6 Benefits of Boredom: How to Embrace Doing Nothing
Many of us spend much of our time bouncing from one thing to the next. And if we do have any downtime or some space between tasks, rather than allow ourselves time to take a breath, we tend to pick up our phones and scroll or swipe, or turn on the TV, radio, or streaming service. In other words, we give ourselves something to do. Our minds are constantly enveloped. And we’ve forgotten how to be bored. Yet while it can be uncomfortable, there are surprising benefits of boredom.
Because of the way our world provides constant stimulation, boredom can seem scary. Our minds are naturally always seeking novel, new experiences. Unfortunately, the digital world always matches that want with something new to show us. And sadly, the more we have, the more we need. So, we have an even lower threshold for boredom. In other words, paradoxically, all that time spent on devices both destroys our tolerance for boredom and prevents us from being fully entertained or engaged.
Yep, boredom is both easier to come by and more uncomfortable. Thus, most of us push it away and seek out even more stimuli.
This isn’t all for the good. Boredom, it turns out, is a key to living a more vibrant and creative life. And a little downtime to do nothing is something we should all embrace and even seek out.
How to Deal with Boredom
Watching paint dry or water boil… or waiting in line, at a traffic light, or in a waiting room… or working on a mundane task… can lead to “mind-numbing” discomfort. Many of us find ourselves fidgeting, picking up a smart device, or tuning into a podcast or some tunes to fend off the discomfort.
Admittedly, boredom does have some downsides. For example, it’s been linked to negative behaviors like:
- Bad driving
- Mindless snacking
- Binge drinking
- Risky sex
- Problem gambling
And, many of us will do nearly anything to avoid the distress of feeling bored. Research has found that up to two-thirds of us even prefer pain over boredom. For example, one research study found people gave themselves shocks to disrupt monotony rather than just sitting alone with their thoughts for a mere 15 minutes. 1 Ouch! Yet the best way to deal with boredom may be to actually delve into it more deeply. 2
Sure, we’ve heard of the benefits of yoga or meditation. That’s not what we are talking about. Boredom is when we have nothing to do, nothing to think about, and nowhere to go. It’s time to let yourself be, to stare off into nothing, and to allow the mind to wander wherever it goes.
The more you allow yourself to be bored, the more you get used to it, and the better you learn to manage it without distractions. That’s when you can start to leverage the benefits of boredom.
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6 Benefits of Boredom
1. Boost Creativity
When we’re bored, our minds have the space to daydream, which is vital for creativity. For example, allowing boredom to sink in can be one of the best ways to find the solution to a complex problem, especially one that’s been alluding you.
Researchers from the University of Central Lancashire, for example, took two groups of volunteers and gave one a boring task to perform (such as reading or copying numbers from a phone book) versus a control group. They then gave both groups a creative task. Surprisingly, the bored group showed the greatest levels of creativity, perhaps because the bored participants were more likely to daydream and tap into their natural creative powers. 3
Other researchers from Penn State University found that watching boring videos led to an increase in convergent thinking or the ability to figure out the correct solution for a given situation. 4
2. Increase Brain Functioning
When we’re bored, our minds wander. While we may believe this is just a waste of time, according to research, it’s actually the opposite. 5 Not only can a wandering mind lead to greater creativity, it can also improve our ability to plan for the future and increase cognitive functioning.
This appears to be especially true for folks who have higher goal orientation or a higher need for cognition as well as for those who are highly open to new experiences. That is, people who are more likely to have novelty-seeking behaviors (i.e., look for different or unusual ways of doing things) can benefit the most from boredom. 6
3. Improve Mental Health
When left to your own devices, how often do you reach for modern technology to offer stimuli? We’re just as guilty as anyone else. Yet more and more research is showing all that dependence on smartphones and other external stimulation is bad for our brains. It can lead to, for example, higher levels of stress and anxiety and other types of negative psychological states.7
Stepping away from devices gives us a chance to escape the daily onslaught of too much (often unnecessary) information, allowing us to think, plan, and become more creative and resilient. Plus, it allows us to daydream as a short escape from the mundane, which allows the mind to recharge. 3
4. Appreciate the Good Times
If we’re always jumping from one excitement to the next, never having time for a dip in energy, we can forget to appreciate how amazing our lives are. We may just take it all for granted. If we’re completely satisfied, we may never give ourselves the chance to pursue greater meaning or enjoyment.
5. Promote Change
A lot of people feel stuck in a rut—constantly running on the treadmill of life, even if they aren’t happy with the direction. Boredom can help us make important and needed changes in our lives. It encourages us to pursue new goals, have higher ambitions, and reengage in what’s important to us. It also opens up new opportunities for social, mental, emotional, and experiential stimulation we may have been missing out on. 8
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6. Encourage Kindness
Tied into the benefit of boredom above, research has also found boredom can trigger us to search for meaning in our own lives as well as help us engage in more meaningful activities. It’s also been found to help people act more prosocial. 9 For example, boredom has been found to encourage people to donate money or time to charity, donate blood, or volunteer more often. So, boredom, when embraced, may even help us become better people.
How to Embrace Boredom
Since most of us have fought off boredom since childhood, learning to embrace it and inviting more boredom into our days can be challenging. Here are just a few ways to reap the benefits of boredom:
- Work on a boring, repetitive task
- Read a boring book (like a phone book or directory)
- Copy numbers or data
- Sort beans, buttons, or crayons by color
- Be open to boring meetings or work tasks
- Walk around a track or the same block (just pick a familiar route)
- Swim laps
- Sit with your eye closed, in silence, and allow your mind to wander
Remember to leave your phone or other smart devices at home or at least put away. The goal is to avoid stimulation and distraction rather than giving in to it.
Once the boring task is completed, it’s time to turn on your creativity. Turn toward a problem you’ve been trying to solve or consider what makes you happy and how you can do more of what you love. Or, if you want to repeat the results of the study, brainstorm ideas for a given problem.
Alternatively, you can follow up the boring activities that come up naturally in life (e.g., long meetings, getting stuck in traffic, training films, lectures, entering data, making copies, etc.) with activities that require increased productivity, brain power, or creativity to make the most of the boredom you’ve experienced. In other words, leverage the boredom that pops up from time to time by using the time after to examine problems, consider solutions, and use your thinking skills to come up with more creative ideas. 10
The next time you find yourself thinking, “I’m so bored,” rather than grabbing your phone or finding some other way to distract yourself, embrace the many benefits of boredom. You might just open yourself up to your next big opportunity or solution!