The digital age is full of distractions. It’s not unusual to have two or more screens in front of us when we sit down to relax, and for most people, barely a commute goes by without plugging into a podcast or cramming in another game of Candy Crush. We scroll through social media in waiting rooms and fire up another rerun of Friends to have on in the background while we make breakfast. We are a generation that marches to the beat of background noise.
It seems that most of us are universally bad at being bored—and from a certain vantage point, this could be considered a good thing. After all, why twiddle our thumbs when we could be brushing up on our Spanish skills via Duolingo or catching up on the news while waiting for the subway? When we gorge on productivity porn and squeeze in side-hustles around our day jobs, engaging our brains to their full potential seems a worthy aim. I’ve been known to balance my laptop on the toilet seat while I take a bath so that I can catch up on that must-watch Netflix show without wasting valuable time to do so. And if time is money then you can bet that I’ll be furiously typing project plans into an iPhone note while I wait for my coffee to brew.
But far from simply preferring our now-normalized state of constant mental stimulation, it seems that we have come to actively crave it. One 2014 study gave participants a device that delivered a painful electric shock if they used it, then asked them to sit with no other distractions for 15 minutes. Most participants voluntarily gave themselves one or more shocks during the short time span rather than sitting in stillness with their own thoughts. And it seems that a fear of an idle mind often extends beyond these controlled conditions.
“I use TV as a wind-down mechanism before bed,” says Hannah*, 27. “I put on programmes I’ve seen before with the volume down whilst wearing an eye mask to minimize the light. As someone who suffers from anxiety I find the white noise helpful in muting thoughts before sleep. The worst thing is I know how crazy it is. My sleep quality is affected and my poor long-suffering boyfriend has had to cope with nearly eight years of watching episodes on repeat. But I can find myself in a profound panic [when] in a silent room.”
While perpetual mental stimulation might be the new normal, research suggests that being alone with our own thoughts has surprising benefits. A recent study found that boredom has the potential to spark enormous productivity and creativity—after all, who among us hasn’t had a stroke of genius while lingering in the shower?
“I absolutely have my best ideas when I’m bored,” says Ella, 32. “I have a creative job and I find that when I’m feeling stuck there’s nothing that helps more than a long walk. Just enough stimulation from the outside world to stop me stressing, but plenty of mental space to figure out the solution to whatever problem I’m working through.”
Perhaps the most delightful benefit of boredom, however, is our ability to fill that brain-space with a daydream or two. Letting your mind wander might seem like a whimsical pastime (and perhaps a guilt-inducing one when you realize you’ve been practicing your Nobel Prize acceptance speech when you really should have been tidying up that budgeting spreadsheet for Debbie in Accounts), but it’s actually good for us. The same mental cogs that allow us to calculate exactly how we would spend that lottery win also have a host of scientific benefits: As well as enjoying faster cognitive function, well-practiced daydreamers are also said to have better working memory and improved mental health.
“I would definitely describe myself as a smartphone addict,” Farah, 26, tells me. “And I don’t really mind that. But I do find that if I ever forget my phone or am without internet connection I quite enjoy it. It feels like a little indulgence to just get a bit lost in my thoughts or to take notice of the world around me. Sometimes I do think that I should make a conscious effort to do it more.”
It’s a privilege to have a world of knowledge and Beyoncé’s back-catalogue in our pockets at all times, but our own minds are just as powerful as the devices we distract them with. And while out thoughts might not always be comfortable or happy, retreating to our screens the moment we so much as suspect a second of downtime might be over-protecting us. Processing the complex places our minds take us to—challenging, joyous, and everything in-between—might well mean missing out on one of the most fundamental aspects of what it means to be human.
Being alone with our thoughts means being in the company of our most powerful asset. It means letting our minds do what they do best—turn somersaults and freewheel into unexplored places. Conjure up our wildest fantasies or spark our best ideas. Ponder our past mistakes and learn from them. Let us sink into the reveries of good memories with all the pleasure of settling between freshly-made sheets. Next time you find yourself without a decent distraction, settle in and enjoy the ride. You might be surprised where your mind can take you.
Graphics by Madeline Montoya.