Winnie the Pooh may have been on to something when he said,
people say nothing is impossible but I do nothing everyday
Remember summers as a child when time stretched out ahead of you with nothing to do! I learnt early on that claiming boredom was not a good tactic. My mother’s unsympathetic response was always along the lines of being bored is a sign of a boring person with a boring mind – I’m sure you can find something to do. And invariably we did! Elaborate games of hopscotch, the chalk squares extending further and further along the street each day. Jars of rose petal “perfume” that smelled more of rotting vegetation than the exquisite scent of roses. Perhaps the most memorable, a game of castaway where we pretended to be marooned in a tree fort under the beech trees. Each day we would beg, borrow or steal treasures to furnish our castaway refuge until one day in desperate search for provisions we happened to pull up all the carrots, barely an inch long, from our neighbor’s vegetable garden. Needless to say it didn’t end well and our lives as castaways came to an abrupt end!
It turns out that recent studies confirm what Winnie the Pooh and most children have known all along: doing nothing is good for us.
I just need more time…
In a world where we pride ourselves on accomplishment and productivity, wearing our busyness as a badge of honor, when we do happen upon a block of unstructured time we find ourselves reaching for smartphones, computers, TV remotes, anything to distract us from restlessness and anxiety inducing inactivity. However, researchers have shown that technology free space and time to do nothing are gifts we should give ourselves and our children on a regular basis. Family therapist and author, Dr. Michael Ungar, reminds us that kids should be bored occasionally. When we are bored it increases our level of motivation to find something to do.
A motivated child is one who is raised to seek new experiences, not one who is endlessly protected from boredom.
And in our search to find something to do we may just discover new talents, skills or interests we didn’t know we possessed.
In a nutshell boredom nurtures self motivation and self reliance. Something my mother clearly understood when she threatened me with the dire consequences of claiming boredom – a boring person with a boring mind! Thanks to my Mom I think I escaped that fate!
Dare to dream…
As someone who likes the idea of doing a little bit of nothing on a regular basis and for whom daydreaming is a skill honed to perfection, I was very excited to discover that research is on my side. Apparently, I’m doing great things indulging in both of these pastimes. We often daydream when we have time on our hands. Neuroscience research reveals that daydreaming involves the same processes governing imagination and creativity. When we daydream we engage regions in our brain referred to as Default Mode Network. Our outward attention is reduced and focused internally, ideas come and go more freely, less attention is paid to external stimuli as our minds wander, letting our imaginations come up with all kinds of creative solutions, some of which just might work.
If I could just solve that problem…
It seems that many of our most intractable problems can be solved……you’ve guessed it…..by having nothing to do other than trying to stave off boredom. Some of my most inventive games and memorable childhood activities (the castaway game springs to mind) came about as a direct result of having nothing to do other than follow my nose. What seems like child’s play – inventing new games, tinkering, exploring, endless inquisitiveness, & yes! even incurring the wrath of your neighbors by picking all their baby carrots, is all about building the foundational skills that enable us to problem solve. When we’re motivated to find something to do, chances are we engage a play-mindset, no matter our age, where we devise activities that are by their very nature improvisational, leaving us open to exploration, discovery, new insights, even a different perspective. All the skills required for creative problem solving.
Be in the moment…
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), used in hospitals and clinics around the world, has demonstrated that MBSR is highly effective in reducing stress and stress related conditions such as anxiety, panic, and depression. Studies have revealed that mindfulness positively affects the way the brain processes life experiences. Practicing mindfulness activates networks in the brain that are involved in the direct experiencing of the present moment, rather than circuits in the brain that involve generating narratives about our experiences that may adversely influence or color the experiences themselves.
Furthermore, research has shown that mindfulness-based stress reduction training results in changes to the brain’s structure with a thickening in regions of the brain associated with learning and memory, and a thinning in those regions that regulate fear-based reactions.
From busy schedules, financial obligations, taking care of ourselves and others, to tragic news reports and everything in between – stress is encoded in our everyday lives. All compelling reasons to give ourselves the gift of space and time, no matter how brief, in which to do nothing but breathe, bringing our attention and awareness to this present moment. Being mindful!
Something, I might add, at which my dog seems to be an expert….
Take a nap…
Another skill our dogs and cats possess is the ability to be expert nap-takers. I’ve noticed that whenever there’s a lull in the activity around Bear – no chipmunks or rabbits to chase, no food in his bowl, no impending walks since I’m not dressed in the appropriate running gear – in other words when there’s nothing to do, he will take a nap, for seconds, minutes, even hours at a time. It turns out that this is a skill we humans would do well to learn from our pets!
Studies have shown that our busy lives are leading to sleep deprivation and few of us are getting the recommended 7 – 9 hours of sleep a night we need to function at our best. The health benefits of taking a 10 minute time out to nap or even just rest are numerous and compelling, from helping us stay more patient and alert, improving memory, to lowering blood pressure and reducing risk of heart disease.