How boredom can be a force for good or bad

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By Sara Harrison

As the pandemic stretches on, ‘quarantine fatigue’ is creeping in. Yes, you’re bored – but that may not have to be a bad thing.

Before the pandemic Andy Hsu, 29, filled his time with concerts, shows and drinks with friends. But when San Francisco locked down in mid-March, the software engineer was stuck in his apartment. He turned to the only one of his hobbies left: video games. But after a while, even his favourite game, League of Legends, wasn’t satisfying. Next, he tried a little retail therapy, buying a Herman Miller chair and a karaoke set. But he couldn’t keep that up for long. (“Not exactly sustainable on the wallet,” he says.)

Then in June, Hsu’s roommates moved out, leaving the self-described extrovert to live alone. By himself, the boredom grew. “I definitely don’t do too well when there’s too much down time,” he says.

Hsu is one of many in a pandemic-induced ennui. It’s hard to say how many people around the world are languishing in boredom, but one survey of 3,500 people under lockdown in Italy showed that boredom was one of the most commonly reported negative psychological effects of the quarantine. At the beginning, when the pandemic was fresh, lockdown was new and Zoom stock was still trading at less than $200 (£146) a share, there were plenty of activities to try. But that was nearly a year ago – and, as the pandemic drags on, boredom has set in.

At face value, boredom can appear to be a trivial problem. Compared to rampant infection, job losses and death, griping about a few unfilled hours can seem a bit self-centred. But boredom may lead to some very real problems. Researchers at the University of Waterloo and Duke University found that people who are prone to boredom have been more likely to break social distancing rules and hold social gatherings.

 

Similarly, another article warns that as Covid-19 containment measures cause boredom, that boredom can make it increasingly difficult for people to follow proper protocols. The authors reference the popular meme: “Your grandparents were asked to go to war. All you are being asked to do is sit on the couch. You can do this.” But, they write, boredom’s effect on self-control makes sitting on the couch, “more challenging than it might appear at first glance”. These worries certainly seem to track with other alarming trends: a surge in holiday air travel in the US even as Covid-19 cases across the country rose; diners flocking to indoor restaurants in Florida, even as the state’s positivity rate hovered around 11%. In Louisiana, one-quarter of the state’s Covid-19 cases came from outbreaks in bars, restaurants and casinos.

That’s particularly worrying as more contagious strains of the virus emerge. But researchers say we have a choice about how we cope with that feeling of languishing: boredom can be a force for good or bad. It’s how we respond that makes all the difference.

The boredom conundrum 

Boredom is a unique emotional state. It’s that feeling of dissatisfaction with the world around you, and a disinterest in the activity on offer, whether that’s work, a book or a video game. And it’s uncomfortable. “We want to be engaged with the world, but it’s a conundrum because we don’t want to do the things in front of us,” says James Danckert, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Waterloo, who co-authored the study on boredom and the pandemic.

Whatever it is that is making people bored, right now because of the pandemic our options for dealing with those situations are limited – Erin Westgate

Some people are more vulnerable to boredom than others. Men are slightly more likely than women to get bored, and kids and adolescents are more prone to boredom than their parents. Danckert says there’s also a rise in boredom later in life when people start to feel lonelier. But no matter your age or gender, boredom is a fact of life. We all feel it, at every age.

Danckert says boredom is our brain telling us it’s time to do something different. It’s a signal that what we’re doing right now isn’t satisfying for some reason. It may be that it isn’t interesting, or that the activity feels meaningless for some reason, and that restless, unfocused feeling is our brain motivating us to find new activities that will scratch that unsatisfied itch. Boredom is associated with risk-taking behaviours like drug and alcohol use as well as self-harm. In one study, subjects willingly administered electric shocks to themselves rather than be left alone with no entertainment other than their own thoughts.

And not everyone is bored in the same way, says Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. She says boredom is defined by an inability to pay attention either because a task is too hard, too easy or simply doesn’t feel meaningful to us in the moment. During the pandemic, many of us, like Hsu, may be slipping into ennui because we can’t see our friends and have too little to do. Others may be juggling work and kids and feel completely overwhelmed: they’re bored because they have too much to do and can’t focus on the task at hand.

 

But she says that the pandemic has created one universal experience: a loss of control. “We have all shared a certain collective amount of loss of autonomy,” says Westgate. That lost autonomy makes it much harder to fix our boredom, no matter what the cause might be. “Whatever it is that is making people bored, right now because of the pandemic our options for dealing with those situations are limited.”

Like others, Danckert is concerned about how boredom could be affecting adherence to social distancing during the pandemic, and his own research suggests that boredom-prone people are less likely to follow the rules. However, Danckert cautions that while there’s a correlation between reported boredom and risk-taking during the pandemic, he says he can’t definitively say that boredom specifically is causing people to make bad choices during the pandemic. The data just isn’t there yet. “I can’t say that boredom makes you do these kinds of things,” he says. “I can only say there’s a relation between them.”

Staving off ennui 

Understanding the various reasons why people are bored is important to finding solutions to pull them out. And we can find good solutions. Boredom doesn’t have to lead to poor choices, says Westgate. What matters are the options that people have. She points to studies that have shown boredom can encourage good behaviours like giving to charity or donating blood. “Boredom isn’t good or bad,” she says. “It’s really about the ways we respond to it and the ways we respond are limited by the environments we’re in and the choices that they afford to us.”

Figuring out why you feel unsatisfied with an activity can help you find the right alternative.

Even with the many limitations of the pandemic, there are lots of ways people can break out of their boredom – and, subsequently, keep more people inside for the good of public health.

Danckert, who is prone to boredom himself and often plays guitar and writes songs to fill the hours, says the first important thing to do is to stop dwelling on the fact that you are bored. “All it does is focuses you on that uncomfortable feeling,” he says, which could motivate people to choose the first thing available – going to see a friend indoors, for example – without really considering the consequences. He suggests that when people hit that intense, hair-pulling moment of frustrated boredom, they take a minute before acting. “Reflect on why you’re bored right now,” he says. “You’ve been in lockdown for 11 months just about and you haven’t been bored 100% of the time.” Figuring out why you feel unsatisfied with an activity can help you find the right alternative.

Westgate actually created a list she keeps on the fridge of suggestions for activities when she’s feeling energetic and bored and for when she’s feeling more tired. “I now own 52 houseplants. When the pandemic started, I owned zero,” she says. “So apparently I’m channelling boredom into an urban jungle.” She says you don’t have to do something big to make a difference to your mental state. The activity could be something fairly mindless, like knitting an easy pattern or getting a cup of coffee when that’s something you really crave. The point isn’t to do something huge. It’s to find an activity that feels meaningful in that moment and that you have the energy to engage with.

For Hsu in San Francisco, boredom was an opportunity to pursue interests he’d never had time to prioritise. He started taking singing lessons – he can’t wait to dazzle his friends the next time they’re all able to do karaoke together again – and started using an electric skateboard, which enables him to move around the city safely without taking a rideshare or public transit, and helps him get some fresh air, too. He even channelled his interest in video games into something more satisfying: coaching a high school e-sports team. “It’s really ridiculously time-consuming,” he says, but he loves working with the students and watching them learn and master the concepts he’s teaching.

No matter how many activities you line up, eventually – pandemic or not – boredom will show up. But rather than being frustrated or using that boredom as an excuse to justify reckless behaviour, researchers say pay attention, figure out why your brain is unsatisfied and use that information to guide your choices. And take a deep breath — there’s still satisfaction and meaning to be found, even if you can’t see your friends and family just yet.

 

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