The Lessons Boredom Teaches & How to Cultivate a Practice, with Dr. Mark Hawkins
Our society provides more stimulus and entertainment than ever before, from streaming video to mobile devices. Parents are often discouraged from letting their children wander off or attempt things unsupervised. And most people think of boredom as a negative feeling to be avoided. But could there be a value to boredom? Dr. Mark Hawkins, a high school counselor, thinks so. Cultivating a practice of boredom, or leaving space to do nothing, can lead to facing and resolving one’s negative feelings, reflecting upon knowledge, creative problem-solving, and more. In today’s society, one needs to more deliberately pursue boredom in the face of so much stimulus.
Dr. Michael Ruscio, DC: Hi everyone, welcome to Dr. Ruscio Radio. This is Dr. Ruscio. Today, I’m here with Dr. Mark Hawkins and we’re going to be discussing boredom. It’s the second conversation on boredom, but it’s one that I think always bears repeating.
Mark, welcome to the show and thanks for being here.
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Dr. R’s Fast Facts Summary
Where does our fear of boredom come from?
- Fundamentally there is a need for movement, flux, and change in life and that is the opposite of boredom
- Typically negative thoughts and feelings come up first when we’re bored
Benefits of boredom
- Helps you confront negatives feelings/thoughts
- Time for more creativity and idea generation
Negative behaviors to be aware of
- What we do to fill our boredom
- Addictions, phones, tv, using every free second for education
How to cultivate boredom
- Build up to 1 hour per day being bored
- Try some low engagement activities; light reading, model building, walking
- Play relaxing music (great composer Ludovico Einaudi)
Where to learn more about Dr. Mark Hawkins
- Get help using this information to become healthier.
- Get your personalized plan for optimizing your gut health with my new book.
- Healthcare providers looking to sharpen their clinical skills, check out the Future of Functional Medicine Review Clinical Newsletter.
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Dr. Mark Hawkins, PhD: Thank you for having me.
DrMR: Yeah, it’s a pleasure. Can you tell people a little bit about your background?
DrMH: Yeah. I have a background in both counseling, education, and education philosophy. Right now, I’m a high school counselor. I’m an instructor at the local university in education and in the counseling program. My Master’s degree was focused on counseling psychology, but specifically trying to find meaning and purpose, and how meaning and purpose can help us live satisfying lives. My PhD was sort of on the same topic. It focused on how we can live a satisfying life in this world where meaning and purpose seem to be elusive, where there doesn’t seem to be any absolutes anymore.
Essentially, I was trying to answer the question: what motivates us and drives our behavior? If we can understand human behavior and motivation, we’re better equipped to deal with our challenges, both personally and societally. It’s all about how we can live the most satisfying life we can, at this point.
DrMR: Yeah, I love it. I’m assuming that your book, The Power of Boredom, is a way that you wanted to aggregate everything that you’ve learned and to give people a narrative on this, combined with some simple action items.
DrMH: Yeah, for sure. Definitely, I think, a part of living a satisfying, happy life is being aware of how boredom affects our behavior, how it affects our negative behaviors, and how it can help change our lives. I think that’s the whole purpose of the book.
DrMR: You said something there that I think is really important, which is how boredom can affect negative behaviors. I think people don’t appreciate—and I’m hoping you’ll elucidate this a bit more—what the benefits of boredom are. How can boredom make you less anxious? That’s probably one of the chief emotions boredom can help with, but why is boredom good for us?
Why Does Boredom Scare Us?
DrMH: Well, first of all, before we actually go into that part, I think it might be good to understand where our fear of boredom comes from, just to frame the whole conversation.
Throughout my research—which is mainly philosophical and psychological—what I found is if you look at what is fundamental to all spiritualities and philosophies going back thousands of years, it’s this need for movement, engagement, flux, and change all around us constantly. It’s just innate in the world and in life. In Taoism, they talk about the flow, which is movement, and in Buddhism, samsara is wandering. Again, the movement.
