The Case for Boredom

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 Go ahead, stare out the window.

Go ahead, stare out the window.

Sometimes months pass when I don’t feel the swell of a new idea at all, and I wonder if I’ve lost one the facets of myself I love most- artist, writer, great appreciator of nature and beauty. I apologize for the thousandth time to that short story I’ve been neglecting for months…years? Gaze listlessly at my half-done paintings over the top of the Facebook feed that’s glued to my face.

The last few months have been like that, and I’ve felt helpless, opting to mitigate my fruitlessness with more practical pursuits. Like watching the first four seasons of Shameless on Netflix.
That is, until last week, when I was trapped on a farm outside cell service range with nothing to do for hours. When the panic wore off, I started to recognize an old childhood friend of mine, who guided the summer vacations and stifling white snow days of my youth. Boredom. And I felt like someone had turned a magic key in my brain. The inspiration flowed like the creek by which I sat.

Boredom is a dirty word.
I don’t know about you, but there’s not much room for boredom in my very serious and important adult life. “You’re bored?!”, I scold myself. “Did you finish all your work? Write a blog post? Hit the gym? Clean the house? Roll over your retirement plan? Insta-post your perfectly-prepared-whole-30-friendly weeknight meal? Read up on current events? Catch up on your podcast queue? Your Netflix queue? Your forthcoming novel?”

The would-be-sweet unscheduled moments in our lives are instead riddled with guilt over what we should be doing. Luckily, there’s good news.

We don’t need to feel guilty anymore. Because science.
A 2014 study on the link between creativity and boredom showed that the happiest and most fruitful minds are those that are allowed to wander. In the study, performed by Karen Gasper and Brianna Middlewood of Pennsylvania State University, boredom was induced in a test group while the rest of the subjects were placed in scenarios that induced other feelings, like distress or relaxation. When the whole group was given a creativity test (measured by the ability to quickly complete associative thoughts), the ‘bored’ group out-performed them all.

The reason? According to Gasper, “Boredom operates similarly to feeling happy or excited. It results in you trying to approach something that, in this case, is more meaningful or interesting. It encourages people to explore because it signals that your current situation is lacking so it’s kind of a push to seek out something new.” And that exploration encourages your brain to build more positive associations, fostering creative thought.

So the next time you’re stuck on a project, try a nice long session of good old zoning out to get the juices flowing again. It certainly worked for me.