Szuhaj: The Healthiness of Boredom

Sometimes what we really need to do more than anything is nothing.​

by Ben Szuhaj | 9/16/16 12:30am

I spent the better part of the past week on a cross country training trip at Dartmouth’s Second College Grant in northern New Hampshire. Activities included running, reading, sleeping, sitting on rocks by the river, wading into the river, returning to rocks by the river, eating, trembling under the mighty vastness of the night sky, wondering about my place in the universe, making little progress, going back to sleep and generally experiencing something I haven’t experienced for quite a while: boredom.

I was worried. After all, how could I waste so much time, when time is so precious? Surely, I should be doing something. So I explored. I went for a few hikes. I ran. I finished the book I’d brought along. I did some writing of my own. But all of those activities could only fill up so much time. The rest of the day was left wide open. It was boring.

At first, having so much time with which to do nothing was frustrating. It was dead time, and I wished I could bottle it up and dispense it throughout my days once classes began. I wished I could have that kind of “dead time” back on campus, when I had articles to read and papers to write and problem sets to complete. I wished I could have it then, so I could have a break from the relentless pace of work I experience at Dartmouth. But then I began to realize something.

I did have that kind of dead time back at Dartmouth. Maybe not quite as much, but still, a healthy amount. Classes, readings, papers, problem sets — they only take up so much time. And sure, there’s the additional time drain of getting to and from class, taking part in extracurriculars, going out, among other things, but still, nobody’s day is scheduled down to the second. At least I hope not.

So what was the difference between being at the Grant where time seemed to creep by and being on campus where entire terms can seemingly pass in the blink of an eye? The answer, I believe, is boredom. And by boredom, I do not mean solely “disconnecting.” Frequently, when we talk about boredom, or about the potential for boredom to arise, we talk about disconnecting: turning off our cellphones, not checking email, removing ourselves from the electronic social fabric that so pervades our world. But this, in my opinion, is insufficient. Real boredom, true boredom, does not arise from the absence of electronics. It arises from the absence of all things mentally or physically engaging. Reading, writing, walking, hiking, all of these are activities that, while lacking in the excitement value of say, a 3D box office hit, all still engage the mind or body. When I speak of boredom, I mean doing nothing at all. At least those moments when you appear outwardly to be doing nothing. Let me explain.

Take, for instance, a classic situation of boredom: staring out the window during a road trip. This, to me, is true boredom, and it is valuable for both mental and physical health, not because you look out of the window and realize that whichever place you’re driving through is different from where you call home, or that the people there seem to be of a different socioeconomic status, or that the trees look different than the ones you’re used to, or that there aren’t any trees at all. Looking out the window has value because it allows you, perhaps paradoxically, to look into yourself.

That, to me, is the greatest value of boredom: The ability not to self-reflect in a controlled, deliberate manner, but the privilege to sit and let your mind wander, to indulge the craziest thoughts, if only briefly, and then to return to looking out the window. Boredom allows for mental rejuvenation and personal insight without any additional effort. In fact, the very point is not to try. For me, that was the hardest part. Being at Dartmouth, I make a point to — in addition to doing my work — sleep well, eat well, exercise and talk to friends. I take all the steps I’m told I must to ensure good mental and physical health. And yet, in doing so, I whittle away my dead time. I forget that one of the healthiest activities a busy, stressed-out, college student can do is nothing. At least for a little while, that is.