Are you bad at being bored? Megan Roantree says it’s actually good for you
Even when we’re doing nothing, we’re doing something. If we’re chilling on the couch watching Netflix, we’re on our phones, scrolling through Insta, sending tweets about what we’re watching (#loveisland) or maybe even answering emails. When we’re going on a stroll around the park for some peace and fresh air, we’re listening to a true-crime podcast or on Spotify checking out Taylor Swift’s new song. There is no such thing as doing nothing any more – but that’s necessarily not a good thing.
Being bored may once have been seen as a bad thing, but maybe we could use some boredom in 2019. It seems that over time we’ve gotten bad at being bored, and maybe it’s because we’re afraid of it.
When you think of being bored, you may think of doing nothing, so sitting indoors on a rainy day with no plans. You may instantly think about what you could do instead, from watching something to making plans to getting some work done, anything but be bored.
“It’s because people see it as something negative,” says Sandi Mann, author of The Science of Boredom: The Upside (and Downside) of Downtime.
“If we are bored the suggestion is that we are not busy enough, important enough, maybe even intelligent enough. Maybe it even suggests we are boring! Parents are especially afraid of kids being bored because they are expected to stimulate them at all times, which can make people feel that bored kids equal poor parenting.”
And maybe we feel like we don’t have time to be bored because of the ‘busy’ culture we’re currently dealing with. Young career-focused people are expected to stay late, always be reachable via phone and email and be grateful for being overworked. In a time when overworking is almost glamourised and burnout is a buzzword, we need to reclaim boredom.
Of course, work isn’t the only culprit, as, like almost everything else, phones and the digital age in general play a big part too.
“Technology has lowered our attention spans and lowered our thresholds for boredom,” Sandi explains. “This is because we are using technology to swipe and scroll our boredom away instead of using our own creativity. Technology is also so fast-paced and constantly changing – this means we become reliant on novelty and can’t cope when things do not change so much.”
It’s true – you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t have headphones in their ears on every bus, train or walk every day. This means that we are never without voices, sounds, pictures and videos in our heads, which sounds pretty claustrophobic when it’s put like that!
If there’s always something else occupying your mind, from a podcast host’s voice to an ad popping up or dozens of different pics on your Insta feed every minute, there’s not much space for your own thoughts. This can stop us from being present and living in the moment, and letting our mind idly wander – which can be good for you.
Boredom has lots of benefits and there are studies to prove it. One such study, from the University of Limerick in 2011 found that boredom can literally make you a better person. Apparently, when bored, people feel like their actions are meaningless which then motivates them to engage in more meaningful behaviour to rectify this feeling. Co-Author of the study Wijnand van Tilburg explained that boredom promotes prosocial behaviour because when we allow ourselves to be bored, rather than find something quick to fill the void, we seek something bigger. Van Tilburg found that people began donating to charity or signing up for blood donations as they had more empathy and a desire to do something significant.
We regularly panic that toddlers are spending too much time playing on their parents’ phones because it limits their imagination and creativity, and yet, we don’t apply this line of thinking to ourselves. Another study, by Sandi Mann along with Rebekah Cadman found that boredom boosted creativity. They got three groups, one who had to the boring job of copying numbers from a phonebook, others who could skip the task and then a group who had to just read the phonebook (the most boring task!). They were asked to come up with uses for plastic cups and those who had the most boring job came up with significantly more ideas. This is probably because the heightened the daydream effect, in which your boredom allows you to let your mind wander and even come up with great ideas. “Boredom definitely helps our minds wander and daydreaming is an important part of thinking clearly and problem-solving,” Sandi adds.
This is something she expands on in her book, which says: “When we’re bored, we seek out novel and new stimuli and it is this that is thought to be of evolutionary benefit. Would early man have invented fire, or wheels, if he had not had time on his hands in which to develop new ideas? Similarly today it’s often boredom that causes us to seek out new things, develop new ideas and come up with new ideas – all of which benefit us.”
Boredom can also allow you to be more productive and deal with important things you’ve been putting off.
If you have time to think about that pain you’ve been ignoring or that appointment you need to book, you may actually do something about it. When we’re kept busy at all times we’re sometimes too busy to deal with something crucial. Perhaps it’s time you sat down and let yourself think about how you’re feeling and what needs doing.
We need to become accustomed to one thing at a time, something we rarely do these days. And that shouldn’t equate to boredom but for our busy brains, it does. The better we become at doing just one thing the better we will become at listening and being present. How many times have you scrolled through your phone while a friend told you a story? Being aware of this, and just, not doing it, can make you not only a better listening, and a more patient person, but a better friend.
So how do we let ourselves be bored? No one is suggesting you sit alone in a dark room for hours on end, but being more aware of the idea can help you to harness it.
“We need to have the time and space to do nothing,” Sandi explains, “We need to learn to tolerate boredom and lack of stimulation and not reach for our phones automatically to swipe and scroll the boredom away.”
Allow yourself to go for a walk without your phone, or plan some time over your weekend to just do nothing. Even just taking it all into account, and changing what you associate with boredom will help you to be more present. So let yourself be bored, and amazing things could happen.