The joy of boredom

Illustration by Julia Hermansson for Virgin.com

When author and entrepreneur Rob Moore finished his book, Life Leverage, he retired “feeling like retirement would give me freedom”. Instead, it just brought boredom. But from that boredom came something positive.

“Ultimately, it just freed up mindspace,” he says. “Hundreds of ideas for new books, my podcast and new business ventures just came to me. I’m sure they were always floating around. I just couldn’t see them because I was either busy, or positively stressed – making things happen rather than letting things happen.

“When you are busy, you don’t have time for new opportunities. When you are bored you have all the time for new opportunities. Boredom creates energy and hunger to take on new and meaningful tasks.”

The boredom seekers

Rob’s experience isn’t unusual. In a world where it can be banished at the touch of a button, boredom is becoming increasingly valued. “As in all things, we seek rarity,” says Alf Rehn, professor of innovation, design and management at the University of Southern Demark and author of Innovation for the Fatigued.

“I can remember a time when there was nothing on TV, which is something my children can’t fathom. With an endless array of information and entertainment, boredom has become something of a rarity – perhaps, even, the new luxury. We want to switch off, do a digital detox, just sit and stare at the ocean, but we also have a massive fear of missing out. No wonder we desire a thing which seems so difficult and dangerous as proper, old-school boredom.”

Alf Rehn

A lifelong need

So, why are more and more of us seeking out this state? Because we recognise that we need it. There’s a growing body of research, for example, which shows just how important boredom is for a child’s development.

“It’s good to help children to find their own ways to engage their attention, occupy their free time and develop their ideas by not providing constant entertainments and prescribed games and activities,” says Dr Teresa Belton of the University of East Anglia, and author of Happier People Healthier Planet.

“It will help them to learn to take initiatives, to develop independence, develop their own ideas, and to take responsibility for themselves, rather than being or feeling dependent on adults or stuff or ready-made activities for filling their time and engaging their attention.” 

Space to create

And the need to keep that space is just as important when we grow up. “The philosopher Kierkegaard once termed boredom as the prequel to creation,” says psychotherapist Dr Jo Gee.

“Studies have consistently shown that samples of bored people come up with a higher number of creative ideas than non-bored samples. It’s thought that boredom opens up space for the new and different, whilst also leading the brain to search for stimulation. It could be that the new ideas our brain seeks to come up with are the antidote for our boredom.”

What is boredom?

But if you want to use boredom to spark creativity, it’s useful to first define exactly what boredom is. Dr Gee cites ‘a state of mind we experience when our mind is hungry,’ while Dr Belton says that when we are bored we feel under-stimulated. “Nothing in the outer environment, or in our own mind, engages or holds our attention. I consider boredom to be the feeling of discomfort that arises out of this lack of engagement. It can feel like a dead end, or frustrating, or draining of mental energy.”

Dr John Eastwood

Clinical psychologist Dr John Eastwood founded the Boredom Lab at York University in Ontario, Canada, to study people’s experience of boredom. He says that two core underlying factors have to be present for you to be bored.

“The first is what I call a desire bind – you want to do something, but you don’t want to do anything in particular. It’s a desire without an object. And the second is that you have to be mentally unoccupied. Your cognitive resources and your mental capacities are under-utilised.”

But just being bored doesn’t necessarily mean the ideas will start flowing. Boredom is a negative feeling, even though its outcomes can be positive, Dr Gee points out. Research has found that it activates areas of our brain which link to negative emotions like fear and disgust, as well as areas that govern our ability to plan and behave in a goal-driven way.

It’s not as simple as saying ‘boredom is good for you’

The downside

“It’s not as simple as saying ‘boredom is good for you,’ says Dr Eastwood. “Let’s use the analogy of physical pain. If you’re born without the capacity to feel pain, you’ll end up doing great damage to your body because you don’t know your hand is on the burner. Pain keeps us safe – but that doesn’t mean we should cultivate it, or nurture it. Similarly, boredom keeps us from stagnation, but I wouldn’t say we should wallow in it, or cultivate it.”

Dr Belton agrees that boredom per se is not necessarily a good thing. “What is good is allowing the mind to disengage. Boredom is actually bad for our health and wellbeing if we experience too much of it, and if we cannot escape it, for example if we’re in an under-demanding, routine or repetitive job which does not use our skills or stretch us.”

What we actually seek when we look for ‘boredom’, she says, is the space we’ve lost in our always-on world. “Today’s world is full of visual, auditory and social stimuli, and sometimes we just need to switch off and have a break from the bombardment. Society seems to be very product-focused, but often process is important. ‘Boredom’ allows us time to be more aware of mental and manual processes – and to enjoy them – if we regard unfilled time as a gift rather than a burden.”

Positive boredom

So, it’s helpful to distinguish between different kinds of boredom, says Rehn.

The boredom of having nothing to do or the boredom of doing something that you know well, that requires less attention, can both spark creativity, Rehn points out. “But the kind of boredom that comes from doing a repetitive task that still demands attention, rarely does. It can, however, create a later spurt of creativity.”

Finding time

And you don’t need to do anything complicated to create that state of boredom where ideas might happen, Rehn emphasises. You just need time – and it’s worth carving it out.

“Creativity requires time off. Not weeks or months of it, but time when you can process the millions of inputs even a single week can bring. Just like kids need to be let out into the park from time to time, to run off some energy, so the brain needs to be given free time.”

That time is still there: all you need to do is resist the lure of your phone when you’re in the doctor’s waiting room, or on a bus. “Then you can spend the time observing your fellow human beings, looking out of the window at the passing scenes and landscape – and thus gaining a sense of belonging to a particular place or becoming acquainted with a new one,” says Dr Belton.

“You can reflect on your experiences and feelings, and maybe gain new insights or perspectives. You can think about people you know, plan, enjoy memories, get a sense of an inner life and commune with yourself. Creative ideas often seem to come out of nowhere, when we are not doing anything in particular. Sometimes, a mind that is receptive to a new idea is one that is not already fully engaged.”

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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