May 10, 2011
There’s a feeling these days that if you’re not actively doing something with a purpose, you’re just wasting time. Schools get rid of recess. Weekends must be filled. Vacations are scheduled down to the minute. Not everyone thinks this way, of course. Google is probably the best example—the company lets employees spend 20 percent of their time on activities outside their job descriptions and has had great results, such as the creation of a Body Browser. And scientists are finding that many so-called time wasters are actually helping us:
Boredom is often thought to be bad, possibly associated with negative outcomes like aggression, anger, drug abuse, even pathological gambling. But Wijnand van Tilburg and Eric Igou of the University of Limerick are proposing a new theory on the subject, saying that bored people feel that their actions are meaningless and those feelings provide motivation for more positive things. “Boredom can paradoxically be a very strong motivator for people to seek out unpleasant yet meaningful tasks, such as blood donations,” van Tilburg told the Guardian. Others have noted that boredom is often related to creativity.
Doodling may help people concentrate by preventing them from drifting off in a daydream. In one experiment, participants were asked to listen to a recording of names and places and later write down those they remembered. The people who were filling in shapes on a piece of paper remembered a third more names than those who simply sat and listened.
Not that daydreaming doesn’t have its own benefits (though you should probably stick to doodling in meetings). Scientists say it can help you relax, boost your creativity and productivity, and even help in the maintenance of a healthy relationship. We spend about a third of our waking lives daydreaming, and during that time our brains are surprisingly active, according to a 2009 study. That might be because they’re trying to tackle more complex problems, like how to find success in life.
Full-fledged sleep is also a good thing, as we covered a few weeks ago. Napping can have positive effects on visual, verbal and motor skills, blood pressure, memory, cognitive processing and creativity. Studies have even found that healthy nappers have lower death rates from heart attacks and strokes.
And for kids, the value of playtime is often unappreciated (why else cancel recess?). Play is how children learn the social and intellectual skills they need as adults. It helps their brains develop and bodies stay healthy. Playtime also helps kids to develop creativity and to pay attention. And a 2009 study found that a daily recess break of at least 15 minutes was associated with better classroom behavior and better performance in school. As the study’s lead author, Romina M. Barros of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told the New York Times, “we should understand that kids need that break because the brain needs that break.”
Sign up for our free email newsletter and receive the best stories from Smithsonian.com each week.