The Benefits of Boredom

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

The Benefits of BoredomHey there, midsummer friends. I see you! Your tan is settling in nicely, the floor mats in your car are covered in sand and seashells, and the door handles are sticky with ice cream memories. I imagine that your thoughts, like Earth’s slow rotation, may now be turning toward “back to school” once more. Or perhaps your mind has gone blank with cries of “What are we gonna do today?” and “I’m borrrrrred!”

Whether you are a parent, a counselor, or an educator, you are beginning to face that point in the summer when it may be helpful to consider ways to manage boredom or find some brain stimulation that can help sail all our brains off into the right direction and into a successful new school year.

Initially when I sat down to write this post, I had noble intentions of crafting a piece with a comprehensive list of outside-the-box ideas, including suggestions for free or low-cost trips, adventures, activities, and brain-stimulating projects. I had this all planned out in a very prescriptive way, until I suddenly realized that it would be yet another Band-Aid that fails to address and discuss the underlying ailment.

So instead, I have decided to highlight, reflect upon, and question the underlying issue at stake—the presumption that boredom is bad. We often simply consume without question the idea that boredom must be resisted and, ultimately, defeated.

Boredom makes us uncomfortable. Boredom makes us cranky. Boredom must be covered up and not experienced. It must be dealt with!

Or must it?

Ways We Model Boredom as Bad
It seems to me that we are living in a time when boredom is desperately needed. When we view boredom as an enemy to be avoided at all costs, we pass this lens down to our children and inadvertently model it, reinforcing the belief for our kids. Ways we do this include:

  • Busying ourselves with plans, activities, and doings. We overstructure kids’ lives. Weekdays and weekends are filled with sports and clubs and tournaments and performances and birthday parties. These things are needed and do, in fact, offer meaning, enrichment, and positive pro-social experiences, but the overdone nature of it all often leaves little downtime. We need more balance.
  • Filling our downtime with technology. We actually give away our own moments. Opportunities for mindfulness and inspiration while having our morning coffee, waiting in line at a drive-through or restaurant, or sitting in a doctor’s office slip away from us. Many times, we don’t just sit and look around. We don’t chat with the other people around us. Instead, we pull out our phones or tablets and scroll. Boredom feels uncomfortable, so we give in to our urge to push it away.
  • Filling our kids’ downtime with technology. They watch movies or use devices during car rides instead of looking out the window. We let them hold our phones while waiting in line because we are afraid that boredom will cause behavioral issues, rather than teaching them to be comfortable handling boring moments. We miss out on chances to show them that they can just be still, look around and see what they notice. We don’t always show kids that they can talk to the people around them. We don’t always ask if they can find all the yellow things or all the circles. We don’t always take bored moments as a chance to make silly faces at each other or simply stay open to whatever might happen next.
  • Keeping lists of things to do. Short-term projects, long-term plans, errands and chores. We don’t sit and be still long enough to see what boredom may lead us to because we have already filled that time with plans. We don’t stay open to boredom.

How Do We Go About Embracing Boredom?
We are all guilty of modeling boredom = bad from time to time, myself included. But by developing awareness of these behaviors and patterns, we can begin to see how our lives often feel stagnant, or scattered, or uninspired. This past school year, I began really thinking about this myself because I was struggling with it personally. I began utilizing mindfulness to just notice these experiences. As my own awareness grew, I started having dialogue about boredom with my students as well. What came from this was important, and I believe this is an essential conversation that will continue in my work. I hope others will consider including it in their practices as well.

Invite Boredom In
It is important to be intentional in this practice. We must make conscious efforts to invite boredom in. Think of boredom as the unwanted party guest who ends up helping facilitate the most unexpected good time. Make space for something that feels unknown. We don’t know what will come of boredom. That’s okay, and that’s the point! I cannot tell you what you will get out of allowing boredom into your daily life, but I can share some of what has happened since I have invited boredom into mine.

The Benefits of BoredomCreate Dialogue Around Positive Past Incidents of Boredom
One day in my small counseling group, I wrote on the board: “Boredom is the birthplace of genius.” I asked students to share their thoughts on what this statement might be about. At first the conversation included what you would expect: resistance. Kids were vocal about how much they hated being bored. I honored this initial reaction, and then pushed students to try to remember a time they were really bored and how they positively responded to the boredom without using television or some other form of technology or media. I was quite surprised to find that, when pushed to see boredom as the catalyst for past expressions of creativity and inspiration, kids did, in fact, have solid and profound memories of boredom. One child told me that when he was on vacation and didn’t have technology, he and his family created a scavenger hunt in which all the kids and adults played along together and, “It was one of the funnest days ever!” He smiled brightly, remembering how it all happened because they were just so bored! Another student told me he created his own board game over winter vacation. He taught his little sister, and they played for a very long time.

I encourage you to prioritize this conversation. It will ignite a powerful shift!

Set Up Mindful Moments and Then Follow Their Lead
We must create moments and experiences where we can just be. Whether we are with our families, in counseling sessions, or in the classroom, carve out time to just be. No assignments, just brain breaks. Give brain breaks that allow the brain to actually de-stimulate itself so that it can tune in to the moment. Encourage a purposeful noticing of what’s happening within our bodies and brains, and then connect this with what is happening around us. Ask kids to scan through each of their five senses to relax and engage in the moment, and then ask them what comes up for them. Have them look around the room or out the window. Take a mindful walk outside with no set plan. By doing this, we can learn to replace the concept of boredom with mindfulness and become more comfortable engaging in the present moment.

Cultivate Curiosity and Ask Questions
When opening up moments that are less structured and creating opportunities for boredom or mindfulness, be sure to follow the lead of what is actually happening. You will know what questions are relevant based on what comes up, but things to consider asking might be:

  • What are you interested in?
  • What do you want to know more about?
  • What do you wish you could have more time to work on?
  • What do you really notice out that window or in this room?
  • Take time to really watch patterns. Can you find surprises?
  • Does that make you think of something interesting?
  • Do you want to know what sort of tree or bird that is?
  • Do you want to sketch something?
  • Do you think a peace garden is a good idea for the school, and if so, do you think we can start one?
  • Do you have an idea for a song or rap?
  • Do you want to work on your left-handed shot?
  • Do you wonder what your grandma’s life was like when she was little?
  • Do you have a metaphor for what you see?

Boredom as Currency
As the curtain falls on summertime, try to soak in empty, boring moments. Stare out the window while you drink your coffee and try to notice where your mind goes. Write about it afterward. Take a photo of what you observed. Make it a point to put down your phone. Turn off the TV and talk to your kids about anything and everything. Kids are creative when we encourage them to be. So we must lay the foundation for conversation. When we engage with kids and lean into their ideas, we take boredom and use it as currency to fund our inner genius. Make things. Research stuff. Go somewhere new. Collect. Draw. Build. Practice. Play. And remember to enjoy the moments in between and let boredom lead the way.

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda.

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