Quirks and Quarks

Pandemic boredom research is thrilling — and might even be helpful

Boredom is a mental health issue, contributes to risky pandemic behaviour and might even affect our pandemic politics.

Boredom is a mental health issue, contributes to risky pandemic behaviour and might affect our politics

Boredom is more than just a lack of something to do — it's an 'unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity,' according to researcher John Eastwood. (Shutterstock/fizkes)

With people around the world under various states of lockdown, isolated at home, without their normal social contacts or entertainment options, boredom is a problem.

"I'm absolutely noticing more people experiencing boredom," says Josefa Ros Velasco, a boredom studies researcher at the University of Madrid. "This has been the year of boredom."

While the COVID-19 pandemic has been rampaging, people who study boredom have taken advantage of these tedious times to learn as much as they can.

Boredom itself is a relatively niche area of study, even though it's a universal issue that happens in cultures around the world. "It's played, I guess, second fiddle to other emotions that we've studied," said James Danckert, a professor and boredom researcher at the University of Waterloo.

"But that's rapidly changing."

Busy doesn't cure boredom

Contrary to popular belief, boredom doesn't mean you have nothing do to.

"Boredom is this unfulfilled desire for satisfying activity. It's this desperate urge and feeling where we want to be engaged, but we can't be engaged," said John Eastwood, head of the Boredom Lab at York University and Danckert's co-author on Out of my skull: the Psychology of Boredom.

"I can sometimes feel bored when I'm very busy, like if I'm doing a lot of stuff, but none of it is just really engaging me. I'm going through the motions."

Flight attendant Michelle Parker, seen here during a two-week quarantine in Sydney, Australia. Boredom is a common complaint during quarantine, researchers say, in part because we tend to focus on all the things we can't do instead of the things we can. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft)

During the pandemic, Eastwood's lab has been looking at some of the emotional triggers for boredom, and found that people who had suffered traumatic experiences ended up being more boredom prone. "People who went through difficult events during the pandemic and had difficulty controlling and regulating their emotions, reported more boredom later on."

Previous research has found that people who are more prone to boredom are people who struggle with self-control issues, narcissism and anxiety. "Boredom is really a self-focused feeling state. You are thinking about yourself and what's missing for you right now," said Danckert.

He adds that during the pandemic-related lockdowns, focusing on what's missing instead of what's possible can increase feelings of anxiety and boredom.

People are not more bored now than they were before, but they're more afraid of boredom- Dr. John Eastwood, York University

Ros Velasco suggests that what she calls "fast entertainment" — like streaming services or social media — might have been fine as a time-filler pre-pandemic, but people find them unsatisfying now because they've become their main form of entertainment.

"With the overabundance of free time, this kind of entertainment fails, and people demand more meaningful activities to fill their time," she said. "The problem is that we have spent so much time without having to worry about our boredom and what we really like to do, that now we don't know what to do when Facebook or Instagram [turns out to be] boring."

Eastwood agrees that while technology hasn't increased our boredom, it perhaps has made us less able to deal with it.

"People are not more bored now than they were before, but they're more afraid of boredom," he said. "And so we may have a greater sense of, I don't know, entitlement to not be bored, or a greater sense of frustration, or even anxiety, when we do become bored."

Pandemic causing boredom, and boredom affecting the pandemic

"At the beginning of this pandemic, I reached out to my adviser, like, 'are you doing something to research this time?'" said Yijun Lin, a grad student at the Social Cognition and Emotion Lab at the University of Florida. "She said no, so we quickly put together the pandemic study."

Lin reached out to fellow students to find out how boredom was affecting their pandemic response, and found that students who were more prone to boredom were more likely to move back to campus, despite recommendations to stay home.

Danckert's lockdown studies found similar results. "Boredom prone people were more likely to break the rules of social distancing, also more likely to say that they believed COVID to be a hoax."

Previous studies had also shown that when some people were made to feel bored, it was such an unsettling experience that they were more likely to develop stronger political views to feel more secure.

"They try to deal with that uncertainty or that lack of meaning by clinging to their own world views and maybe becoming more extreme in their world views," said Eastwood.

Ritsu Saimoto waves through a window at her retirement community. Boredom is hitting seniors hardest during these lockdowns, according to researcher Josefa Ros Velasco, and that can cause some serious health issues. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Ros Velasco also jumped into action, moving forward with a project she had been incubating for several years: founding the International Society for Boredom Researchers as a way to collect all of these studies together. "This society will be a place for researchers to meet each other and to share our research and our papers, just a means to be connected worldwide."

She was also able to continue her research from before the pandemic, looking at boredom among seniors in nursing homes — which suddenly had an even greater sense of urgency.

"Many old people are having to spend days, weeks, even months isolated in their bedrooms without having contact with their families, caregivers, roommates," she said. In turn, boredom can lead to increased mental health issues, behavioural problems and sleep disorders.

Boredom as a benefit? Not quite

Boredom may not be a pleasant feeling, but its universality suggests it probably has some evolutionary value — perhaps motivating us to action. 

"Boredom is only an emotion we experience; it's not good or bad," said Ros Velasco. "What we have to do is to learn to live with it, to deal with it, and not to try to avoid at all costs."

To stave off boredom during quarantine, Christiane Prince does a baking project with her kids Louis Contant and Marie-Laure Contant. Researchers suggest taking on attainable, meaningful projects to pique your curiosity in the world and keep boredom at bay. (Charles Contant/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Although the internet may be full of lists of tasks to cure boredom and advice on ways to harness it creativity, Danckert said those won't really solve the problem.

"The idea that boredom will make you creative, it won't. Creativity is a complex thing," said Danckert. "If you have fostered and developed creative outlets in your past, then turn to them when you're bored, by all means. And that's a great thing to do. But don't hope that boredom will make you creative."

Danckert says that boredom should be thought of as a signal, similar to how pain is a signal that something is wrong and needs to be fixed.

"It's a call to action, so when we're feeling bored, it's telling us that whatever we're doing right now is not engaging us," he said. "Rather than thinking about the things that we could be doing that might be negative or against the restrictions, think about choosing activities that we can do, within the constraints, that will be satisfying."

For Eastwood, the key to preventing boredom is to stay calm and find meaning in the little tasks.

"Don't panic. Boredom is a normal feeling. It serves a purpose. Listen to its message. It's telling you that you need to embrace the world [with more agency] and look at it as an opportunity to rediscover who you are and what matters to you."

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz.