Boredom: the mental colonic irrigation

An occasional spate of boredom is good for you, says Sali Hughes. So there’s no need to pack your days with plans or distract yourself with the internet

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By Sali Hughes on

It’s the Easter school holidays and, around about now, the eight-year-old me would have been watching Why Don’t You? on telly, humming spiritlessly along to the theme tune’s raucous plea to “Switch off your TV set and go and do something less boring instead” before I flicked channels to The Sullivans (oh, to be young now and wholly unaware of the most depressing soap opera in history). Some 33 years on, my kids are doing much the same. My drab telly schedule is their limitless Netflix menu, my bulging bookshelf of Enid Blyton their Kindle Fires. But their memories of school holidays – aside from a fun fortnight in Cornwall and occasional trips to the park or beach – will also, in all likelihood, merge into one long, tedious ball of relative inactivity, while parents continue to earn money. And, even if I could, I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

To me, boring is beautiful, a sublime state of grace. A day without plan, expectation or forced stimulus is as good for the soul as fresh air, multivitamins or excursions to the Science Museum, and yet it’s the one childhood condition we parents are expected to feel guilty about inflicting on our young. When did it become law that children had to be doing so much all of the time? Expensive trips to theme parks, high-octane sessions at soft play, daily romps through rich woodlands and thinly veiled lessons to maintain academic momentum. In showering them with purposeful activity, we’re depriving them of the imaginative self-reliance born from crashing boredom. It’s as important a skill to master as the three Rs.

My mum and dad worked hard in an era – the 1980s – where, let’s be entirely honest, attentive parenting meant running the odd bath and plonking three edible meals on the table. Days of the holidays went by uneventfully, bookended by the pouring of Coco Pops and the beginning of Crossroads. This almost continual boredom compelled me to cut up old Sunday supplements and Freemans catalogues, and glue them into my own magazine. It not occurring to me that adults would lay on an entertainment programme, I got out my pens and drew, I read alone, I wrote stories, I opened shops, made horrible things to eat, invented imaginary friends, made up dances and entire worlds with my big brothers (I once stayed all day in my bedroom, frozen in terror because they told me a member of the IRA was in the living room, but still). My boredom sparked a career choice, a love of books and a lifelong obsession with film.

As an adult, I still revel in boredom and value its often unexpected productivity. As much as I believe my children need to be bored some of the time, I know I do too and am trying to engage with it more often. Work, chores and admin consume my days and, even in downtime, the constantly topped-up epidural of the internet is a poor substitute for proper, stultifying boredom – it’s just a short-term mental activity to avoid it. 

Some of my happiest times with my much-loved family are spent quietly ignoring one another in different parts of the house

The true state of boredom allows us to enter the recesses of the imagination, like neglected toys at the back of the cupboard under the stairs. It’s a mental colonic, clearing the way for new thoughts and ideas. I know that if I’m finding it difficult to concentrate and painful to work, then I’ve probably not been allowing myself to be sufficiently bored in the preceding days. My brain isn’t used to being left unattended, my synapses cluck for stimulus and prevent me from focusing, when I just need to turn down the noise for a bit and re-alphabetise my spice cupboard. Conversely, avoiding boredom prevents us from ever truly being present in the moment and, if you’ll forgive a rare display of hippy-thinking, mindful presence is essential to happiness. If you’re constantly distracted and stimulated, then how can you possibly enjoy the unadulterated here and now of your life? In obsessively seeking an exciting existence, we’re neglecting the one we already have.

A love of boredom also has distinct social benefits I want to pass on to my kids. Having acquired this essential life skill, they will never be the restless person on an otherwise chilled holiday, fidgeting and moaning while everyone else dozes contentedly beneath a Jilly Cooper (there’s no one more boring than someone who is constantly bored). They’ll never see bad weather as some worst-case scenario in which nothing worthwhile is possible (handy in British summertime). They know the unmitigated joy of a rained-off Saturday on the sofa, an empty library, the peaceful contemplation of long car journeys with only pylons to stare at, and the comforting, mindless construction of a 1000-piece jigsaw of Victorian bucolic Dorset. They’ll know that life still glides smoothly along when the stabilisers of constant stimulation are removed, and that happiness comes from within yourself, not from those outside.

So, every weekend, we have one day of activity (skateboarding, children’s parties or football) and another of doing sweet, delicious bugger all. This Sunday alone, I spent three surprisingly joyful hours descaling the kettle and other household metalware while my kids watched an entire season of One Foot In The Grave. My partner kept an eye on football results between nodding off, and contemplated hiring a pressure washer from the nearby industrial estate. At my youngest’s behest, we reconvened to make chocolate mousse “against the clock, like on MasterChef”, then sat in front of yet more telly to eat it. There will be many, many more just like it.

I’m not suggesting some bleak house arrest or hostage situation. If you have kids bouncing off the walls like a shoeboxed terrier, then clearly they need to run off some energy, and I’m not for a minute suggesting that eight hours on Minecraft is good for anyone’s mental health. But some of my happiest times with my much-loved family are spent quietly ignoring one another in different parts of the house, or involve listening to my sons invent a game on Brighton beach, having just complained that there’s nothing to do. There’s always something nice to do. You just need to be thoroughly bored to work it out.


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