So what seems fundamental is that humans, and everything else, need to be engaged in something worthwhile. That is the opposite of boredom. Part of our discomfort with boredom is that there’s actually this natural instinct for us to keep moving, to keep being engaged. It’s a survival instinct. But the problem is that today, there’s just too much engagement out there and we need to slow it down. It’s kind of like how eating is necessary for survival. But we’re not going to overeat… it becomes bad for us. That’s the same with all this movement and engagement.
That’s why it’s super important now for boredom to rein in all that activity and distraction.
DrMR: Yeah. It’s one of the many paradoxes of modern day living. We’re fortunate enough now, where we can literally eat ourselves to death. It’s a slow process, but you can eat yourself to death. That used to be a luxury that no hunter-gatherer would have had. I’m assuming they would have spent much of their day working just towards survival.
I totally understand how that’s hardwired into us and how that environment has changed. Yet the biological impetus hasn’t changed. We need to be understanding of that and make some changes so that we’re not—using the trite example here—always on our cell phone, even when we have a free 30 seconds. It’s something that I still catch myself doing, although I’m much better at it. I used this example before on the podcast: you’re at a red light and your hand just reaches down for your phone because you can’t have 15 seconds without being entertained! You need to do something. I think that’s a really unhealthy habit pattern. But as you were saying, it’s kind of at odds with our biology.
DrMH: Exactly. I think part of the problem is that our tolerance for all that engagement and excitement is so high now. It’s just so difficult to sit still or not reach for your cell phone. I’m guilty of it too all the time.
DrMR: Mm-hmm. Something that’s helped me there has been a practice of meditation, which I’ve been much more ardently adhering to lately. It’s an interesting thing. Once you get through that first couple minutes and you settle in, it’s quite a pleasurable experience. At least it is for me.
I suppose it depends on finding the right type of meditation for the right individual, but it’s the same thing I’ve noticed with boredom: at first, there are a thousand things that your mind is reaching for.
Lessons Boredom Teaches
But once you settle into the fact that you’re not going to turn on the TV, you’re not going to listen to a podcast, you’re not going to watch a movie, you’re not going to do whatever, it’s actually quite a nice experience to let your mind wander a little bit. At least that’s what I’m finding.
But I’m curious, why is that so beneficial for us?
DrMH: Well, I think for a couple reasons. Because I’m a school counselor, I like to think of the therapeutic benefits of boredom quite often. Certainly, there’s a positive aspect to our minds wandering. That’s very important. But I think before we can actually handle that, before we’re able to sit still and listen to our thoughts, I think we need to—I like to say—cleanse the space of boredom. That’s really getting rid of all the negative stuff that comes up.
One thing that I found in my students and in my small private practice is that the most painful time for them is when they’re alone in their room and their parents have taken away their cell phones or their computers. All these negative thoughts and feelings come up for them. Of course, they want to run away from that as soon as possible. But I find that it’s actually those times that can tell you so much about yourself, what you think that you’re missing from your life, what societal expectations you think you’re not living up to.
I think before you get into the positive things that you’re talking about, you need to get over those feelings that are interfering with it, if that makes sense.
DrMR: Yeah, that’s fantastic. There’s this funny Louis C.K. skit where he talks about how people are always hiding in their cell phones because they don’t want to ever feel bad, so they’re constantly distracting themselves. But I think you made a fantastic point. And I spent a good period of my life reflecting on all these things that shoot into your head. Am I happy with what I’m doing? Do I love my work? Am I happy with my fitness? Am I happy with the spiritual aspects of my life? That’s one of the first places my mind will—or more often used to—go, until I got many things corrected.
I can say firsthand, I’ve experienced that. Yeah, some of those negative emotions will come up. And I guess rightfully so; they should come up. That’s your body’s way (or your mind or your soul, whatever you want to describe it as) of signaling to you, “Hey, we need to course-correct here and we need to make some changes.” It’s probably a tenable argument to say if someone’s constantly ignoring those things, and then they end up in the counselor’s office because they’re depressed, part of the reason that they may be depressed is simply because they’re ignoring things that are out of place in their life.
