We usually think of boredom as a bad thing—and it’s not one of the virtues on Ben Franklin’s list. But does boredom have a role in a good and meaningful life? Yes, argues Clive Thompson in this article:
“I’M DYING OF Boredom,” complains the young wife, Yelena, in Chekhov’s 1897 play Uncle Vanya. “I don’t know what to do.” Of course, if Yelena were around today, we know how she’d alleviate her boredom: She’d pull out her smartphone and find something diverting, like BuzzFeed or Twitter or Clash of Clans. If you have a planet’s worth of entertainment in your pocket, it’s easy to stave off ennui. Unless it turns out ennui is good for us. What if boredom is a meaningful experience—one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness or creativity?
That’s the conclusion of two fascinating recent studies. In one, researchers asked a group of subjects to do something boring, like copying out numbers from a phone book, and then take tests of creative thinking, such as devising uses for a pair of cups. The result? Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. In a second study, subjects who took an “associative thought” word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver.
In addition to kindling creativity, I think boredom helps us be more reflective. If your mind has nothing to do, you can use that time to think more deeply about your life, to appreciate the beauty of the world around you, or to make sense of something you’re struggling with. Unfortunately, we’re programming boredom out of our life, quickly reaching for our phones as soon as boredom settles in—whether in line at the store or at home at the dinner table. Let’s resist this urge and see where our imagination takes us!
Emily Esfahani Smith, who co-wrote the New York Magazine article, is the author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (Crown). She writes about psychology, culture, and relationships. Her writing has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time, The Atlantic, and other publications. Emily is also a columnist for The New Criterion, as well as an editor at the Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.