My 5-year-old has learned to say “I’m bored.” This struck terror into my heart, because I thought I had at least three or so more years until boredom even became a concept for him. (I mean, he’s still mostly happy taking pennies out of a jar and putting them back in.) But nonetheless, there it was: Mom, I’m bored. The first 9,000 times he’s said it since then, I’ve tried to help him solve the problem: I remind him about his toys, his books, playing with his brother. Or as my mother did with me, I threaten him with housework.
But a couple of months ago, I went a whole long weekend without looking at any kind of screen, a challenge that was more difficult than I anticipated. At the end of the three days, I did notice that I had experienced a feeling I haven’t had in years: boredom. Ever since I got my first smartphone, each little pause in the day has been filled by glances at my phone, whether I’m skimming a headline or sending a text or just checking the time in a tic-like fashion. And not coincidentally, in the last few years I’ve been lamenting my lack of creativity—a problem I usually blame on kids and no spare time.
Then I happened on “Bored and Brilliant” on WNYC, a challenge to listeners to give up their phones for a week. The host of Note to Self, Manoush Zomorodi, noted that boredom can actually be the beginning of creativity—that only by experiencing those first niggling, uncomfortable feelings of wanting to be stimulated—and not scratching that itch—are we able to create.
Boredom doesn’t come from not having something to do—it’s more like a conflict between a desire for what one wants and what one is getting. A bored person “wants to be stimulated, but is unable, for whatever reason, to connect with his or her environment—a state [psychologist John Eastwood] describes as an ‘unengaged mind,'” according to this article from the American Psychological Association. Dr. Teresa Belton, a professor at the University of East Anglia in the U.K., found that that gap—between the desire to be stimulated and stimulation—is the space in which creativity flourishes: When she interviewed people in creative professions, they reported that boredom was the impetus that pushed them into trying new things. In short, if you never allow yourself to get bored, you never allow yourself the mental space to create.
Of course, we Americans have a horror of being bored. If we’re bored, it must mean that we’re lazy or too dumb to think up something to do. We place a premium on feeling busy and productive. We think of boredom as a problem to be solved. When my son slouches around the kitchen saying, “I’m bored,” a small part of me thinks, “Okay! Swing into action! What can I suggest he do?”
But after my “Bored and Brilliant” challenge, I had an epiphany about boredom—and now I repeat it to him every time he complains. When he says “I’m bored,” I say back, “It’s okay to be bored.”
At first he strongly objected. “It’s not okay to be bored!” he said, outraged, having already absorbed American values about productivity and the right to be entertained at all times. “It is,” I say mildly, and then I go about my business, letting him be bored. And the other day he built a “printer/shredder” out of yoga blocks and paper towel tubes, in which one prints something and then it gets shot down a tube and immediately destroyed. (I guess he’s also absorbed lessons about being a writer.)
And when he tired of that, he lay on the couch for a while and looked out the window, and I didn’t suggest he draw or look at a book. I put my phone in a drawer and lay down beside the printer/shredder and joined him. Because it’s okay to be bored.