DrMH: Exactly. Like I said, again, when we’re not engaged, because it’s part of our survival instinct to be engaged, our mind is going to throw all these thoughts at us to keep us moving. Some of those are going to be positive, and that’s where the creativity and the meaning and purpose come in. But then some of it’s going to be negative. Like you’re saying, if you’re constantly distracted, you’re never able to discover either what you want to do or what’s going wrong in your life.
That’s a common thing with the students and the clients that I talk to. They spend so much time trying to cover up all that negativity that they never get a chance to actually look at what’s going wrong.
Why Boredom Is Healthy for Kids (& Adults)
DrMR: Now, how does this interface with family life and children? This is something that’s progressively more on my radar screen. The audience knows that I have a niece and nephew and I’m oftentimes thinking about them. I’m juxtaposing them with my brother and sister-in-law and thinking about how different aspects in my life will translate into family life. I certainly think if one’s not careful with children (just like if you give kids too much sugar and junk food), they will quickly become accustomed to that, and it’ll be much more difficult to deprogram them. I would think the same thing would happen if they’re constantly pacified by some type of device.
I’m thinking the same rules apply. They’re probably even more important for children. What would you offer someone with children trying to incorporate this concept? Let’s say, as an example, they’d like to be bored, but it’s very hard to carve out that time. They’re looking at it for themselves, also potentially for their kids. How does one integrate this into a family setting?
DrMH: You know, I think it’s really difficult. For parents these days, the whole culture is about over-scheduling. Everything’s about, “Oh, your student or your child isn’t in karate or isn’t in this activity.” You feel like you’re falling behind. I think parents feel like they need to fill up their kids’ time.
So I think, first of all, come to the realization that being bored is okay. And think back to your own childhood, when I’m sure you were bored. I’m sure that parents let you wander the parks and stuff without having constant engagement–
DrMR: And those were some of my most fun times. Sorry to jet in here–
DrMH: Yeah, no problem.
DrMR: Those were some of my most pleasurable times, just sitting around a pond with a few buddies tossing rocks in the pond. “What do you want to do?” There was something very nostalgic about that. There was just a shot of me feeling remorseful for children if they’re deprived of that.
DrMH: Yeah. I feel the same way and I see it. I think that it is difficult because the culture has changed from when I was young and when you were young, I’m sure. There’s just not the same tolerance of letting your kids be bored. There’s a fear there that they’re going to do something dangerous, or there’s a fear that they’re going to get bored and they’re going to come and bug you. They can’t just be off on their own anymore.
But I think it’s important. I think that needs to be something to be brought back, which is why part of my whole purpose of doing this book and talking about boredom is bringing it back into education as well, into the high schools, and really educating. I think it’s an important knowledge to have, that boredom is important for many aspects of life. For the kids nowadays, obviously, I think the best thing to do is not give smart devices, iPads, or whatever it is to them at a young age. I’ve seen the effects. The students in the high schools are addicted to video games and their phones. If we get it at a young age, hopefully it’ll change.
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DrMR: I agree. There’s this book that I’ve purchased—I haven’t read yet—called Free-Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy. She talks about this concept of children needing time of unsupervised play. A lot of these concepts seem to dovetail together: give your kid time for unsupervised play, and don’t let that unsupervised play always be a video game (that, to me, doesn’t seem like the highest level of unsupervised play). If we could get kids doing things that didn’t involve them being pacified by devices…
But it does seem like these concepts tend to aggregate together. If kids can be bored with other kids and not pacified by a device, this seems to replicate the way kids used to be raised. It’s funny. Now we have to make a concerted effort to live the way we used to live. But I guess that’s actually very in alignment with ancestral health principles of how we replicate a healthier environment.
DrMH: Mm-hmm. I think when kids are bored and, like you said, figuring out what to do with their friends, that’s how you create closer relationships. By figuring things out together and doing things together. Of course, that’s integral to happiness.
DrMR: There’s this funny story that Kenneth Blanchard tells in this book, The One-Minute Manager (or a lecture that preceded that seminar) about how, when he was a kid, they would really have to hone their problem-solving skills. They wanted to play baseball but there was no baseball field. So they had to find a patch of land and actually go to a farmer’s house. They had to knock on his door and ask him if they could use a patch of his land to play baseball.
