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At the start of this pandemic, nothing seemed real. We were confused, anxious, and unable to digest what was happening. Many of us struggled to sit with the uncertainty of it all. But now? Now, we’re just... bored. Bored of not seeing friends. Bored of trying to find things to do. Bored of staying indoors. Bored of having no motivation. Bored of looking at the same four walls.
And with that boredom comes guilt. Not only because of the faint throwback of our mum telling us “only boring people get bored”, but also because frontline workers – those dealing with sick patients day in, day out – would do anything to be sat at home, bored. They’re risking their lives every single day for others.
For many of us – me included – the feeling of boredom is a hard one to sit with. If your pre-corona social life was busy, it can feel like you’re retreating to your childlike, whiny self – “I’m borredddd” – when you have nothing to do.
Are we actually bored, though? Or just struggling to adjust? Boredom, according to researcher Dr Teresa Belton, is the “uncomfortable feeling” that comes from lack of mental stimulation, when nothing in your environment or thoughts engages or holds your interest. It creates a sense of being stuck, she says. But it shouldn’t be confused, as it often is, with having nothing to do.
When boredom drags, we flip between restlessness and lethargy, and whatever we’re doing feels pointless, says John Eastwood, associate professor at York University and co-author of Out Of My Skull, The Psychology Of Boredom.
“We struggle to be self-determined,” he says. “It could be said we are failing to author our lives.”
“Boredom shouldn’t be confused, as it often is, with having nothing to do.”
The capacity of boredom is necessary, however. In fact, Andreas Elpidorou, an academic philosopher and writer, says we’re “lucky” we have the ability to experience boredom.
“Imagine what our lives would be if we couldn’t, because of some neurological disorder,” he says. “We would eventually find ourselves in some utterly meaningless or boring situations but we’d never know it! And because of that, we wouldn’t make any attempt to get out of those situations.”
How much is too much?
Too much boredom can be damaging, says Belton. But Eastwood believes the discomfort of boredom is good for us – like pain. “These uncomfortable feelings keep us safe and help us meet our needs,” he says.
Our need to escape its discomfort can push us into trying new things, or doing accustomed things in new ways. While we’re in lockdown, having periods of no demands on our time or attention is beneficial in our usual, over-stimulating, productivity-focused, constantly active culture, says Belton. If we can let go of the expectation of being active, entertained or distracted at all times, taking time out to let the mind wander is beneficial to our mental functioning.
Because of this, many people sing boredom’s praises. Sandi Mann, who has written a whole book on why boredom is brilliant, says it’s essential for creativity. “This period of lockdown could turn out to be the most creative period in the history of humankind,” she tells HuffPost UK. “When we’re bored, our search for neural stimulation can lead us to daydream which can lead to stimulation of creativity – I have done the research to prove it!”
So how can we embrace it?
To really embrace boredom we need to do nothing, says Mann. That means not using our devices to scroll and swipe the boredom away – just be. “Let your mind wander. Go for a walk in your daily exercise slot. Or sit in your garden or by your window and watch the clouds and trees. Daydreaming is the key to creativity,” she says.
Look at time as a resource – a gift – rather than a burden, advises Belton. “It’s also an opportunity to try and slow the pace at which you do things. The current restrictions can offer the opportunity to pursue longer term projects, or to take up a new skill or interest. Getting really immersed in an activity that stretches one’s abilities produces a fulfilling sense of ‘flow’ in which one loses oneself and does not notice the passing of time.”
But, adds Belton, combatting boredom in the context of the coronavirus crisis can be harder, as it’s necessary to be aware of other factors that might also be in operation. “For many people, boredom will be experienced along with other emotions and circumstances, e.g, fear, grief, anxiety, depression, financial difficulties, loneliness, household discord, or constrained living space.”
These may make it difficult to find the motivation, concentration or confidence to try something new. But if it’s possible to get stuck into something that brings a sense of exploration or achievement, she says, this will provide an escape from current difficulties.
Next time you’re bored?
“Stay calm,” says Eastwood. “Don’t rush to make the uncomfortable feeling go away without addressing the underlying problem. Remember, boredom is an alert telling us we need to become authors of our lives... don’t dull that message, head it.
“Avoid passive entertainment where you treat yourself like a passive empty vessel to fill with compelling experience. Instead look for activities that flow from, and give expression to, your passion, creativity and curiosity.”
“We should monitor ourselves,” adds Elpidorou. “Knowing that we are bored is the first step to get out of boredom.”