What do you do when you’re bored? In the 19th century, perhaps you went for a long walk by a flowing river or read a book. In the 20th century, maybe you listened to the radio or watched television.
Now, in the 21st century, it’s likely that you flip through your Facebook or Instagram feed. What did Charlie have for dinner last night? Where did Louise go on with her husband? Or perhaps you turn on your computer, grab your joy stick, and play World of Warcraft with folks in five different countries.
It goes without saying that in earlier times, just surviving took up all of our time and energy. Human beings didn’t have much time to get bored.
But is boredom bad? Is it something to be avoided? Or does it have value? Even if it’s usefulness isn’t appreciated.
When I was a child growing up in the 20th century, I did watch my share of television when I was done with my homework. I watched cartoons on Saturday mornings (rather than wake my parents up!).
But I would also play ping-pong with my best friend Dennis until we dropped from exhaustion. We would play Monopoly for hours — vying for the best properties. When we tired of those games, we would go out and shoot hoops.
I was always a voracious reader. When I was in middle school, I learned how to speed read and I could polish off books in one sitting.
I was bored a lot in school, as many of us were. I secretly read books while the teacher wasn’t looking. I remember staring at the clock in the classroom, watching the seconds tick away, slowly, painfully, until the bell rang.How slow the minute hand moved!
Today, we value amusement, internet entertainment and busyness as an antidote to boredom. Kids are given devices at an early age — smart phones, iPads and toys that talk to you. Children complain loudly when parents finally kick them off their devices.
But their parents are also addicted to these remedies for boredom, too. How often do you see adults walking down the street, going down stairs, or in the mall, head bent, looking down at their smart phone, reading and answering texts. Who has time to be bored?
But maybe boredom isn’t all bad. So how can it be useful?
Boredom helps us become more creative. When we are unstimulated, or simply doing nothing, our minds turn to fantasy and daydreams. Solutions to complex problems, new ideas and innovation spring from these right-brained forays into the future. A long walk, (not speed walking for calorie burn!) can allow your mind to relax into itself. In this state, creative ideas rise to the surface.
We can learn how to value being rather than doing. Am I what I do? Or am I also worthwhile just being? On a weekend afternoon, I love to sit in my living room, look at my plants, stare out the window and just sit in silence. I notice the sounds of birds singing, and I become aware of the sensations in my body. My breathing slows as I sit. These are peaceful moments that I have learned to savor, like a sweet dessert.
Boredom helps children become more resourceful. Children benefit from being bored and not having access to entertainment. It teaches kids how to depend on themselves for stimulation and interest. It forces them to use and develop their inner resources. It teaches them how to entertain themselves, without help from something else.
Boredom can help you enjoy the pleasure of your own company. Time alone, doing nothing, can be very pleasurable and enjoyable. It can be an opportunity to appreciate aloneness without feeling the pressure to get something done or to be in the company of others.
Paul Schoenfeld is director of The Everett Clinic’s Center for Behavioral Health. His Family Talk Blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/family-talk-blog.