Just developing that faculty of forward-thinking, of problem-solving for children—at least in my mind, and I think some of the research supports this—really outweighs any negative of, “Okay, the kids are outside and they might be able to get into trouble.”
Sure, but I think those kids turn into adults who have that faculty developed, compared to kids who’ve been coddled and don’t have that faculty. You’ve set them up for a life of being able to employ that faculty and ostensibly be more successful, compared to the ones who have just, unfortunately, been a bit crippled.
DrMH: And that goes into the link with creativity. Our kids being constantly distracted or pacified don’t have that chance to problem-solve or be creative anymore. That, again, is a benefit of not having as much to do or not being able to easily satisfy that need for engagement and movement.
Challenges to Letting Yourself Be Bored
DrMR: Right. It makes complete sense. Coming back to adults, are there some highly prevalent issues that you see adults resolve as you work with them in, for lack of a better term, developing a practice of boredom?
DrMH: I think the first thing that’s important is to become aware of how you’re reacting to that boredom and restlessness. Because we have such a high tolerance for excitement, novelty, and all that, consciousness is the first and foremost thing I would like to instill in people. Which of their behaviors, particularly negative behaviors, are related to escaping that boredom, and which ones are actually necessities?
One of the first things people always think of is overeating. When you’re bored, when you have nothing to do, you eat. But I think there are a whole bunch of negative behaviors that we need to become aware of. For example, maybe when we’re bored Saturday night, we come home and have a drink or something like that, instead of just sitting there. So being aware what we do to fill our boredom is the first thing.
I think we feel it with all sorts of things. Students and younger people fill it with video games. Adults and older people fill it with addictions, drama, and over-scheduling themselves. First and foremost, understanding what you do to escape boredom is the first step in using it to change your life and working through it therapeutically.
DrMR: Yep. That makes a lot of sense. I’m thinking—and I’ll share this because I’m sure there are a lot of people listening to this who can relate—one of the ways I tend to escape boredom is through educational pursuits. I think we have to be almost equally as vigilant against that as something that’s more stereotyped as being destructive like drinking. Obviously, that appears on its surface more counterproductive to health and well-being. In some respects, sure, it is because it has a negative physical side effect, if you will.
But as it pertains to boredom—and if you disagree with me, please let me know—it would seem that even if you’re doing something that appears healthy, like never having a moment of silence and always listening to some sort of podcast, debate, or what have you, you’re still in that syndrome of escaping boredom. You’re not achieving that stimuli that you need of that empty space.
DrMH: Oh, I completely agree. Addictions are obviously negative. But things like education and even reading all the time can mean we’re avoiding the spaces, whether it’s because it’s painful, or we think reading this much or listening to all these podcasts will get us ahead in life. I think just being aware of why we’re doing that is good. A lot of us will fill our time because we think we’re getting ahead in some way. We’ll read as many books as we can. You could even say, me pursuing all of the education that I have was a way of filling the space as well. Right?
DrMR: Yep, totally. One of the things I’ve observed in myself and some close colleagues of mine, who I knew personally as well as professionally, is that it seems—and there’s probably exceptions to this rule—some people are deficient in the ability to reflect, at the expense of always learning more.
I had a few colleagues who had an incredibly developed knowledge base, but they hit this wall where they weren’t moving forward. Neither in building their practice from a business and systems perspective, or enhancing, going beyond just knowing a bunch of stuff to being able to master it in a clinical setting. I think the missing ingredient for them was they were always learning, but they were never reflecting or integrating, because there was never time for it.
There definitely seems—now that we’re talking about and I’m reflecting on it in this call—to be a lot of benefit in that, paradoxically so. You would think you’d always have to be learning to get better, but sometimes (using the analogy of an athlete) if you’re always training, you’re going to get weak really fast, because you need that recovery time. Without that, you’ll quickly overtrain and become weaker and slower.
