How to ‘solve’ boredom?

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From ‘Viral Footprints‘ funded by the Wellcome Trust – inspiring people in hospital with the surprising beauty of viruses to spark conversation, thought and making

Is boredom a problem? If you could take a pill to cure boredom – would you take it?

Normally boredom is healthy and helps guide us, maybe unaware – to get up, do something else, change job or find something more interesting to do. We are all curious creatures wanting to interact with the world, and find things,  people and ideas that engage and inspire us. We sink into boredom when we’re somewhere we don’t want to be and constrained so we can’t make changes, and this becomes unhealthy.  The setting could be school, or hospital when you may find yourself no longer surrounded with the things you normally do or being able to get up.

Within a hospital children’s wards are rightly colourful, and playful. There are schools, activity coordinators, charities, colourful images, parents and toys. A child can play with anything and will soon speak up when bored.

But what about for adults in hospital?   How many people speak up about boredom? Wards lack the colour given to children, and there are a lack of activities, people and objects to interact with. TV is usually privatised and expensive, while few can focus on reading books. What about the mind?

What can be done to help?  Over a decade ago there was research into whether pills (an anti-depressant) could help with boredom in hospitals.  It did not.  We need imagination, thought and discussion as to what could make a difference.

It’s unlikely a ‘toolbox’ or single approach to tackling boredom is possible, as it ultimately comes from constraint, and we all like different things. But by recognising boredom and encouraging discussion and thought as to what can help this at least gets everyone thinking.  Boredom comes from a lack of variety.  How can we bring surprise, interest and inspiration to calm and inspire the mind? What would have helped you if you’ve had time in hospital?  There needs to be a wide variety of thoughts and ideas how to turn difficult times into opportunities for some positive and uplifting moments to help the mind in hospital.

All thoughts very welcome!

Spontaneous words capture the boredom in hospital, and joy brought by beautiful images from science and making with a current project ‘Viral Footprints’…

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“kept me entertained”

“had felt bored – learnt something new about viruses”

“felt engaged and cheerful”

“felt a bit worried before”

“anything that occupies the mind to stimulate positive thinking and feeling”

“felt intrigued and learnt something new”

“young men get bored”

“if not happy and spontaneous – not healing”

“no one talks anymore – it’s sad”

“go in hospital and we get lazy – naturally lazy and otherwise we sit there and do nothing”

“feel down if bored”

“it is boredom – a lot of people just sit there – this would be good in the wards”

“gets people together and makes patients talk – everyone just get on phone”

“cheered us up – would otherwise be sleeping”

“there’s a beauty in everything – it’s everywhere, you have to look for it”

“really gets to you – couldn’t believe it – I think it’s extraordinary” (looking at images of viruses)


A classic paper: view of a brick wall or a tree – a measure of boredom?

So much has been happening since my last post, and so much incredible support.  The Anti-boredom Campaign aims to spark research and understanding as well as creating resources.  Over the last few months I’ve read over a hundred papers mostly out of sheer fascination. There is one paper that’s really stood out in my mind from 1984.

Roger Ulrich realised the hospital where he worked was divided between one side looking out onto trees and the other half onto a brown brick wall.  He was curious if a view from a window would have an effect on patients.  To investigate he focused on people who had a cholecystectomy as a standardised operation, and excluded complications and extremes of age, and those with mental health problems.  He was able to retrospectively look back at locations over 9 years as well as outcome, length of stay, amount of analgesics, anti-anxiety medications, complications and nurses notes for 46 patients.   He found no significant differences for anti-anxiety medications. However he found those with a tree view had significantly shorter post-operative stays (7.96 compared to 8.7 days), fewer negative evaluative comments from nurses (1.13 compared to 3.96), took fewer analgesics and slightly lower complications.

What could be the explanation for the difference?  

Ulrich suggests a natural view sustains interest and attention more than an urban view and views of nature may elicit positive feelings to reduce anxiety and stress.  Fascinatingly Ulrich suggests that a brick wall is monotonous but suggests:

“conclusions should not be extended to all built views, nor to other patient groups, such as the long-term patients, who may suffer from low arousal or boredom rather than the anxiety problems typically associated with surgeries”

While Ulrich describes natural views as more interesting and a brick wall as monotonous but seems to suggest beneficial effects may be down to anxiety, even though there wasn’t a difference in anti-anxiety medications between the two groups. While mentioning boredom he seems to dismiss it as relevant to this group of people.

Could the difference between a moving, changing natural scene which is engaging and interesting in comparison to a still, monotonous and dull blank wall be boredom?

