Editor’s Note: Verily is teaming with the Ben Franklin Circles project to highlight the virtues we can embrace in everyday life. Circles, modeled after the founding father’s “clubs of mutual improvement,” meet regularly across the country, using Franklin’s classic thirteen virtues to spark discussion about members’ goals and aspirations—who they want to be and what they want to contribute to the world. Join us as we explore in this piece the value of boredom and reflection. Reprinted with permission.
We usually think of boredom as a bad thing—and it’s not one of the virtues on Ben Franklin’s list. But does boredom have a role in a good and meaningful life? Yes, argues Clive Thompson in this article:
“'I’m dying of boredom,' complains the young wife, Yelena, in Chekhov’s 1897 play Uncle Vanya. “I don’t know what to do.” Of course, if Yelena were around today, we know how she’d alleviate her boredom: She’d pull out her smartphone and find something diverting, like BuzzFeed or Twitter or Clash of Clans. If you have a planet’s worth of entertainment in your pocket, it’s easy to stave off ennui. Unless it turns out ennui is good for us. What if boredom is a meaningful experience—one that propels us to states of deeper thoughtfulness or creativity?
"That’s the conclusion of two fascinating recent studies. In one, researchers asked a group of subjects to do something boring, like copying out numbers from a phone book, and then take tests of creative thinking, such as devising uses for a pair of cups. The result? Bored subjects came up with more ideas than a nonbored control group, and their ideas were often more creative. In a second study, subjects who took an 'associative thought' word test came up with more answers when they’d been forced to watch a dull screensaver."
In addition to kindling creativity, I think boredom helps us be more reflective. If your mind has nothing to do, you can use that time to think more deeply about your life, to appreciate the beauty of the world around you, or to make sense of something you’re struggling with. Unfortunately, we’re programming boredom out of our life, quickly reaching for our phones as soon as boredom settles in—whether in line at the store or at home at the dinner table. Let’s resist this urge and see where our imagination takes us!
One of Franklin’s most admirable qualities was how self-reflective he was.
He was constantly striving to be a better man—and part of that endeavor involved thinking deeply about why he did the things he did. Franklin kept a journal throughout his life where he recorded his thoughts and mused on why he was the way he was.
In my own work, I’ve discovered that the benefits of writing about yourself are powerful indeed. Keeping a diary or journaling about your life might sound self-indulgent, but actually, they help us satisfy a deep-seated desire to make sense of our lives and the world around us. If you want to lead a meaningful life, you have to be able to tell a positive story about your life—and the only way to do that is by reflecting on who you are and how you got to be that way. As I recently wrote in the Washington Post, a great tool of reflection is writing:
"In studies, James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin invited people into his lab to write about the most upsetting experiences of their lives for fifteen minutes a day for three to four days in a row. The people who wrote about an adversity ended up going to the doctor less often, they got better grades, registered lower blood pressure, and displayed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to a control group.
"The reason was meaning. Pennebaker found that those in the expressive writing condition were actively trying to make sense of what happened to them, and the ones who benefited the most from the exercise were the ones who made the most progress in meaning-making over time. The research subjects forged meaning in one of three ways.
First, they probed into the causes and consequences of the traumatic experience — how the experience shaped them, what they lost and gained. Pennebaker measured this by counting their use of what he calls “insight words,” like “realize” and “understand.” Second, they showed a shift in perspective. Instead of writing about why this happened to me they wrote about why he abused me or why she divorced me. In other words, they put some emotional distance between themselves and the event, and displayed some empathy toward others. Finally, they were able to find some sort of good that resulted from the experience—some positive outcome that redeemed the bad."
Maybe you don’t think of yourself as the journaling kind, but in the spirit of Franklin, give it a try. Try reallocating five or ten minutes of the time you spend on social media each day to writing about your life. You could write about a defining experience of your life, good or bad, and how it shaped you. You could write about something funny that happened today. You could write about something that’s been bothering you. Whatever subject you choose to write about, chances are that thinking a little more deeply about it will bring you some meaning.
Photo Credit: Horn Photography