I guess there are a lot of parallels here for this paradoxical performance enhancement that’s achieved by cultivating emptiness.
DrMH: I think you’re absolutely right. Boredom creates space for a synthesis and creativity with the knowledge you already have. That’s how this book actually began, with a lot of the knowledge that I gained from my counseling degree. I finished my counseling degree right before summer vacation. And as a teacher and school counselor, all of a sudden I had a lot of space and time. My friends and family were working and here I was, with all this knowledge.
I could have kept on reading more and more about counseling and meaning, but instead, I let it all come out in a new synthesis, in a new form, on the page. That’s exactly where this book came from.
DrMR: It makes a lot of sense. It’s nice that you had that life-induced chance.
DrMH: Yeah, exactly. Definitely privileged in the time. That’s also what led me to it, is those summertimes when I didn’t have as much to do.
Tips to Cultivate a Practice of Boredom & Space
DrMR: Are there some steps or specifics that you found helpful to get people started on this road? Because I’m sure that the more specific recommendations we can give people, the better it will be at contending with their already busy, inundated lifestyle.
DrMH: I think the best way to bring boredom back into our lives is to—and I say it in the book—spend an hour a day instead of turning on Netflix or instead of flipping through social media, just sitting there. Whether it’s staring out the window or staring at a wall, just be with that time. You can time yourself. If that’s too long, you can build yourself up to that. I think that’s a great way to go.
Also, I think meditation practice is really good, because meditation is about resisting the cravings to do things. Even doing what I call low-engagement activities is good, like reading, or hobbies like model building. Things that are just not as engaging as our modern world is. I think those are some of the things.
Even as you’re walking about in your busy day, you’re standing in line at a bank, or waiting at the dentist’s office, you can not pick up the magazine, you can not pick up your phone. You can just simply be there.
DrMR: Yeah, I like that one hour. You’re giving me something to strive for, although I have gotten better at that. One of the things that I like to do—just to share one of the ways that I’ve been able to effectuate this—is to play some type of really relaxing music, sometimes classical, sometimes more of your contemporary relaxation music. There’s one composer. I’ll have to look him up because I want to let people know.
I’ll listen to this music and just let my mind wander. That’s actually a really fun activity, just to let your mind wander, think about who you are, what you’re doing, where you’re going, what you like, what you don’t like, who you may want to say thank you to. There’s some times I say to myself, “Geez, so-and-so’s doing such a great job in the company and I should really let her know.” Or “I haven’t told my mom how much I appreciate this.” A lot of these great things, points where you should be appreciative, or things you could do just to show others that you care, as just a few examples, come flooding in. That’s just a few things for people to think about.
Are there any ways that you personally have found it easy to carve out this space?
DrMH: Again, I like to spend the late hours of the evening when I would usually be watching TV, because that’s the time when I think it’s the easiest because you’re not at work. That’s been my practice. Also, especially during the summer months, I will actually spend the first couple of hours of the day just sitting and staring out my window to see what kind of ideas and thoughts come up. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of years.
DrMR: Great. And the name of the composer is Ludovico Einaudi. So for people, that’s my favorite Pandora station, if you want a good one that’s kind of relaxing but not boring. You don’t want elevator music, you want something that has a little bit to compel you.
DrMH: Yeah, I think that’s important. The purpose is not to be completely unengaged because that’s impossible. But yeah, anything that’s slowing you down from your regular pace of life. I like to say “back to the pace of nature.” Because nature is kind of slow if you look at it. I think if you get into that rhythm with nature, that’s very important. So listening to the music, I think, is a good way to ease yourself into that.
DrMR: I also really like your term “low-engagement activities.” Reading or something like a puzzle, if you’re into that, or building a model. Something that just doesn’t have the same draw of the internet where, as soon as you think of something, you could be researching it, learning about it, watching a video on it. The nice thing about these type of low-engagement activities you’re describing is, you’re doing that thing and there’s really nothing else to do besides look up at the sky or look around the room. You can’t get pulled into more information on the 1,001 thoughts that come trickling through your head.
