The Current

Bored during the pandemic? Blame it on a lack of agency, say experts

With more of us working from home, cooped up in our private spaces and unable to mingle in public like we used to, researchers say people are lacking the agency they once had to make decisions — and that inability to make choices can leave us feeling bored.

'During this time, this pandemic time, a lot of people's choices have been limited or curtailed': psychologist

People experience boredom when their agency is taken away — like when physical distancing measures reduce the choices you can make, says psychologist. (Shutterstock)
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People are lacking the agency they once had to make decisions with more of us working from home, cooped up in our private spaces and unable to mingle in public like we used to, researchers say.

That inability to make choices can leave us feeling bored, says psychologist John Eastwood, the co-author of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.

"Boredom really alerts us to the fact that we're not being agentic in the moment," he told The Current's Matt Galloway.

"During this time, this pandemic time, a lot of people's choices have been limited or curtailed."

John Eastwood is a psychologist and the head of York University's Boredom Lab in Toronto. (Paola Scattolon)

According to James Danckert, a University of Waterloo neuroscience researcher who studies the effect of boredom and co-author of Out of My Skull, the emotion may actually have an evolutionary function.

"The purpose that boredom serves is to galvanize us into action, to push us to act," he told Galloway.

"At the moment that we're feeling boredom … we're not being effective actors in our lives. We're not being the authors of our own lives."

Boredom, then, is giving us a nudge to try something new — but that could prove easier said than done, especially because the feeling can have a significant impact on our mood, notes Eastwood.

"When we're bored, we often experience what you could think of as a jumble of energy levels," said Eastwood, who heads York University's Boredom Lab. "So we might be incredibly lethargic and kind of listless at one moment, and then sort of restless and agitated the next."

"This is our body or our mind kind of oscillating back and forth and trying to get engaged."

Good for some, bad for others

Still, boredom can offer us some benefits, Eastwood argues.

"When we have a break from all the business of life, it gives us an opportunity to kind of pause and reflect and ask ourselves, 'Who am I, what matters to me and what do I most want to be doing with myself?'" 

Eastwood says that rather than give into boredom by trying to "numb the feelings" as soon as they hit, people should try to "breathe through it" and see it as an opportunity to reflect.

For those working from home, and staring at the same four walls every day, Danckert says it's normal to feel the itch of boredom by the end of the day.

James Danckert is a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Waterloo. (Submitted by James Danckert)

The solution? Find something meaningful to do — but realize that it doesn't have to be a major task.

"That can be as simple as baking cake, which I have done," he said.

But Eastwood acknowledges that boredom can affect people differently, and can manifest as trouble focusing or overeating. He added it can also have implications for mental health.

"It's also been associated with risky decision-making and substance use and addictions," Eastwood said.

But harnessing a desire to overcome boredom can help spark creative insights, the researchers say.

"There's something creative that can come out of these unconstrained times when we have nothing to do, and when we have a lot of freedom," Eastwood said.

"That's a skill that we need to foster and develop: the ability when there's nothing to do around us, to be able to turn inward, perhaps to daydream, to get lost in our thoughts."


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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