The Virtues of Boredom

Baseball – America’s favorite passtime. Which I have never freaking understood. You spend three hours watching grass grow, and every once in a while in the 162 games in a season, something happens. 

Someone might hit the ball. Someone might catch the ball. Someone might call a timeout for no discernible reason. Most of the time, the thing that happens, is it somebody throws the ball. Which is great and all, but still not all that entertaining. Unless you’re a die-hard fan, which I am most definitely not. 

I root for the Cleveland Indians, but only by hometown affiliation. But if by some bizarre chance I’m watching one of their games, I’m reading a book at the same time. Because I don’t like watching grass grow.

Wide view of a baseball stadium with stands full of brave people risking total boredom
These people all PAID to be bored?

However, the more I’ve delved into mindset, mood, motivation, and self-care, the more I’ve come to appreciate the value of watching grass grow. Or watching paint dry. Or closing my eyes and listening to what I’m thinking. The value of slowing down, watching life, and getting in touch with me.

Boredom sounds like it really sucks, but boredom doesn’t have to be boring. In other words, there are different types of boredom. If I had to watch the House of Representatives on C-Span for more than about 37 seconds, I would be ready to cut my eyeballs out with a spoon.

But if I was standing on top of Mill Mountain in Roanoke, Virginia, with my back to the 88½ foot tall, 10,000 pound neon star, looking out over the Roanoke Valley, I could stand there for hours. (Well, maybe not stand there, because wheelchair, but, you know what I mean.) 

And if that level of boredom got too introspective, I could wander around the corner to the Mill Mountain Zoo. I’d spend an hour or so imagining what it would be like to ride an oversized Chinese Water Dragon. A couple hours imagining all the history the Sulcata Tortoises have seen. And a couple more imagining domesticated snow leopards, and what it would be like having one as a pet.

Snow leopard, head tilted to the side, looking bored enough to come home with me
Got any pet goats I can eat? I mean, greet?

Or if I could turn back the clock, I could watch my children lay on the floor for hours, and be endlessly fascinated at the faces they made it, the way they wave their little itty bitty arms, the different ways they kick their legs, and even how much they drooled. If you’re a new parent, you understand this. Drool is freaking fascinating. Poop is freaking fascinating. Getting peed in the face by your baby boy? Freaking fascinating. 

You can even find boredom in doing things. When I was still able to, I found that hand washing the dishes could put me into an almost meditative state. 

Sure, I’m standing, and my arms are moving. I’m making sure not to cut my finger on a steak knife, or splash water on the floor. But between the hot water, the fragrant dish soap, and the lack of a view out the window, I could really get inside my own head. 

Same goes with folding laundry, vacuuming the floor, mopping the kitchen, you get the idea. Chores that you could probably do in your sleep, that have to be done regularly, and that don’t require any kind of real concentration.

Young woman with an assortment of cleaning supplies and a look of utter disdain and boredom on her face
Yes, this is so worth the boredom. So. Worth. It.

“Okay, Kriss, but what’s the point? Why do I want to be bored?”

First, you need to be bored in the space around things happening, so that you can appreciate the things that are happening. Let me give you an example. 

On the 4th of July, would it be better for the fireworks to be spaced out? Or would you rather that the people setting them off light them all up simultaneously, so the whole fireworks show takes 30 seconds? 

Me, I like my fireworks spaced out, so I can appreciate the shape, color, size, special effects, everything that makes a great fireworks show, a great fireworks show.

That’s also why when you go to an art museum, all the art isn’t crammed together, with no space between, letting you can see everything all at once. If you were shown everything all at once, you’d be overwhelmed, and you’d be completely incapable of appreciating the artwork at all. 

I feel the boredom.
I do. I really do.

Our cultural history and cultural literacy both deserve better than that. So all the lights are perfectly positioned. All the artwork is precisely spaced. And you’re able to appreciate each precious painting, sculpture, and statue in a proper manner, appreciating each detail that adds up to the whole, and each whole work that is made up of all the details.

Second, you want to be bored because boredom sparks creativity. For me, meditation is boring as boring gets. On the one hand, I’m trying to clear my mind and not think of anything and listen to the sound of your voice and take a deep breath in through my nose and out through my mouth and all this other crap with posture and seating and lighting and music or no music and its just oh God just shoot me. 

But on the other hand I am bored to tears, because I’m trying to clear my mind and not think of anything and listen to the sound of your voice and take a deep breath in through my nose and out through my mouth and all this other crap with posture and seating and lighting and music or no music and its just oh God just shoot me. 

( Can you tell I don’t like meditating?)

Breathtaking sunrise view from the top of the largest Buddhist temple on Earth, in Indonesia. I don't know if I could achieve boredom here, but I could probably find some Nirvana
Now, if I could just fly to Indonesia every day to have THIS view to meditate, I might could get to like it. Maybe.

However, I get some of my best ideas when I’m trying to meditate. In the past, when it was physically possible for me, I got some brilliant ideas when I was washing the dishes, folding laundry, and vacuuming the floor.  

When I’m working on tasks that aren’t writing, I typically have music on. I keep it low so that I can concentrate on what I’m actually doing, but every now and then a phrase will sneak through and give me an idea for a blog post. Right now, I’ve got over two hundred ideas on my list, just from my Spotify library.

I also read a lot, which a lot of people would consider to be a boring activity. I don’t understand that mindset, because when I read, I’m going somewhere else. I’m going into a fantasy realm, or a small town in Alaska, or ancient Egypt, or the brilliant mind of another human being. I’m traveling the world, traveling through time, and doing it all without ever leaving my room. So for me, reading is not boring. 

