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Is Boredom the Key to Getting More Out of Hiking?

by Staff

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Lying on my back beside Colorado’s Upper Ice Lake for the third straight hour, I couldn’t help but think of that study where participants chose to electrically shock themselves rather than sit still with their own thoughts. In the experiment, conducted in 2014 by social psychologist Timothy Wilson, a series of subjects were each placed alone in a room for 15 minutes. They had two choices: sit still and do nothing, or press a button to administer a mild electric shock. About 67 percent of men and 25 percent of women chose the shock. In the past, I’d always considered myself pretty comfy with my own thoughts. But now, stuck with them for three days at a high alpine campsite without any cell service, I’d for sure choose the shock.

This isn’t how I thought this trip would go. When my friend Erica and I planned it weeks prior, we were both feeling frayed at the edges. I’d been traveling nonstop, and her work schedule had been dizzying. When we’d backpacked together in the past, our goal had always been to cram in as many miles as possible. This time, we thought it would be nice to take a trip that actually felt like vacation.

So, we planned to drive to Colorado’s San Juan Mountains on a Friday, hike 4 miles up to the fabled Ice Lakes that afternoon, and spend the rest of the weekend in camp doing absolutely nothing. At the time, it sounded like bliss.

Elephant’s head flowers alongside the trail (Photo: Corey Buhay)

It started that way, too. It had been a rainy summer in Colorado, and the wildflowers were in full bloom. As the trail switchbacked up into the Ice Lakes Basin, the flowers became more numerous—and more fantastical. Flouncy blooms of sky pilot and frilly daubs of fairy primrose crowded the trail. I marveled at yellow columbines and scarlet skyrockets, each a shooting star frozen in mid-flight. Higher up, the meadows were streaked with purple elephant heads, which look indeed like dozens of little ears and trunks stacked along a slender stalk, so intricately that I almost expected them to trumpet in greeting.

Then there were the lakes. Lower Ice Lake sits cupped in a verdant alpine basin, like a polished opal in a ladle. The water is a smooth, milky turquoise. In the late afternoon sun, it seems to glow. We couldn’t help but skip as we followed the trail along the shore, and sing as we pitched our tent on the grassy shelf just above it. This place was paradise.

But even paradise can grow boring.

The next morning, I slept until 10 a.m. because I didn’t know what else to do. Then I read until I had a book-shaped sunburn on my legs and all the words wiggled on the page. I tried to journal, but my brain fizzled after three sentences. I was sunburned, cranky, and bored. So I gave up. I roused Erica for a swim at nearby Island Lake, a cyan alpine tarn about a half-mile away. Then we returned to camp to sit around some more. Stillness has never been my strong suit. I wanted to be out hiking and exploring, busting out long miles and seeing more of the San Juans. Sitting still, I felt squirmy and anxious. I longed for a sense of productivity. This, the exact opposite of that, was excruciating.

Sometime before dinner, Erica left for a walk, leaving me alone on a rock beside the tent. I realized that I was in one of the most beautiful places I’d ever been—and yet, I was miserable.

Trail to Ice Lake Basin
Even views like this can get boring. (Photo: Corey Buhay)

At that moment, it dawned on me: Boredom shouldn’t be this uncomfortable.

I found out later that there’s such a thing as busyness withdrawal. Restlessness and anxiety are natural reactions when we’ve spent so long demonizing idleness—and therefore demonizing rest. But there, on my rock beside my tent, I only knew I had to get through it. So, I sat there in a dull daze, surveying my surroundings.

Without meaning to, I started noticing things. The way the grass rippled in the bursts of wind, the way the colors of the flowers seemed to complement each other, that some of the lakes were a pale blue while others were more green, some milky while others clear. Why the difference in color if they’re fed by the same stream? Why are the paintbrush blooms pink here but white further down the slope? 

A gentle curiosity crept in. I experienced a feeling of calm openness I hadn’t felt in years.

Then, I felt a sudden pang of grief. I realized how much of my own life I had been missing.

Brené Brown, a prominent researcher on shame and vulnerability, writes in her book Daring Greatly that busyness is “one of the most universal numbing strategies…We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us.”

