Benefits of Boredom
On a summer day in the early 1930s, J.R.R. Tolkein was stuck at home checking a fat pile of exam papers. He described the task as laborious and boring. Then he came upon an empty sheet. Sighing with happiness, he almost gave an extra mark out of sheer respite. Instead, upon this sheet, he wrote, “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.”
Thus, one of the most notable pieces of fiction on Earth (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series) was created. You can watch him recount his writing journey in this BBC interview.
Boredom has had a big role to play in the creative arts since forever. Celebrated figures throughout history—Susan Sontag, Andrei Tarkovsky, and Steve Jobs, just to name a few—were big believers in boredom. But exactly how does boredom help creativity?
According to psychology, boredom is an integral stage for creativity. The four stages are Preparation, Incubation, Insight, and Verification. First, your mind starts preparing for something creative by receiving information through researching, networking, or reading. Then, the mind goes into incubation by stringing myriad thoughts together and making connections through mind wandering. This leads to the stage of insight where you finally gain clarity on your purpose. The last stage, verification, is the platform through which you implement your idea.
Incubation, here, is a pivotal stage for creativity. Every creative idea needs to float freely inside its creator’s brain for an undecided expanse of time to reach a stage of tangible culmination. We need to be bored and freely pursue our internal streams of thought to be able to form perceptible solutions for anything.
Solving Problems and Gaining Perspective
It’s difficult to make sense of events when they’re happening. In real time, we are engaged in reacting and participating. Reflection, however, is a task of the idle brain. During listless chores or while taking long walks, your brain begins pondering the myriad emotions and ideas simmering inside, making sense of inner conflicts, contemplating important decisions, and coming up with new projects. Take away this vital task of pondering, and humans won’t be as innovative, intuitive, or even tranquil.
Taking a Break
Just like hunger or fatigue, “spacing out” is a survival mechanism that helps relieve our brains from the constant stimuli of an overactive life. When you work on a problem for too long, it starts to become boring and your concentration goes awry. This is because just like the body, our head cannot focus infinitely. It needs to be idle and distracted to be able to focus and perform. Boredom, in this sense, is nature’s way of taking a mental siesta.
Think of It from a Social Point of View
Since humans have always huddled together in groups, being social is underlined as a way of getting it right. This is good. But a disastrous corollary of this notion is that solitary activities like musing or daydreaming have acquired untoward reputations. On the other side, individual independence and self-sufficiency have been glamorized to unrealistic extents. Let’s look at an example.
Imagine what I might look like while I’m researching this course: perched on my living room couch, fingers tapping away at the keyboard between sips of peppermint tea. While this mental picture may make you assume that most of us live solitary, independent lives, nothing could be further from the truth. Even our most basic tasks are dependent on countless traders, artists, authors, software builders, and farmers whom we might never know but still heavily depend on to claim individuality. Unfortunately, both the concepts of “solidarity” and “individuality” have lost their real purpose.
Now imagine if everybody recognized boredom not as a punishment or a sad, lonely time to be passed restlessly, but as an opportunity for reflection and organic musing. The world would be calmer, more rested, and function better. Some people might devise brilliant ideas during a long walk. The cascading effect would ultimately alleviate humanity as a whole.
Exercise: Enjoy the Blank Spaces
Start with limiting yourself from mindless distractions. This is difficult to do, and I struggle with it on most days. We live in a generation where tolerance hasn’t been taught. We’ve seen no (global) wars or Great Depressions (only great recessions). Most of the turmoil we face takes place inside our chests or stares at us from across the hall at a house party.
But seriously, stop using your phone so much. Don’t watch videos while you’re in the bath. Don’t listen to podcasts every time you’re doing the dishes. Don’t dart between work, fun, people, food, and screens. You won’t tap into stimulation on the inside unless you silence stimulation from the outside. Accept being bored.
“If sleep is the apogee of physical relaxation, boredom is the apogee of mental relaxation. Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” —Walter Benjamin, in his book, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections
The next lessons will offer practical tips about dealing with the boredom of everyday life. In tomorrow’s lesson, I will discuss the art of listening.
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