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The Benefits of Boredom

Posted By Mark Sisson On May 30, 2013 @ 8:00 am In Personal Improvement | 78 Comments

No matter how old – and busy – I get in life, when summer rolls around, I still think of the leisure of the season as a kid. As much as I looked forward to the open-ended days of running wild, however, at some point I’d inevitably find myself bored. My best friend would be away on vacation. The weather would be too consistent. Whatever the case, I’d find myself feeling like I’d seen and done all there was to do a million times over. I’d mope and grumble (gaining no sympathy in the process). In those days, there was no gadgetry to surrender attention to. It was mostly the power of invention and imagination – the two best aspects of childhood if you ask me. Eventually, I’d conjure something good enough to get out of my funk. In fact, my greatest schemes and misadventures seem to have came out of those lulls. The thought makes me wonder: in this age of easy preoccupation, do we undervalue boredom?

There’s an ecard floating around on Facebook of a woman sitting noting “that awkward moment” of not knowing if she really has time to sit or if she’s just forgetting everything she’s supposed to be doing. There’s adult truth in that – the endless succession of chores, work, bills, errands, calls, emails, and other obligations that overspill every hour of the day. Boredom can seem like such a remote luxury. Why, then, in the free moments we undeniably have do we so mindlessly reach for the gadgetry [7], newspaper [8], or whatever else is handy? What do we fear or loathe so deeply about being unoccupied?

Just as I think it’s a good idea for mental health to unplug from the 24/7 media stream [9], I’d say we do ourselves a service by leaving these gaps unfilled. Boredom certainly stands in opposition to the prevailing culture – a provocative enough feature to get my interest. We shouldn’t have time for it, we’re told, which to me usually suggests something deserves more attention than it’s getting.

Sure, we’re a species that benefited from it’s own selected-for neophilia [10]. We got where we’re at not by drumming our fingers and yawning the day away. Get out there and migrate – darn it! Kill something. Make some better clothes, for Pete’s sake. As the research shows, we all – some of us perhaps more than others, however – are products of a gene that lit a fire under our ancestors [11]. Today, that same “novelty-seeking” characteristic can keep us vibrant throughout our lives as we both enlarge and challenge ourselves with rich experiences. Yet, our ancestors’ ample leisure time [12] was inevitably the resource that inspired critical inventions, imagined novel skills, and elicited pivotal strategies in facets of life as diverse as social relations and navigation for those grand adventures. Our ancestors couldn’t really have had one without the other (although it’s hard to believe they thought of it as boredom). Why do we think we can?

It’s hard to talk about experiencing boredom without also thinking about the worry of being boring as well as bored. I read something the other day that suggested we tend to not care as much about getting “boring” as we get older. As social psychologist and director of Columbia University’s Motivation Science Center, Heidi Grant Halvorson, explains [13], over the years we tend to be less motivated by accumulating and accessing the “new” in life (e.g. things, opportunities) and more interested in “preserving” what we already have. Likewise, she notes, research suggests we tend to view happiness less in terms of euphoria [14] and more in terms of contentment. Although I think these age-associated patterns make sense, they likely unfold differently for different people. Speaking for myself, I would say I do more “adventurous” activities now than when I was younger, but I didn’t have the time and resources in my younger years. That said, I imagine I probably approach them differently than my 20- or even 30-something self would have. I take my time mountain climbing – not because I need the rest but because I look at the views more. I plan my trips with more time spent on fewer activities. The detail and nuance of experiences matter more to me.

Maybe boredom teaches us something similar. Can life – should life – be a string of stimulation? What do we get out of good old-fashion bouts of boredom? Beyond living in environments of genuine deprivation, it’s more a matter of engagement. Researchers have attempted [15] to define boredom from a neurological standpoint, situating it in the context of attention and labeling it as the momentary inability to “engage in satisfying activity.” Yet, other research and conceptualizations gesture toward what lies beyond the initial agitation. Studies suggest [16] we’re more creative in our work, for example, when we’re bored because we tend to daydream and make novel connections as a result [17].

Sure, it’s at first a state of frustration and longing (with a little resentment thrown in). When we finally get bored with our own irritation and give up bellyaching about the sensation, however, we end up quieting ourselves, maybe even emptying ourselves, which begins to sound (and feel) rather Zen. We might start to notice details we never have – pictures in the grain of a wooden window sill, the growth of plantings in the yard. We begin to reflect in ways we often miss – examining the arc of our lives, the growth of our kids. We’re open to what’s in front of us – or perhaps what lies deep within us. Either way, we can lose ourselves in that state and access something rich. Boredom – followed to its logical conclusion – becomes its own unique state of flow [18].

Like the woman in the ecard, I think we easily forget how much we get out of boredom.

I have to admit, as a Type A, it’s a challenge for me to unwind and disconnect enough to leave ample room for boredom, but I recognize it as a subtle but significant element of the Primal Blueprint [19] in practice. I have to push myself toward inactivity and quiet, but when I do I’m always grateful. I’m not only proud of myself for resisting the temptations of all the “at-hand” distractions; I’m treated to a mental re-booting and even a new way of seeing at times. I come away feeling like I’ve followed something knowing and instinctual. Boredom isn’t so much an experience itself but our resistance to an innate level of being. Open the door more often, and you’ll get a better understanding of what’s behind it.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. When was the last time you were bored? How do you make the most of it?


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[7] mindlessly reach for the gadgetry: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/mired-in-media/

[8] newspaper: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/how-the-news-impacts-your-health-and-what-you-can-do-about-it/

[9] unplug from the 24/7 media stream: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/13-ways-to-spend-less-time-online-and-reclaim-your-real-life/

[10] neophilia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neophile

[11] are products of a gene that lit a fire under our ancestors: http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/02/14/science/novelty-seeking-neophilia-can-be-a-predictor-of-well-being.html?single=1

[12] our ancestors’ ample leisure time: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/hunter-gatherer-leisure-time/

[13] explains: http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/05/how-happiness-changes-with-age/276274/

[14] euphoria: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/ie-the-power-of-intermittent-euphoria/

[15] attempted: http://pps.sagepub.com/content/7/5/482

[16] suggest: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130108201517.htm

[17] daydream and make novel connections as a result: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/the-power-of-daydreaming/

[18] state of flow: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/flow/

[19] Primal Blueprint: http://www.primalblueprint.com/products/The-Primal-Blueprint%3A-Updated-and-Expanded-%28Paperback-Edition%29.html

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