to higher incidences of boredom.

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The authors of the study found that boredom emerged from situations in which engagement is difficult.

“Boredom can set in when we find ourselves doing something ‘because we have to’ or ‘for the sake of it’ – for example, being forced to work in a job we dislike just to make money, or studying a subject we have no interest in just so that we can pass an exam,” Chao says. “This shows how important it is to engage ourselves with the things that we do and to find meaning in these activities.”

King Lau, a facility security coordinator, staves off boredom with volunteer work. When the 45-year-old moved to Hong Kong from Britain in 2012, he didn’t know many people and didn’t get out much. During the past five years, he has volunteered at more than 700 events and programmes, including The North Face 100 ultra trail race and City University’s student leadership initiative Project Star. He’s also helped non-governmental and non-profit organisations, from Food Angel (distributing leftover food to those who most need it) and Soap Cycling (salvaging and recycling soap from hotel rooms) to IMC Sunday School.

“It makes me feel good to connect and interact with others like myself, and to see the smiles on the faces of the people we help,” he says. “More importantly, volunteering gives me a sense of purpose. I’m making meaningful use of my time and my life feels fuller because of it.”

A meaningful activity can also be fun. Hong Kong residents Carol DeCandido and Jacqueline Chia recently started Mozaic, a social e-club for the over-40s looking for others to share activities with. “Jacqueline and I felt there weren’t many opportunities for over-40s to meet new friends in Hong Kong,” says Mozaic managing partner DeCandido. “As our children leave home and our friends retire and leave Hong Kong, and some of us become divorced or widowed, it becomes harder for us to meet people outside the work environment for socialisation.”

Mozaic members can choose from wine-tasting events, educational talks and after-work drinks, to junk trips around the harbour with dinner and dancing, and outdoor activities such as kayaking or windsurfing. Groups are limited to eight to 12 people.

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Chao says it is important to explore our emotions and challenge ourselves to find the answers to counter boredom. “Pay attention to the boredom. Then ask yourself what activities give you a sense of purpose, happiness and excitement. Ask yourself what activities help you feel more connected to others. Pay attention to your internal world. When you’re more aware of how you feel, you’ll learn how to engage yourself internally, which is a positive thing, and you’re more likely to come up with solutions for yourself that actually work.”

She cites American author and mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn: “When you pay attention to boredom, it gets unbelievably interesting.”