DrMH: Exactly. I think our tendency as humans is, we take the path of least resistance to excitement, novelty, and all that stuff. Our world obliges that. So it’s especially important to consciously do those low-engagement activities.
DrMR: Would you say going on a political social media hunt would be a good thing or a bad thing for engagement? Just kind of scrolling through.
DrMH: Oh, scrolling through? That’s necessary sometimes, but I think you should be aware of why you’re doing it, and not do it all the time.
DrMR: Of course. I think that would be a quick way to a very frustrated life! At least, I’m speaking for myself.
All right. Are there any other tips, tricks, techniques, or just really important ways of cultivating this in one’s life you want to mention before we bring things to a close?
DrMH: I think it’s important for our world to really get back to this. You do meditation, and that just makes me think that a lot of the great spiritual traditions value the stillness and the silence.
I think that’s because those traditions know instinctively that too much engagement, focusing too much on one’s desires and cravings is very negative for the self in society. So I think really anything you can do to slow down your life, whether it’s doing puzzles, even at work when you have a few minutes, just staring out the window if you have a window, can help. Anything you can do that you can imagine, not being in social media or not doing something that is technology-based too, because technology seems to be the medium that delivers the most engaging things in our lives.
DrMR: Agreed. Yeah, as you’re saying that, I picture people in line anywhere. I’m picturing right now a coffee shop and everyone’s down on their phone.
I think we need more people with their heads up, looking at other people, interacting. Unfortunately, that’s becoming much less common. It seems now—and we’ve discussed this previously on the podcast—that people avoid any socially uncomfortable situation by just burrowing into their cell phone. I think we really need people to start to not do that. Sometimes, sure, fine, whatever, but people are just so often hiding in their devices. I’d love to see more people, when you’re in a coffee shop, looking around, and you have a little bit of shared chatter, you make a joke. Just little moments interacting with people rather than being pulled down into your device.
That’s just one thing, a small thing, that I’d like to see more people doing.
DrMH: Yeah. And you know what? It’s about engaging with the real world around you. I think, as a society, if we can get back to being more comfortable with boredom and stillness, we engage more with those around us, with our environment. That, to me, is the route to a much more fulfilling life.
DrMR: Yep, I agree. I think some of the research supports that. When people have more social time, even if that’s a small interaction at something like a coffee shop or a supermarket, they tend to be happier. So little steps here, little things that we can all do to steer our life and the collective in a healthier direction.
DrMR: Awesome. Where can people track you down on the internet? And please, tell them again about your book.
DrMH: The book has a website. It’s called ThePowerofBoredom.com. You can read a short excerpt from it there. It’s available on Amazon and other book websites. My wife and I also have a website for our philosophical practice called Philosophikal.com. Basically, my book is, first and foremost, about becoming aware of the power of boredom—both negative and positive—in your life, and then using it to try to create the best life that you can.
DrMR: Awesome. Well, I think it’s a concept that we need to let ring out there as much possible. Obviously, as we’ve been discussing, we have a lot of very expensive and highly engineered cell phone and social media algorithms vying for our attention. So, people listening and reading this, please check out the book or just take some time to put your devices down, cultivate some boredom, talk to people around you, and whatever you can to get your mind off that hamster wheel.
Mark, thank you again so much for taking the time. It’s been a great conversation and I’m going to go stare out my window. Haha.
DrMH: Haha. Have a good time! Thank you for having me.
DrMR: Awesome. It’s been a pleasure, Mark. Thank you again.
What do you think? I would like to hear your thoughts or experience with this.
- Get help using this information to become healthier.
- Get your personalized plan for optimizing your gut health with my new book.
- Healthcare providers looking to sharpen their clinical skills, check out the Future of Functional Medicine Review Clinical Newsletter.
Dr. Ruscio is your leading functional and integrative doctor specializing in gut related disorders such as SIBO, leaky gut, Celiac, IBS and in thyroid disorders such as hypothyroid and hyperthyroid. For more information on how to become a patient, please contact our office. Serving the San Francisco bay area and distance patients via phone and Skype.