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When Is Boredom a Good Thing?

Learn how boredom can work in your favor!

For many years Rachel* ran a progressive school which was so popular that it had a waiting list of students eager to attend. Many parents were attracted by the unconventional teaching methods Rachel had instituted. Youngsters were grouped by abilities and interests, not simply by age or grade-level. Visitors to the school were always impressed by the "buzz" that met them as they walked through the halls. Students were busy everywhere—in the classrooms, where they were often clustered in small groups working on a project, or talking to a teacher; in the hallways, where they sat cross-legged on the floor reading or sketching on large pads of paper; even in the entrance to the building itself, where there were always a few young people engaged in putting up posters of upcoming events.

There was the feeling that these students were absorbed in their schoolwork and enjoying learning at any moment that you might come upon them.

So Rachel was stunned when one of her student's parent, a well-known actor of the time, looked in on his child's classroom and said to the teacher, "It worries me to see all of these kids so busy concentrating on their schoolwork." The teacher stared at him, astonished; the energy and involvement of the children were a major selling point of the school. The actor went on, "When I was a kid, I was bored stiff in school. I spent all my time daydreaming. And those daydreams are where I got the inspiration for most of the work I've done in my life."

This dad was only half-joking. And in truth, he was talking about an important concept that many of us, in our hectic, goal-oriented lives, fail to recognize: boredom, that time when we feel uninterested or unengaged in anything we're doing and can't come up with anything to make it better, can be a time of genuine creative growth. Most of us see boredom as a sign of depression, which indeed it can be, so we worry when we feel it ourselves or see it in our children or other loved ones. Adam Phillips, the British psychoanalyst, once wrote a book called On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored. He says that "as any child will tell you, boredom is just having nothing to do." He also says that the ability to be bored is a developmental achievement! And that "boredom is integral to the process of taking one's time."

In other words, rather than trying to stave the feelings off with more activity, a far better response to this "symptom" would be to make a little space for it. Once we've opened ourselves to the idea that boredom can be the initial step for creative productivity, it becomes pretty quickly apparent when those unengaged, uninterested moments are really the mind's bringing a blank canvas to your psychological easel, ready for you to begin painting, and when it is a sign of depression.

Phillips says that two crucial processes begin with boredom: curiosity and desire. When we are bored, he says, we begin to wonder about things. And curiosity is the starting point for growth, interest, and creativity. The same is true of desire. If we are given everything, we want nothing. And if we don't want anything, we will never be motivated to achieve or grow or create or even to love.

I recently spoke with another friend who is a teacher, and told her about Rachel's experience. "Oh yes," she said. "It's always a fine line that you walk as an educator. You want children to be interested in what they're working on. But you also want them to learn to engage in that empty space that we call boredom. Those are often moments when their mind is resting, before it starts on a new adventure."

This doesn't mean that we should accept without question a child's complaints about being bored in school. Too much boredom can shut down the learning process completely and can lead to depression and acting out. But wouldn't it be nice if we all gave our minds more time rest? We could probably do it if we remembered that in some of those moments of feeling uninterested and unengaged, some hidden part of ourselves just might be preparing to take us somewhere remarkable!

*names and identifying information have been altered to protect privacy

This post includes a short excerpt from my book Daydreaming: Unlock the Creative Power of Your Mind


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