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Blubaugh: Reject constant stimulation and embrace boredom

I was listening to a podcast recently in which some Hollywood muckety-muck was talking about a recent vacation to Hawaii in which he overcame his fear of heights — and of spending a ridiculous amount of money — to plunk down $1,200 for his family of four to take a 30-minute helicopter trip over and into some volcanoes.

He said the sights were breathtaking and he was having an amazing experience until, about 15 minutes in, he noticed that one of his daughters was looking not at the spectacular views but, rather, at her smartphone. It wasn’t that the daughter hadn’t been enjoying herself — she had. But, come on, it had been 15 minutes. Time to move on to something else.

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The story resonated with me not just because I don’t particularly like air travel or parting with a lot of money.

I took my eldest daughter to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina recently and on the first day she and a friend headed to the beach and really had fun. For about 45 minutes. Then it was off to a water park. For about a half-hour. Then came an amusement park, then a zipline, then a quick powerboat ride with some stops for food thrown in and, of course, funny YouTube videos and social media on smartphones to fill in any gaps.

Similarly, on the Fourth of July, my youngest daughter had zero interest in staking out a seat, sitting for a few hours and then watching fireworks. We live in an era when we are constantly stimulated and can experience all manner of excitement with a few taps on a smartphone. So fireworks — or the circus or, I suppose, volcanoes — don’t pack the “wow” factor they once did.

I know I’m not alone at being amazed and troubled by our ever-shortening attention spans and inability to just do nothing. (I was going to call out young people, in particular, before I realized how obsessed I have become with filling up every second of dead time, too.)

Listening to another podcast recently before drifting off to sleep — see what I mean about obsessively filling up dead time? — I heard a creative person a bit older than myself discussing the importance of boredom when he was younger. In his formative years well into his early-20s, he said, he had little money or opportunity to do much of anything, so a lot of time was spent retreating into his mind, imagining, writing, creating.

He said he doubted he could’ve become a success growing up today because he would never be bored and he would likely be binge-watching TV or gaming or chatting online when he otherwise might’ve been using the downtime to dream and to refine his art.

A 2017 article in The Atlantic reported that boredom does, indeed, lead to contemplation and daydreaming that spur creativity, but it also found that we’ll go to great lengths to avoid it, noting that psychologists discovered that two-thirds of men and a quarter of women would rather self-administer electric shocks than sit alone with their thoughts for 15 minutes.

A recent Time magazine article cited a study showing that people who had gone through a boredom-inducing task later performed better on an idea-generating task than peers who first completed an interesting craft activity.

In her book, “The Upside of Downtime: Why Boredom Is Good,” Sandi Mann writes that boredom is “a search for neural stimulation that isn’t satisfied,” and that “if we can’t find that, our mind will create it.” Additionally, she contends it’s beneficial to simply step away from screens, work and other stressors long enough to feel bored.

Of course, it’s no easier to convince my 13-year-old that she’d be better off retreating into her mind rather than her phone during an eight-hour drive than it would’ve been to convince bored, 13-year-old me during a similar 8-hour drive that I was benefiting from mindlessly staring out the car window, watching the trees and road signs pass.

At any rate, that is the message I will try to impart to my kids and remember myself. We don’t need to move immediately from one activity to the next. We don’t need 24/7 stimulation. It’s OK to do nothing, to daydream, to let your mind wander and see what happens.

I sincerely hope that all of this hasn’t been too boring, dear reader. But, hey, even if it has, take solace in the fact that it’s been good for you.

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