Other research shows that such busyness addiction could be on the rise. According to a study published in Nature, about 80 percent of Americans in 2018 felt they “never had enough time”—up from 70 percent in 2011. Other studies show that the majority of American workers take fewer than their allotted vacation days at work and that we view busyness as a marker of high social and moral status.

Overscheduling is an addiction precisely because it serves us so well. It keeps us distracted and productive. It keeps us feeling important—and looking important to our peers. But more importantly, it keeps the emptiness at bay. This habit can creep into our recreational lives. Instead of using backpacking as a way to slow down and relax, some of us use it as a way to fill our weekends to the brim, supporting our identity as busy, impressive people.

I often fear that if I don’t keep moving, the world will leave me behind. If I don’t keep my schedule packed with work, volunteer shifts, social engagements, and hiking trips, loneliness will crush me.

But we need emptiness. Beauty is all about the negative space. As a writer, I do my best work when I have unstructured time to be creative. Curiosity cannot happen in a crowded mind. Creativity cannot bloom in the frantic gaps between engagements.

A hiker stands on a trail surrounded by wildflowers
The author comes to terms with taking it slow. (Photo: Corey Buhay)

We live in a fast-paced, high-strung world that trains us to remain ever on the alert. In the face of such an overpowering force of habit, relaxing takes work. And that work is uncomfortable: Most of us would rather use shortcuts. I myself turn to whiskey after hard days at the office, sleeping aids after evenings of anxious spiraling, and hard exercise when nothing else seems to help. But while our culture often looks positively on such habits—particularly scheduling ourselves into oblivion or maximizing our weekends with wall-to-wall adventure—such things aren’t always good for us.

Busyness can be a means of escaping the aspects of ourselves we don’t want to face. The trouble is that shutting ourselves off from introspection also closes the door to other things: the recall of positive memories along with painful ones, and useful creative thought along with imaginative catastrophizing.

Making time for boredom—slow hikes, long lunch breaks, idle mornings in camp—can serve as a busyness detox. Reimagining a hiking trip as a container for rest rather than just as a workout can leave us restored. Busyness keeps our heads down. It reduces our hiking trips to objectives and ticklists. Living like that, we miss everything that matters.

That Saturday afternoon at Ice Lakes, something inside me shifted. Instead of railing against the stillness, I found myself able to embrace it. The gnawing need for productivity was gone, replaced with a sense of ease. That night, we cooked dinner, laughed, read, and watched the stars come out.

On Sunday, I woke up refreshed. Around noon, Erica and I finished striking camp, and I gave one last look at the glowing blue lakes and the purple flowers, at the ribbon of trail twisting through the sun-bathed alpine basin,  And I was glad I hadn’t missed it.

An alpine lake with a granite peak in the background and reflected in the surface
Sometimes, a little boredom can help you appreciate the view even more. (Photo: Corey Buhay)

How to Cultivate Constructive Boredom 

Intentional boredom can help spark your curiosity, foster creative thinking, and help you experience awe. Here are a few ways to reap the benefits. 

  1. Pay attention to your restlessness. If sitting still makes you feel anxious, you might have a busyness addiction. Whether you’re at home or on a hiking trip, pay attention to those thoughts. Where are they coming from? What story are you telling yourself about sitting still? What would it mean about you if you took a rest for a change?
  2. Plan a busyness cleanse. Studies show that it takes as many as eight days of downtime to experience true relaxation. But I found that a two- to three-day “busyness cleanse” can be enough to shift my perspective. Plan a camping or backpacking trip somewhere remote enough that you’ll have some peace and quiet, but not so remote that it’s stressful to get there.
  3. Experience awe. Awe-inspiring natural phenomena—from a stunning sunset to a field of wildflowers—can strike you speechless, giving your brain a precious window in which you can start rewiring the neural pathways that cement our habits into place. If you’re trying to shift your approach to work and rest, some time alone in a beautiful spot can help accelerate the process.
  4. Set lower mileage goals. Make your next hike or camping trip about the time spent in nature rather than the miles you pack in. Setting a lower goal mileage can give you more time to pause, think, and wander.
  5. Schedule stillness. Set aside at least 20 minutes every day to do absolutely nothing. Set a timer, then put your phone away. Lay down, meditate, stare out a window, sit on a rock—whatever you want.

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