HealthAgenda

Mental Health

Are there brain benefits to boredom?

Do you find yourself filling every moment of your day to avoid boredom? Reconsider. You may be undermining your next big idea or missing out on an opportunity for creativity.

Sam Gibbs
April 2019

Boredom is a complex customer. Tough to define and tougher to test, it has been observed by academics (and anyone in a supermarket queue) time and time again.

Research has found that boredom is linked to job dissatisfaction, smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, overeating, depression, and unsurprisingly, online shopping.

In 2014, a series of Canadian studies found that some people preferred to administer minor electric shocks to themselves rather than be left alone with their bored thoughts.

It’s little wonder then that we turn to social media, unhealthy snacks or impulse online purchases as a quick fix. But don’t open that app just yet; new thinking links boredom to better brain power.

What the researchers think

“You could say that boredom is an incubator lab for brilliance,” says Manoush Zomorodi in her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Doing Nothing Changes Everything.

“It’s the messy, uncomfortable, confusing, frustrating place one has to occupy for a while before finally coming up with the winning equation or formula.”

Tolkien came up with hobbits while bored, she argues; Steve Jobs relied on boredom for triggering creativity.

In their paper Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative?, psychology researchers Dr Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman say boredom can sometimes be a force for good.

“If your brain is searching for stimulation and can’t find it, eventually your brain will just find it in its own self and create its own stimulation,” Mann says. “And there’s a link between daydreaming and creativity.”

Embracing boredom in work, school and leisure could pay off in innovation, the research concludes.

So how do you give yourself, or your kids, a push in the right direction?

Self-awareness

Psychologist and author Meredith Fuller says channeling boredom can motivate you to take action.

“Sitting constructively with it, rather than letting it sit you on the couch all day, can be a powerful exercise.”

She suggests doing a bored life check too. “Boredom can be a sign telling you to really reflect on your life and ask, ‘What am I not getting that I really need?’ How can I be more active in constructing a pulsating life instead of flopping on the couch?”

Psychologist Michael Inglis says so many people are in a routine of going to work and looking after their families, and have completely disengaged from the things they do for fun and creativity.

Inglis suggests asking yourself the following questions to help steer your boredom towards something constructive and meaningful:

What 3 activities…

  • did I used to enjoy doing but don't do anymore?
  • have I always wanted to do but have never done?
  • do I currently enjoy but don't do often enough?
  • do I currently engage in but don't enjoy? 

“Most people are surprised to find how long it has been since they last did something they really loved.”

Sparking creativity in kids

Associate Professor Julie Green, executive director of Australia’s Raising Children Network, says kids can also gain plenty from moments of boredom.

“Explain to your child that being bored is an opportunity to use their creative skills, use their imagination to invent a new game, make up a fantasy, build something or connect with others,” she says.

Play specialist Catherine Sewell says children also learn to rely on themselves and develop resilience by getting through something a little bit frustrating and seeing in the end that it wasn’t so bad.

Here are some tips for helping kids take a lead role in filling their time:

  • give them time and a safe place for free play and movement
  • add a few empty cardboard boxes to a room, which can become a cubby house, a car or a work of art
  • provide everyday materials to play with, such as flower petals, leaves, sticks, shells, dirt, sand and water; they’re common, they’re free and they provide your children with a huge variety of opportunities for play
  • provide some basic art and craft supplies, such as colouring pencils, textas, paints and materials to stick down.

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