We all know that being bored stinks, and in modern times, the times we feel it are few and far between thanks to the myriad ways we've developed to avoid that circumstance. But author Eva Hoffman suggests that not only should we not avoid boredom, we might even want to cultivate it.
Why on earth would we choose to be bored in a world filled with funny animal videos and 24-7 political news? Because we will actually enjoy our lives more, says Hoffman, the author of a new book aptly called "How to Be Bored."
"I don't want to advise anyone to spend their days in a supine position on a chaise lounge," Hoffman told MNN. "But we are so terrified of moments that are unfilled with external stimulus — this is an immature fear. Adults should not need external stimulus every second."
Resorting to constant input means that we may not be bored — but also that we may be missing out on our own lives. After all, what is boredom? If you answer that it's simply a lack of stimulation (a common answer), is that truly something to avoid? Hoffman suggests we reconsider our definition of the term. "We are afraid if we give ourselves a moment of introspection, or a moment to do something that's not immediately useful, that is boredom. In fact, it isn't. Being in those states can deepen our satisfaction and understanding of the world," she says.
So, consider it. What do you think of as boredom? Why do you avoid spaces filled with nothing? Is it fear or discomfort you feel in those moments? Thoughts about things you want to avoid? A reminder of something painful? Mightn't it make more sense to tackle the root of those feelings rather than spend a lifetime running away from them by distracting yourself?
Of course, your answer about boredom might not be that you're avoiding anything that's deep-down uncomfortable. Maybe you just prefer being active — or maybe even really active. It could be that you're just addicted to motion, to moving quickly from one activity to another, Hoffman says. That could be physically moving around or, more commonly, an addiction to digital technology. "This addiction is real," Hoffman reminds. And as studies have shown, this constant attention and division of attention between tasks (watching your favorite TV show and playing Upwords on your phone at the same time) not only cuts down our enjoyment of both the show and the game, it's not good for our brains.
How do you know if you're doing too much?
"It's obvious when we become hyperactive," says Hoffman. "We become quite stressed, quite anxious. But also we start feeling an emptiness. We don't have a chance to experience our experiences. There's a kind of mental exhaustion and mental depletion. The feeling is close to a sense of boredom, oddly enough," she says. Instead of giving ourselves permission to stop for awhile, to take a break, a vacation, a long weekend of nothing (which is what Hoffman suggests), this sense of emptiness can push some of us to ramp up the activity, to keep adding activities, work and distractions to our plate. All of which is a perfect recipe for burnout.
Hoffman suggests mindfulness as a solution — to stop for awhile each day to "notice where we are in our day — and in our lives." We should be asking those big questions (what are we doing? why?) and taking time to wrestle with them.
We should also be dedicating some time to leisure.
It seems an old-fashioned word, doesn't it? But it's incredibly important — more so now than ever before. Hoffman cautions us to ensure that we don't confuse leisure with laziness. Leisure activities are important not only for our own mental (and physical) health, but, Hoffman points out, the foundation of culture. "If we think of leisure is laziness, we will be afraid of it. We need to understand that we need leisure and that leisure is incredibly enriching." Doing a crossword or playing a board game, taking a long bath, setting out on a walk to nowhere, watching the world go by from a front porch or stoop, or engaging in conversation over coffee are all inexpensive, non-productive, relaxing activities that encourage you to be in the moment, to take time to enjoy your own company or the company of others, and to think about things other than work or obligations. "Leisure is important to the nourishment of our lives," says Hoffman.
The more active flip-side to leisure might be creative play, which Hoffman writes is also important. "I think collaborative play is the most pleasurable," Hoffman tells me. "Set yourself a challenge, but don't make it goal-oriented. Get together with friends and read a play aloud together, or write a poem together." She tells me about a group of people she once knew who were trying to invent a flying machine on weekends, just for fun. It was a challenge to try and figure out whether or not they could do it on their own — but they didn't much care if they succeeded or not. The point was the fun of working together to figure it out. Birdwatching or studying nature, painting, or learning an instrument are other ideas for creative play if you're more of an introvert. "The point is to do things for their own interest and their own sake," she says.
There's more to life than work and consuming media (as fun as binge-watching the new season of your favorite show can be). Spending a little time being bored might help you find your way to something that helps you relax and brings you joy — so don't be afraid of it.