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The Benefits of Boredom
by Wendy Priesnitz

Having nothing to do can be a great tool for developing creativity.

Over the centuries, many religions and philosophers (not to mention mothers!) have feared and even damned boredom. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called it “the root of all evil”. Wordsworth described it as a “savage torpor”. Early Christians classified it as one of the seven deadly sins. We talk about being “bored to death”, “bored stiff”, “bored to tears” and “bored silly”. Crime waves are often blamed on disaffected youths who claim they cannot find anything else to do. 

However, in addition to negatively numbed minds, there are also constructively bored minds. If one is brave enough to hang out with boredom for awhile (in oneself or one’s children), boredom can be the great motivator, a push to develop one’s inner resources and a tool for creativity. 

Here’s what writer F. Scott Fitzgerald had to say on the topic: “Boredom is not an end product; it is, comparatively, rather an early stage in life and art. You’ve got to go by or past or through boredom, as through a filter, before the clear product emerges.” 

Many times while writing I have found myself lingering over the keyboard, considering some new procrastination tactic, feeling bored and uninspired with my work and unable to write another word. But I pushed on through those feelings, past that situation, because I am a writer...and thus motivated to write (partly because I love the very process as much as the rewards that come with the product). Actually, as I think about it, I did more than push through boredom; it pushed me. 

Boredom seems to have been the mechanism that prompted me to clear my mind and refocus. Sometimes I’d go for a walk or clean the kitchen. But I didn’t stay bored for long, because I began to look around and notice things I hadn’t seen before – including new thoughts. Maybe the unfocused time had allowed my mind to rest and my subconscious to scan the horizon for a new perspective, which was followed by new interest in the task at hand. For whatever reason, soon I would be back engrossed in productive work. And inevitably, that work would be better than what I was producing earlier. 

Psychologist and author Mihaly Csikszentmihaly would say I was back into the flow. Csikszentmihalyi is chiefly known as the architect of the notion of flow in creativity. He describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” 

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So maybe, when we’re bored, we seek to feel those good feelings associated with flow. In his book Beyond Boredom and Anxiety: Experiencing Flow in Work and Play Csikszentmihaly examines motivation based on a study of a half-dozen groups of people involved in pursuits like rock climbing, composing, dancing and playing chess. He chose these groups in an effort to understand more fully what motivates people to stop watching boring television shows and instead, engage in activities that are extremely challenging or offer few external rewards (like writing a poem or pondering a chess move). He found, simply (and these are my words – he seldom writes simply), that the answer is in the high they get from experiencing flow. 

I remember as an only child feeling bored sometimes (at least that is how it was labeled at the time), especially during summer vacation when my time wasn’t programmed by somebody else. If my mother noticed, she would nag at me to “do something”, then she might create some busy work to try and alleviate my boredom. It seldom worked, possibly because I was stubborn enough to reject her suggestions on general principle, probably because she confused solitude with idleness, maybe because you can’t alleviate somebody else’s boredom for them, and often because I wasn’t really bored, but tinkering, messing about, just looking like I was doing nothing. And sometimes, my cries of boredom were really cries for my mother’s attention, rather than for one of her projects designed to keep me out of her way. Eventually my down time would end and I would find something new and more challenging to do than the busy work she provided. If left alone long enough, boredom motivated me, forced me to lean on my own inner resources, to develop my imagination and to envision wonderful possibilities. Maybe I was subconsciously looking for things that would let me experience flow! And probably there was lots going on in my subconscious while I was bored, which surfaced at some later time. 

At other times, I remember being bored because I was disinterested in what the adults around me were chatting about. Bored with the conversation, I would become enthralled with people’s voices and with the sounds of their words and their accents. Later, in the safety of my own room, I would try to replicate those accents, an activity which no doubt increased my vocabulary and trained my ear for future writing projects. In the same way, I once watched my young daughter lying on a blanket under a tree. As she grew weary with observing the passing clouds and gently blowing branches, she suddenly sat up and began to point out faces, animals and other objects that she was seeing above her. Soon, she had picked up a pencil and was feverishly drawing what she was imagining. Boredom turned quickly to creativity; doing nothing had allowed her to “see” things in a new way and inspired her to “do something” as her grandmother would have worriedly urged if she had been there. 

At any rate, and contrary to my mother’s concerns, boredom got neither me nor my daughter into trouble. Nor, as is so often a concern, did it turn either of us into passive people waiting to be entertained or taught. My life learning daughter was already fully engaged in the world, eagerly entertaining herself and others, and actively learning from life. As for me, I already was a bit inclined toward passivity, as a result of being trained in school to accept the prospect of repetitive tasks, rote learning and intellectual conformity. I like to think it was the boredom of school, combined with my comfort in being alone born of the solitude of being an only child, in an era of little or no influence from television, that allowed me to become a prolific creator. 

If that is true, I was lucky. One of the main things I wanted to avoid for my daughters by allowing them to learn outside of the school system was the numbing lack of imagination that has created the repetitive and monotonous way we deal with learning in the school setting. 

Given that most of us experienced that type of schooling, it is no wonder a distaste for boredom and drive for diversion is embedded in our culture. Ironically, work, education and even many of our leisure pursuits often involve what seem like difficult, unpleasant and boring chores. For too many people, making a living is something one does not out of joy, but in order to earn enough money to stay home on weekends and a couple of weeks in the summer, and on which to retire early. Learning skills like reading and multiplying is thought to be difficult and painful, and has to be forced on children. Keeping fit often involves forcing ourselves to eat things we don’t like and pound the pavement or pedal to nowhere on a stationary bike once a day. And even our attempts at entertaining ourselves involve brief diversions through watching the latest pseudo-reality television show or banal hit song rather than a joyful flexing of our own creative powers. 

Knowing the way life learning challenges the schooling mentality, just think what would happen if everyone started to act on the motivation of boredom and look for ways to live totally in the flow! I am willing to bet that besides a lot of happy and creative people, we would also have fewer bored, antisocially behaving young people, but that’s another article. 

We certainly would, I believe, be a calmer group of people. This morning, as I sat writing at a sidewalk café, I wondered whether all the people speeding by me were really fruitfully engaged in the world, or if their rushing to and fro was mostly an effort to avoid boredom, to keep their minds active and engaged. 

What if, I wondered, as I enjoyed the sites and smells of the early morning, more people paid attention to the journey of life, not just the destination? What if they paid more attention to their experiences moment by moment? I suspect they would find that boredom is, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, a filter through which emotions, experiences and, yes, solitude can pass, resulting in a soaring of creativity and imagination – not to mention less stress. They might also find that it can be an alarm bell, motivating us to alter the way we are thinking, living and learning. Unlike caged animals whose neural pathways are altered by their boredom to the point that all they can do is pace, we humans have the potential to break through anything that limits our happiness and creativity, boredom included.

Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural Life Magazine and Life Learning Magazine, and the author of Challenging Assumptions in Education, as well as thirteen other books. This article first appeared in the July/August, 2004 issue of Life Learning magazine.

 

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