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Can boredom actually be good for us?

Written 25 June, 2019, 4 minutes to read

In today’s culture of hyper-productivity, we’re conditioned to think that boredom is a bad thing – a waste of time, a period of dull monotony where we could be doing something useful. We immediately turn to our devices to plug the productive holes in our day, feeding an unhealthy habit of passive consumption instead of finding creative solutions to periods of low energy. So is it time to admit that we have a problem? That being bored makes us anxious? That digitizing boredom doesn’t make it go away? Crucially, on some level can boredom actually be good for us?

Fear of boredom

Boredom is a state most of us seek to avoid. We spend huge amounts of time (and money!) trying not to be bored, whether that’s taking evening classes, watching movies or inventing chores just for something to do. We see being bored as a character flaw; it means we’re unimaginative and disengaged – with people and with the world – or just chronically dissatisfied.

Resisting boredom has become an instinct. Think about how many times you’ve felt bored, even for a split second, and picked up your smartphone. Maybe you were having a drink with a friend and they went to the bathroom, and the idea of being alone with your thoughts for mere minutes was too awful to bear. So you probably picked up your phone and you skimmed mindlessly, meaninglessly, without intent or purpose, reading things you don’t care about, just to avoid the faint sensation of boredom – or worse, that people around you will see that you have nothing to do.

But what if we’re doing boredom all wrong? What if by fighting it we’re actually missing out? Many people – particularly people who can resist reaching out for stimuli during quiet times – believe boredom is a positive; that embracing it not only helps our performance, but helps us better understand ourselves.

The benefits of boredom

In spite of what you may think, there are several proven benefits to boredom – both in terms of productivity and creativity. Let’s examine a couple:

Boredom and productivity

Allowing yourself to be bored so you can be more productive may sound contradictory, but in fact this idea is backed up by science. Our concentration is a limited resource, and focusing intently for long periods of time is cognitively expensive. Multiple studies show that taking breaks and allowing our brains to experience boredom helps us focus more powerfully when we return to a task.

This doesn’t mean sitting in silence for hours or watching paint dry all afternoon – just 5 to 15 minutes of boredom is enough to kickstart our productivity. Research by Jonathan Schooler, professor of brain sciences at the University of California, suggests that “mind-wandering may foster a particular kind of productivity”, because it allows our brains to recalibrate. Remember that we are not machines, and our brains need downtime.

Boredom and creativity

Think about when you get your best ideas. Chances are they’re when you’re doing nothing – or at least, not thinking about anything intently. There’s a reason why we get bursts of creativity while doing mundane things like taking a shower or driving to work, or even running or walking. One study required participants to watch videos that stirred emotions like boredom or elation, before their vocabulary was tested: the results showed that bored people were more inventive and creative.

Boredom – or simply letting our brains rest without stimuli – is instrumental for inspiring creativity. Avoiding it, or thinking that allowing our brains to be idle is harmful, is where we go wrong, as the essayist Tim Kreider perfectly summed up in The New York Times: "Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets."

Using boredom to become better people

Can embracing boredom really help you become a better, more well-rounded person? We think so! One big reason many of us try to avoid boredom, or those quiet moments when we’re just sitting doing nothing, is that we’re not comfortable with ourselves. We don’t want to experience moments of introspection; we’re fearful of what we might find inside. So we distract ourselves with diversions.

Gayatri Devi, professor of English at Lock Haven University Pennsylvania, wrote that boredom is only “torturous for people who can’t feel peaceful alone with their minds”. Perhaps instead of running away from boredom, we should lean into it and learn from it. Because how can we ever find a sense of peace if we can’t be peaceful in our own minds? How can we expect others to enjoy our company if we can’t enjoy it ourselves?

We need to change the way we think about boredom. In quiet moments that arise we need to resist the temptation to pick up our phones, to keep ourselves busy, to talk just for the sake of it. Boredom is a lost art, and it’s time we rediscovered it.

Technology shouldn’t be a crutch. See how to lead a healthier relationship with your devices.

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