The Benefits of Boredom
It seems to be the plague of children, especially in the summer. But as adults, we rarely have the luxury of boredom. Yet research suggests it’s beneficial for our minds.
“Often times it’s an opportunity for creativity to be sparked,” says psychology professor Rhonda Swickert of the College of Charleston.
“If we can stay present with ourselves and be calm while we’re doing it, that can free up a lot of space for doing things like problem solving.”
But our brains are chained to an endless list of things to do, not to mention tireless technology. We’ve become master multitaskers who Swickert says have difficulty just sitting with ourselves.
Consider waiting in the grocery store line. It was once the perfect space for spacing out or even making conversation with a stranger. Now many of us anxiously grab our phones, eager for something, anything to occupy our time and stimulate our minds.
“We don’t like to be present in part I think because that’s not the way the mind evolved,” says Swickert. “It does require a lot of effort to stay present.”
Swickert says our minds were born to be wild, ever alert and sensitive to sights, sounds and smells. It’s what kept us alive. But in modern times, we’ve become live wires, at risk of short circuiting if we don’t power down, at least once in awhile.
”If we are actually mindful, we can start to get important clues as to what the mind is captured by, what the mind is worried about.”
Swickert says our minds not only react to the outside world, but move back and forth in time, leaving little room for the present.
“It’s going back in time to the place we messed up or failed,” she says. “Or it’s going ahead into the future and worrying about what can go wrong.”
Again, Swickert says this is a product of evolution. Our minds want us to be perfect because perfection helped us survive. Now the obsession causes stress, she says, and compromises the immune system which can make us ill.
So how do we bring healthy boredom back into our lives? Tuning out technology, she says, does help. But so does a technique centuries old: centering on the breath. Swickert advises breathing in slowly to a count of four, then intentionally exhaling the same way.
“If we are not able to be present with ourselves, we miss out on really knowing who we are and liking who we are.” - College of Charleston psychology professor Rhonda Swickert
“See how long you can do that, which probably won’t be very long at all, and then watch where the mind goes.”
Swickert calls it eavesdropping on the mind, and the more we do it, the more we’ll learn about ourselves.
“When we don’t dwell with the self, then we really don’t know who we are,” Swickert says. “So we require the external world to tell us who we are and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Think about the “likes” and comments on social media. Swickert says they become addictive, releasing those feel good chemicals in our brains much like drugs. But she says we can find pleasure in unleashing our minds from their daily chains through meditation.
”If we are not able to be present with ourselves, we miss out on really knowing who we are and liking who we really are.”
So take a breath, be calm and see where your mind takes you.