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Boredom Is Valuable

Don’t fight it.

Key points

  • Boredom may feel unpleasant, but it conveys an important message.
  • Boredom can lead to creativity or new understandings, if people can bear to sit with it.
  • When it takes the form of stuckness, therapeutic techniques can help free individuals to see their potential.

I remember a day when one of my sons was little, and I had just told him that he couldn’t play a video game. He stomped around crossly for a while, and I heard him murmuring to himself, “What shall I do? What shall I do?” And then he found on my desk a pot full of paper clips, all different colors and sizes, and he proceeded to link them together and create a rather interesting structure.

Boredom can be liberating. In a new book called The Key to Creativity, journalist Hilde Østby devotes a whole chapter to exploring it. She speaks to authors and musicians who take to their beds after lunch, especially to do nothing, or who welcome subjecting themselves to potentially boring experiences, such as waiting in train stations and airports.

Source: Anna Shvets / Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets / Pexels

“There is clearly a link between creativity and boredom,” she concludes. “We live in a culture where boredom and lack of stimuli are seen as signs of something being wrong. But if you are stimulated, entertained, or constantly in other people’s company, it is difficult to have your own thoughts. Boredom is unpopular; very few people go looking for it. Yet it appears to be something we need, perhaps more than we think.”1

Indeed, most people don’t welcome boredom. In a classic experiment she describes, 55 people were asked to sit alone in a room, in silence, without doing anything. They were allowed to have their smartphones with them but were asked not to use them. Almost all cheated. So the smartphones were removed.

The participants were, however, allowed a kit that would let them safely deliver a small electric shock to themselves. All had had the chance to try this out before entering the room, and 52 had declared the experience so unpleasant that they would even pay money to avoid it. Now, a third of those men and a quarter of the women actually chose to give themselves shocks to avoid 15 minutes of boredom—one doing so 190 times.2

Boredom sends us a message—that we feel out of control, or that we aren’t satisfied by what we are doing, or that we find it meaningless. But, really, we don’t have to rush to put an end to it any which way. It is when we stop focusing the mind and allow it to wander or daydream, directionless, that direction may present itself.

Sometimes we may be obliged to carry out activities that we can’t see the point of or that don’t stimulate us, and we have to find a way through them. One very bright student consulted me because she couldn’t keep up her concentration when elements of her course didn’t interest her. She was fully focused on practical assignments but struggled with staying alert during lectures. I suggested she needed to find her own ways to inject curiosity and purpose into the activity and set herself goals—such as listening out for 10 new facts at each lecture and noting them down. She found that this helped considerably.

Sometimes, as we learn from Østby’s book, the very dullness of routine can even be valuable, however boring. Philosophy professor Lars Sevendsen, the author of A Philosophy of Boredom, tells Østby, “Having a fairly boring life full of habits and routines allows you to focus on things other than organizing your life. Look at Ibsen or Immanuel Kant, whose lives were totally full of routine.”

Boredom can also take the form of stuckness. And it is when people are stuck at an impasse in their lives or feel that they are stagnating that they may seek out therapy. Creative techniques such as guided visualization, expertly used by human givens practitioners to help people access their deeper untapped resources, can stimulate new perspectives and help get joy flowing again.

I have worked with clients who, as a result of confronting their boredom and discomfort and experiencing the freedom, during guided visualization, of unfettering their imaginations, have opted for dramatic changes in lifestyle. One gave up a lucrative but frustrating career in finance to set up her own fitness company. Another chose to end her travel writing days and train to be a nurse. A third, working dispiritedly in advertising, followed his heart and wrote and shot his own film.

None of that came out of the blue. All those hopes and dreams were already percolating and could finally come to the surface when attention was turned inward instead of being frittered away.


1 Østby, H (2023). The Key to Creativity: the science behind ideas and how daydreaming can change the world. Greystone Books.

2 Wilson, T D, Reinhard, D A et al (2014). Just think: the challenges of the disengaged mind. Science, 345, 6192, 75–77.

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