Human Doings

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 Don’t underestimate the value of doing nothing, of just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear and not bothering” Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne

Yes, it’s that time of year again. The one parents look forward to and dread in equal measure – the school holidays.

On the bright side it’s six weeks without fighting for a parking space on the school run, without having to iron a heap of crumpled of shirts and without struggling to remember how to solve simultaneous equations (to help your despairing child with their homework).

On the dark side it’s six weeks of empty kitchen cupboards, of scrubbing grass-stains off trousers and of trying to keep the kids amused.

I’m going to sound old now. When I was a child we didn’t have technology to keep us amused and there was hardly anything on TV. We didn’t have “on-tap” stimulation. When we were bored we entertained ourselves, building tents in the garden using the washing line and mum’s old sheets, putting on performances and plays, climbing trees and splashing around in the washing up bowl (when there was a drought) or the old plastic baby bath and the garden hose (when water was plentiful).

Car journeys to our summer holiday in the West Country were an experience. I can remember being squashed on the backseat with my brother, sister and our bedding, tucking into warm cheese and pickle sandwiches, slurping hot orange squash which tasted like the plastic bottle it was in, singing loudly along to the Radio 1 Roadshow tunes with the windows wound down as far as they could go. If we were lucky we’d have comics and “I Spy” books to amuse us – provided they didn’t make us car sick. Oh how spoilt we are now with our cool bags, air conditioning, MP3s, DVDs, iPads and smartphones.

The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity” Dorothy Parker

In the April’14 edition of Psychologies magazine, Matt Chittock observes how we seem to have created a world where it’s not OK for us to be bored and how we have taught our children that boredom and lack of stimulation is something to be feared.

He explains that in 1924 Siegfried Kracauer wrote of massive over-stimulation of the modern city, leaving people in a state of “permanent receptivity”. Imagine what Kracauer would make of the world now. Kracauer advocated actively pursuing boredom as a valuable means of unlocking playful, wild ideas and “achieving a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly.”

Chittock supports this view with Dr Sandi Mann’s experiment, where 40 people were asked to copy numbers from a phone book for 15minutes before undertaking a creative task. The result was that they showed more creative flair. Essentially, our mind gets bored and daydreams, coming up with different processes and working out creative solutions.

In addition to being a key stimulator of creativity, boredom can have wider benefits.

The definition of boredom most accepted by academics is “wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity.”

In his paper entitled “Bored George helps others”, based on his research Wijnand Van Tilburg concludes that boredom encourages reflection and the pursuit of new goals. It can therefore promote behavioural benefits to society as people seek out meaningful experiences.

Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known” From “Winnie the Pooh”, A.A. Milne

Most of us seem to have fallen victim to our over-stimulated world and no longer allow ourselves to get bored. We deliberately keep our lives busy to avoid it. As one of my colleagues and I frequently reflect, we have morphed from human beings into human doings.

Whilst we have created an over-stimulated world, the good news is that we’ve also created one which also affords us downtime. We have paid holidays, we have machines to help us with our household chores and we are even able to use technology to order our shopping and have it delivered.

As with anything, there is a balance to be achieved in how we spend our downtime. As described in Sir Ken Robinson’s book “The Element: how finding your passion changes everything”, there are two kinds of downtime: recreation, which is about using physical and/or mental effort doing something which energises us; and leisure, where we rest and recharge.

Our leisure time provides the perfect opportunity to allow ourselves to be bored. To stimulate our creativity and allow our minds to come up with new and satisfying goals, which could be work or recreation related.

Summer is a wonderful time to unplug ourselves from technology, to listen to the wind rustling through the trees, watch the clouds floating across the sky and breathe in the smell of the garden after a summer rainstorm. Why not lay down on the lawn on a balmy summer evening and gaze with wonder at the stars.

For those of us with children, over the summer let’s give them opportunities to spend time away from their technology, to let boredom give birth to creation. Watching them create games with nonsensical rules, invent weird potions from rose petals or play in a make-believe world is fascinating, heart-warming and best of all will provide them with a treasure trove full of wonderful childhood memories.

Don’t fear boredom, embrace it.

Let’s become human beings once more and “Explore, Dream, Discover” – Mark Twain.

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