Researchers have characterized "high-risk" environments for boredom as those with insufficient or low stimulation, coupled with high-anxiety, frustration, and feeling “stuck” in an under-stimulating environment (Chin et al., 2017). Everyday life in our current COVID-19 pandemic-restricted setting shares many of the characteristics associated with a high-risk for boredom.
Although complaining about boredom may seem trivial, it is not an inconsequential experience. In fact, boredom can produce distress and is associated with negative emotions (Chin et al., 2017). In an effort to alleviate boredom, some people may engage in sensation-seeking maladaptive behaviors, such as excessive drinking, abusing drugs (for example, stimulants), overeating, or even compulsive use of social media (Crockett, Myhre, & Rokke, 2015; LaPera, 2011; Bench & Lench, 2019).
Researchers studying boredom have found the following:
- Boredom is a common experience. Sixty-three percent of a sample of 3,867 U.S. adults reported experiencing boredom at least once over the 10-day sampling period (Chin et al., 2017). Given that these are pre-pandemic findings, the rate and frequency of boredom may be much higher during the COVID-19 lockdown.
- Young people, particularly males, are the most likely to be bored. Chin et al., found that boredom was prevalent among young people, males, the unmarried, and those in lower-income groups, but did not differ across racial groups. COVID-19 precautionary measures have led to reductions in access to leisure activities (for example, sporting events) and social distancing that greatly limits social get-togethers. Perhaps young people—more than older age individuals—may be particularly susceptible to boredom in such low stimulation environments.
- Negative emotions are associated with boredom. Chin et al., found that boredom was associated with negative emotions and predictive of loneliness, anger, sadness, and worry. Low stimulation due to lockdowns and interpersonal distancing may enhance the negative emotions associated with boredom—like worry about one’s health and that of friends and family, financial problems, the lack of a clear end in sight of the pandemic with a return to normalcy, reports of peaks in infection, and lack of an effective vaccine.
- Boredom breeds when we feel trapped. Boredom grows when we lack control and feel trapped in a low-stimulation (monotonous) situation (Bench & Lench, 2019; Chin et al., 2017). The COVID-19 pandemic is beyond our control given the many uncertainties attendant to stemming the spread of the virus and finding a successful vaccine.
In light of our current situation and the need to lessen the deleterious effects of boredom, what can we do? Chin et al., propose that a “sense of agency” or control over one’s situation counteracts boredom.
Getting Out of Boredom
- Add fun to your day-to-day routines. The data suggest that low-stimulation environments and lack of control over the situation generate boredom. Therefore, the antidote is to add stimulation and increase the number of daily satisfying activities. It is important to find ways to maximize fun and minimize behaviors or events that are dull. As beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, what is considered dull or fun is also related to your perception. Therefore, it may be necessary to reset your mindset from viewing generally dull activities—such as washing dishes, putting away laundry, or picking up groceries—as an opportunity to transform and thereby view these tasks as fun and productive activities.
- Connect to others. Social distancing leads to disconnection and is associated with boredom. Community connection reduces social isolation. If you spend each day working at home remotely and feel isolated, the antidote would be to reach out to friends to see if you can have a virtual coffee break or virtual dinners a few times a week. If you are a “travel bug” and feel stir-crazy staying at home, try a virtual vacation, or even a virtual visit with someone who lives where you want to visit. Start a virtual book club, cooking club, or a club that studies medieval art—whatever strikes your fancy that helps you positively connect to others.
- Move. This will stimulate your mind and body. Too many of us avoid exercising as it seems too daunting. Really, exercise is just moving your body. Even if you are not an “exercise junkie,” a short walk around the neighborhood a few times a day will do just fine.
- Get curious. Add in an explorer mentality: What can you discover about your neighborhood? The flora? The fauna? The people? Get up early and track the sunrise each day.
- Give yourself treats. Add to your daily routine at least one small “guilty pleasure" (positive and in moderation). Simply setting aside a time each day where you pamper yourself adds interest to your day-to-day routines. It can be as simple as watching old sitcoms.
- Listen to music. Music is powerful. It can stimulate positive emotions. Listen to music that energizes and motivates you.
- Don’t be a news junkie. Frankly, it is all too easy these days to become overwhelmed by the news reports and broadcasts. We are bombarded by stories that pop up on our cell phones; we can access cable news or news on the internet 24/7. Because bad news sells, most of the stories are likely to be ones that enhance our feelings of a lack of control. Constant focus on bad news risks a sense of helplessness. Stay informed but limit your consumption of the news.
- Be kind to others. Be grateful. Boredom occurs when we are disconnected from others. The empirical research from positive psychology is clear: kindness and gratitude lift our spirits and are core to happiness. Therefore, reach out to someone in need (e.g., having groceries delivered for that elderly person in your neighborhood) and be grateful for the resources you have.
Enjoy the Stillness
The pandemic has set many of our lives on “pause.” However, the noise of our pre-pandemic lives has been quieted. This stillness is an opportunity for self-introspection—to become mindful, and to grow psychologically and spiritually. In fact, we may mistake activity for meaning (Nerburn, 1996). Time spent alone, as Kent Nerburn (1996) observed, “… returns to you a hundredfold because it is the proving ground of the spirit” and "will throw you back upon yourself in a way that will make you grow in wisdom and inner strength.” (p.55). Paradoxically, stillness is not at all boring.
Bench, S. W., & Lench, H. C. (2019). Boredom as a seeking state: Boredom prompts the pursuit of novel (even negative) experiences. Emotion, 18(2), 242-254. DOI:10.1037/emo0000433
Chin, A., Markey, A., Bhargava, S., Kassam, K. S., & Loewenstein, G. (2017). Bored in the USA: Experience sampling and boredom in everyday life. Emotion, 17(2), 359-368. DOI:10.1037/emo0000232
Crockett, A. C., Myhre, S. K., & Rokke, P. D. (2015). Boredom proneness and emotion regulation predict emotional eating. Journal of Health Psychology, 20(5), 670-680. DOI: 10.1177/1359105315573439
LePera, N. (2011). Relationships between boredom proneness, mindfulness, anxiety, depression, and substance use. The New School Psychology Bulletin, 8(2), 15–25.
Nerburn, K. (1996). Simple truths: Clear and gentle guidance on the big issues in life. Novato, California: New World Library.