But because a lot of people think it is, I’ll use it as another example. I might read something in a novel that sparks an idea for something I could do in this or that Facebook group I belong to. I might read something that goes on a sticky note up on my wall, joining the 100 or so others that are already there, with inspiration and motivation and mindset and mood changing.

A picture of the wall above my computer with sticky notes saying things like "You can do hard things!" and "What would I do if I was a Badass?" and "Everyone forgets - Icarus also flew" and "Don't believe everything you think." Nothing about boredom yet - I may have to go quote-hunting.
This is my actual wall, with my actual sticky notes. There are more. So many more.

Third, boredom can be vital for your mental health. I have two email accounts that I check regularly. I’m active in several groups on Facebook. I’ve got a stack of books taller than I am on my to read list. There are 60 shows on my list in Netflix and another 20 in Hulu. I have unfinished craft projects that could fill a refrigerator. My to do list is as long as my arm.

And I am stressed the hell out.

If you didn’t already know, I’m disabled, both physically and psychologically. I have a dozen or so chronic pain conditions, plus bipolar disorder and at least a dozen anxiety disorders. can’t stand up very long, can’t walk more than a few feet, often completely lose control of my voluntary muscles. 

Wanna know what stress does to all of that? Makes it worse.

Now, I’m not saying that you in particular have mental illness. However, you do have mental health. It’s kind of like breathing. Everybody has breathing, but not everybody has breathing problems. Everybody has mental health, but not everybody has mental illness.

Sometimes it feels like puzzle pieces missing from my brain, sometimes it feels like my head is like an apple in a vise being squished One thing it never feels like? Boredom.
Two examples of what mental illness can feel like

So your mental health, however healthy or not it might be, it gets stressed the hell out by having too much to do. First you have to get up at 5 in the morning so you can do your workout, make lunch for your 2.5 kids and your spouse, and maybe you, too, if you remember. 

Then you have to make breakfast, wake everybody up, take a shower, do your grooming routine, make sure your kids are appropriately dressed for the weather, the occasion, the event, the whatever. 

Feed the dog, feed the cat, feed the fish, feed the ferrets, clean the sink, load everybody in the car, drop them off at 4 different locations, and go to work. 

At work, you arrive at your desk, find 173 unread emails, 11 file folders on your desk you have to read before a meeting at 9, and it’s already 8:45.

A stack of file folders, notebooks, binders, and papers, with five different notes about what has to be done first. The bad news: I have too freaking much to do. The good news: I'm never bored.
From the desk of yours truly

Seventeen voicemails are blinking at you, 13 of which are from your boss asking where the hell are you, and the other four from your spouse and children who are sick and need you to go pick them up right now. And it’s only 8:52.

I generally don’t have any of that going on, except when I do, beyond my own personal grooming and cleaning routine, and maybe 150 or so unread emails, but I’m stressed the hell out just writing all that. The space to be bored, to let your brain go, “oh my God, I can breathe,” is invaluable.

And since it’s your brain that runs your everything else, you need to let it breathe. if you tried to run an 800 meter sprint without breathing, you’d pass out. Where you would pass out depends on your personal level of physical fitness, but you’re passing out. You are physically incapable of running an 800 meter sprint without breathing.

A cartoon brain with arms and legs, wide eyes and a big smile, standing on a racetrack
This brain is extra happy because she knows that without actual legs, she doesn’t have to sprint 800 meters, much less sprint any distance at all

But you’re asking your brain to keep going all day long for days, for weeks, for months at a time, without breathing. This is where you’re going to develop mental illness, because a healthy brain needs to breathe. 

When you deprive your brain of breathing room, you’re going to develop anxiety, stress disorders, depression, I don’t even know what else, because there are 200 mental illnesses listed in the official psychiatric handbook, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V)

And in America right now, 20% of the population is diagnosed with at least one of those 200 mental illnesses. If you’re not letting your brain breathe, you are at risk for developing one, for making it 21%.

Boredom gives your brain the space it needs. If you unsubscribed from 20 of your mailing lists, that’s 20, 40, 60 fewer emails you have to read in a day. That’s a little bit of space. 

If you took a day off to take your kids to the doctor, just stay home with them and make sure they’re okay, and not take your laptop with you, not read any emails from work on your phone, just take care of your kids, that’s a little bit of space. 

If you delegate the care and feeding of the pets to the other people in your house demanded that you have pets, that’s a little bit of space.

Cat food bowl shaped like a cat's head, including ears, full of food with a couple spots where the bottom of the bowl is showing.
Since the bottom of the bowl is clearly visible, Milo has gone in search of his person to loudly protest the utter emptiness in his bowl

Since you’re in the kitchen making dinner anyway, make breakfast and lunch for the next day while you’re in there. That’s not only a little bit of space, it’s also a little bit more sleep. 

Go find a way to get bored. Watch a baseball game. Watch a kids soccer game. Swim some laps. Hit the treadmill with no TV, no iPod, no phone. Hand wash your dishes instead of loading them in the dishwasher. Fold some laundry instead of asking your kids to do it. Sit on your front porch with a glass of sweet tea and watch the world go by. 

Get bored so you can appreciate the things that are happening more. get bored so you can be more creative. Get bored to maintain your mental health.

And since I know my blog posts are stimulating, go away and get bored.

Young girl wearing glasses and a pom-pom headband, laying across an open book, glaring at the camera
No, seriously, go.