Do we start to suffer when faced by a blank wall because we become profoundly bored?   Without anything else to focus on, do we then enter negative mind-wandering and ruminative thoughts?

Did Ulrich measure the effect of boredom in hospital?

Ulrich RS (1984) View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science 224; 420: 1-2


Is there an elephant in the ward?

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“felt good”, “quite pleased with my origami”, “I would never have expected to learn at hospital”, “prevented the onset of boredom”

It seems so obvious but it’s not really been acknowledged that many people in hospital become bored..   Normally at home or in our lives we can move around, do something else, make a cup of tea or get on with our work.  For those in hospital there are often long periods of time waiting unable to focus on reading, and in fairly blank spaces. I encourage people to grab the time and try something new.   After working with someone who was a patient in hospital, she wanted to teach me origami to pass it on..  my head hurt at first with learning something new but the sense of achievement as to what can be done with something as simple as a piece of paper is fantastic as can be seen above.

Can we make sure are some options for what to do while waiting beyond word-puzzles/magazines – can hospital be a time to inspire those in difficult times to focus beyond and maybe even make a moment in time happy?

I certainly find this happens over and over again given gentle encouragement and genuine enthusiasm and interest…  Wonderful things happen if someone can just say yes!

Been bowled over by the response from so many with the emergence of the Anti-boredom Campaign to start encouraging awareness, debate and the feeling that it is possible to do something…   Somehow this is allowing an otherwise silent issue to be named – but with that the possibilities become exciting…

Here are just a few of the things all sorts of people have said to me recently…

“just accepted isn’t it (boredom in hospital)?”

“need randomness when concentration not good”

“colour helps grab concentration and your eye”

“my mum was in hospital for two months and she’s made a really good recovery, and now she begs us in tears not to even call the GP as she’s afraid she will be sent back to hospital as nothing else to do but start at the walls. As well as being bored all of that time to brood about everything – her health, mortality, her family caring for her – everything that would make her miserable when bored”

“if seriously unwell don’t have the concentration for books – can’t concentrate and can’t be bothered”

“rubbish tv – don’t know how people watch it”

“it is boring – reading is difficult”

“you’re stuck”

“in hospital ward doesn’t change – so not much to talk about”

(the Anti-boredom Campaign) – “it’s a revolution”

Can we bring in more colour, things to spark interest, conversation, making and ways to stimulate the mind?  Let’s bring some moments of joy to those who could so appreciate a ‘holiday for the mind’.  Let the Anti-boredom Campaign bring awareness, listening, understanding and spark creative people to help find ways to make hospitals a bit more interesting for adults…

Let’s acknowledge what has been unspoken – and let a colourful inspiring revolution begin!





Why adults?



Everyone thinks about children in hospital.  There are colourful surroundings, play specialists, schools, charities, toys, parents and everyone will make an effort to be fun and playful around children. A child can always play – with anything.  They hopefully are a lot less aware as to what is happening, and the implications of being in hospital and the impact an illness may have on their lives. This is wonderful, and how it should be..

But what about adults?

There are no colourful surroundings. You enter functional spaces easy to clean, often with little on the walls – or possibly if there are images on the wall they may be related to illness such as images of bed sores.  There are no things to interact with and do, unlike children and their toys.  Few can focus on reading even if organised enough to bring in a book – and most of us do not plan to end up in hospital. If there is TV you probably have to pay for it which can get costly if in hospital for a while – and honestly how does daytime TV make you feel?  There are rarely social spaces for adults… While many of us have smartphones or computers there is only so much you may want to do.  Options are truly limited and it’s not surprising many adults feel bored in hospital.

Put an adult in a blank room with nothing to interact with and their minds will start to wander. While we may be able to start thinking of interesting or fun things, for most of us in hospital our minds are most likely to run into what ifs, and the uncertainty and worry of being diagnosed with illness.  We suffer from the burden of our awareness, and have lost the ability to play..

We need excitement to counteract the mundane. We need resources that are suitably challenging and sophisticated for adults. This needs to be done with suitable intelligence and respect to avoid being patronising. We need to go beyond word-searches and crosswords. We need imagination to think together what can be done to help adults in hospitals escape from debilitating boredom…

What do we need to feel alive?




Origami to break boredom…


Boredom is a negative state lacking challenge and focus..  Become released through the simplicity of folding a piece of paper to bring focus and challenge.  Without flowers in hospitals making origami flowers brings that much needed connection with nature, and meaning we all need.  Flowers are a wish to get better and bring colour and kindness to others…

Thank you Angela (Global Mobile Origami) for getting in touch and for sharing your passion for origami in helping others too.  Looking forward to what will unfold!