dull activities can spark creative thinking

What if boredom is a meaningful experience—one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness and creativity? That’s the conclusion of two fascinating recent studies. Boredom might spark creativity because a restless mind hungers for stimulation. Maybe traversing an expanse of tedium creates a sort of cognitive forward motion. A bored mind moves into a “daydreaming” state, says Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire.

The problem, the psychologists worry, is that these days we don’t wrestle with these slow moments. We eliminate them (with mobile devices). This might relieve us temporarily, but it shuts down the deeper thinking that can come from staring down the doldrums. Noolding on your phone is “like eating junk food,” she says.

So here’s an idea: Instead of always fleeing boredom, lean into it. Sometimes, anyway. When novelists talk about using Freedom, the software that shuts down one’s Internet connection, they often say it’s about avoiding distraction. But I suspect it’s also about enforcing a level of boredom in their day—useful, productive monotony.

And there is, of course, bad boredom. The good type motivates you to see what can come of it: “fructifying boredom,” as the philosopher Bertrand Russell called it. The bad type, in contrast, tires you, makes you feel like you can’t be bothered to do anything. (It has a name too: lethargic boredom.)

A critical part of our modern task, then, is learning to assess these different flavors of ennui—to distinguish the useful kind from the stultifying. (Glancing at your phone in an idle moment isn’t always, or even often a bad thing.) Boredom, it turns out, may be super-interesting.

Clive Thompson writing in Wired Magazine