For months, COVID-19 has disrupted lives across the country. Unless you’ve been deemed an “essential worker” or have an ongoing remote job, you’ve likely spent a lot of time at home trying to fill your time. The bread has been baked. The jigsaw puzzles have been assembled. The nightly Zoom calls have gotten old. And you’ve binged everything halfway decent on Netflix.
And now you’re bored.
If that’s the case, you’re not alone. A Gallup poll taken the week of April 27 found that more than four in 10 people (41%) in the U.S. are experiencing boredom a lot of the day during the pandemic.
At the University of Waterloo, James Danckert, a psychology professor and coauthor of the forthcoming book Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, is trying to better understand the condition at the university’s Danckert Lab. He and his team explore questions around why we get bored, what happens to our brains when we’re feeling that way, and how boredom is linked to depression.
“We define boredom as an uncomfortable state of wanting to be engaged in something, but failing to satisfy that desire,” he says. Your routine may be disrupted and that may lead to you not being able to engage in the world in ways you normally would, perhaps in your job or in your daily routine. When your lack of ability to engage in ways that are meaningful leaves you feeling ineffective and not doing what you want to be doing, boredom may ensue. In new research he and his team are working on, which has not been peer-reviewed yet, he asked people about the worst aspects of the lockdown. The top answer was loss of freedom and the second was boredom.
While boredom is a ubiquitous condition, it can also be confused for other states or emotions. Don’t mistake boredom for downtime or rest, which can be good for you. Boredom also isn’t the key to creativity, Danckert says. Instead, it’s telling you that you’re not being effective with your time in the way you want to be. It’s an indicator that you need to take action to change your situation.
It’s what you do next that matters, says Mark Fenske, a psychology professor at the University of Guelph. First, you need to take stock of what, exactly, you’re feeling. Are you actually bored—uncomfortable because of a lack of stimulation and feeling engaged and effective—or are you tired, anxious, agitated, or feeling other uncomfortable emotions that can be mistaken for boredom. Before you deal with your state, you need to accurately assess what you’re feeling and name it. After all, you don’t want to start planning major life changes in times of crisis when you just really just need a nap.
Here’s where dealing with boredom gets tricky, though, says clinical psychologist Clinical psychologist Nikki Winchester, owner of the Cincinnati Center for DBT. “If you don’t like boredom, you’re not going to sit with it very long,” she says. When we start to feel bored, we may begin to fill our time with meaningless or even destructive actions to fill our time and feel some sort of stimulation.
Fenske says our discomfort may also be a sense of confusion or disorientation as a result of COVID-19’s disruption to our routines. “That was a major disruption to people’s sense of rhythm about the things that they do. And, so, we know that we thrive on structure, that we use the different points in our day to help us anticipate what’s going come next,” he says. So, getting used to a new normal may mean establishing a new routine.
Boredom’s risk and potential reward
Establishing that new routine can be risky. You may be tempted to create another schedule that just “carries you along,” Danckert says. When you fill your days to the brim so that you’re busy from the moment you wake until you go to sleep, you have little time to think about boredom and the busyness may stave off its discomfort.
It also has risks, including being linked to various psychological problems, including depression, as well as social and health problems, which Fenske outlines in some of his research. Bored people may engage in behaviors ranging from substance abuse to disengagement and lack of attention that can lead to dangerous accidents.
While boredom has few benefits in and of itself, it is telling you that you need to make a change, Danckert says. It’s what you do next that can make you more creative, engaged, or successful. And those actions and their results are uniquely yours.
“There’s this desire to find an upside to boredom,” Danckert says. “I think the upside is that it forces you to think about ‘What matters most to me?’ But that’s probably the only upside.”