Why boredom is good for you

By Louisa Pritchard

Periods of doing nothing can actually be good for our health - if only to give us time out from the constant bleep of digital distractions. Photo / Getty
Periods of doing nothing can actually be good for our health - if only to give us time out from the constant bleep of digital distractions. Photo / Getty

Bring on the boredom - being idle is good for you (it's official) Eva Hoffman believes we are addicted to busy-ness, and that it's ruining us.

Picture the scene: you're at home, alone, and (deep breath) you've turned your smartphone off. Now you're turning off your tablet, PC, TV, Kindle, Fitbit, Apple Watch... and you're just sitting there. Doing nothing. If the thought of this makes you sweat, then you're one of an increasing number of people who've forgotten how to be idle.

"I think we've lost the capacity to be bored occasionally, to be by ourselves, or just sit and stare," says writer and academic Eva Hoffman, whose new book How to Be Bored has just been published. "We need to reclaim the ability to do that: to reflect and look inwards is very important to our wellbeing."

However, it has also become something we now go to any lengths to avoid. A study by the University of Virginia in 2014 found 18 of the 42 students they questioned chose to give themselves an electric shock rather than sit in solitude for 15 minutes.

One man struggled with the boredom so much that he gave himself 190 shocks just to be experiencing something.

And a report recently revealed how computers now have the ability to detect when we're bored based on how much we fidget. According to body language expert Dr Harry Witchel, this could see the rise of "empathic" robots to make us more engaged. Again, taking us another step away from experiencing (whisper it) tedium.

Yet Hoffman believes periods of doing nothing can actually be good for our health - if only to give us time out from the constant bleep of digital distractions. "The onset of technology, which in many ways is wonderful, really does increase the problem," she says.

"I think we are massively addicted to it and it's very difficult for us to step away from our devices."

She has identified a "runner's high" that we get from things like receiving tweets and Facebook likes. "Going from one activity to the next can feel exciting moment by moment, but I think it forestalls the possibility of a deeper sense of satisfaction and pleasure. That needs to come from within and from a sense that we have goals that are more long lasting. Without this feeling of purpose we can feel anxious and disoriented."

Yet how do we even begin to embrace such idleness?

"I'm not advocating being really and deeply bored," Hoffman says. "Doing nothing can be hard for us, so we should initiate ourselves into it gradually.

"We're very afraid of being idle because we associate it with laziness, so maybe take 15 minutes in the morning or evening, leave your smartphone at home or turned off, and let your mind wander."

If you decide to embrace her boredom ethos, the results could be startling. An article in the Wall Street Journal last month claimed couples who embraced boredom had better relationships because it "acts as a powerful signal to pay attention and step up your game. It may even help you rekindle your connection."

And a 2013 study from the University of Central Lancashire found boredom led to increased creativity. Two separate groups were both asked to come up with inventive uses for a pair of polystyrene cups. Just before this, one of the groups was asked to copy out numbers from a phone book for 15 minutes. Sure enough, after a period of such tedium, their group ended up being the most creative.

But is there a right kind of boredom? A German-led team of researchers has identified five different states of boredom, ranging from "indifferent boredom" (how you feel at the end of the day when your partner is droning on about work) to "apathetic boredom" (when you're so bored you can't motivate yourself to do anything).

Hoffman believes we need "gentle boredom". "I don't advocate systematic boredom, which can lead to an unhappy lethargy, and even to depression. But gentle boredom is a pleasurable state, an ability to simply relish a moment without doing anything."

How to wean from your screen

Ignore your Facebook likes. It's no use leaving your phone switched on with the endless stream of social media alerts. It's this "hyperactivity", according to Hoffman, that can lead us to feeling anxious. So make a moment when everything is turned off.

Set your alarm

Build up periods of idleness gradually. If you're really struggling to embrace boredom, you could even set an alarm after 15 minutes. Don't worry, you'll be back online soon...

Don't confuse mindfulness with allowing yourself to be bored

Hoffman says: "This is not about meditation or mindfulness, this is about addressing our minds and trying to reckon with how we are feeling."

- Daily Telegraph UK

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter


© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 26 Oct 2016 09:04:35 Processing Time: 1312ms