In praise of boredom

12. June 2019 / general
resilience

Prince Charles has been waiting for more than six decades to ascend to the British throne. In contrast, we grow restless after just five minutes of waiting for the bus. We are so strongly programmed to always be active that we don’t know how to deal with episodes of boredom. However, our brains need periods of doing nothing in order to be creative and productive in the long term.

You probably feel the same as most other people: When we don’t have anything to do for a couple of minutes, we have nothing better to do with our time than pull out our smartphones, send someone a message that is usually not that important, or spend time aimlessly surfing. Many people can no longer stand being bored and fill these empty periods with so-called ‘reflex actions’ like reaching for their mobile phones. These are automated responses that we are often not even aware of.

And if you are stuck in traffic, this probably annoys you immensely – you think it is such an unproductive time and it passes by even more slowly as a result (or that is how it feels…)! Our days are filled with non-stop activities, the ‘usefulness principle‘ and the urge for continuous optimization. We believe that we must use our time as efficiently and effectively as possible – and that everything else is a waste of time! We rush from meeting to meeting and then spend our evenings in the gym, meeting with friends or doing things at home. I have nothing against sport and social contacts but I am opposed to having a packed agenda, as this leads to stress.

 

Boredom is a ‘super food’ for the brain

We always feel that there is something we should be doing – that there are jobs to be completed.  Are you familiar with the term ‘Rushing Woman’s Syndrome’ coined by the Australian author Libby Weaver? It is not just women but also many men who sprint through life – with meetings and other appointments from early morning until late at night and activities at weekends. Countless to-do lists, apps urging us to do this or that for our health, etc. It is no wonder that more and more people feel stressed by this constant ‘on’ mode and overstimulation.

When was the last time you had nothing planned for a whole weekend – and just followed your impulses and spontaneously did what you wanted? Or actually did NOTHING AT ALL for once? Perhaps you can’t even remember it. That is actually a shame because doing nothing clears your head and leaves you open to new things. It has been proven that the fewer activities you do, the more ideas you will have as this allows your brain to think what it wants without being forced into a rigid pattern – with the result that we become more creative and innovative. This is because daydreaming stimulates the regions of the brain that are responsible for imagination and creativity.

 

Our brains need a break

There is another reason why our brains need a break from time to time. Scientists at McGill University in Canada have found that blood pressure drops and the brain recovers and prepares to meet later needs if you do nothing. Scientists at the University of Michigan have found that individuals who took a break alone before sitting a test performed better than their colleagues who were involved in a conversation before the test. In order to perform well over the long term – remembering that life is a marathon, not a sprint – we need periods of rest and relaxation. This also has a positive effect on sleep quality and emotional stability.

Why do we have such a big problem with doing nothing? Most people define themselves through their performance. And if, for once, no demands are placed on them, they feel uncomfortable about it and develop a sense of inner restlessness (unease), which leads to hyperactivity. We are also used to our brains getting dopamine kicks from reading news, countless messages and ‘likes’, so we crave more and more of this happiness hormone. The difficulty is that we need more and more of it to get a really positive kick – there is a clear risk of becoming addicted! And then we look for ever stronger stimuli, e.g. by engaging in extreme sports or other excesses. Moreover, when doing nothing, certain feelings that we have repressed surface again – which is challenging for many to deal with. But it is only by facing up to them that something new and positive can emerge from it.

 

Your brain will thank you for it

Try to overcome your inner resistance to the idea and do NOTHING AT ALL from time to time. Embrace the feeling of emptiness and see what happens. It may be uncomfortable at first – but don’t give up. A sense of relaxation will follow. Or follow the example of the British author Tom Hodgkinson, founder of the award-winning magazine ‘The Idler’, and devote time to carrying out small, unspectacular tasks such as looking at the garden for a whole afternoon, sewing on a button, taking a bath, etc.

And the next time you are waiting at a bus stop, you could try observing the people around you rather than immediately reaching for your mobile phone. Just live for the moment and become aware of what is around you (this is called mindfulness). Or you could consciously adopt a different view of waiting times, e.g. by thinking “traffic jams slow me down” or “doing nothing does me good”. The brain may need some time to adjust but it will thank you over time in the form of greater creativity, increased concentration, better performance and relaxation.

 

© Claudia Kraaz

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