Bored yet? Great. That could be a good thing.
Psychologists say that boredom has had bad press and the pandemic, which has left many of us spending weeks at home without many of the things that we like to do, could unleash a creative renaissance on a global scale – or at least make us more comfortable with our inner selves. If we do it right, that is.
“I have a great vision for humankind at the moment. I am talking about creativity on a micro and macro level,” said Sandi Mann, a senior lecturer in occupational psychology at the School of Psychology at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK.
It would be easy to ratchet up our supercharged lives, plugged into our phones 24/7 and binging on the news, Netflix and endless social media posts. Instead, getting bored could be a healthy way to free up headspace during this time and open our minds to new ways of thinking and being.
“The next best seller could be being written right now. The next big idea in business,” said Mann, author of the book “The Science of Boredom: The Upside (and Downside) of Downtime.”
But how does one harness boredom’s creative potential?
Like any emotion, boredom is a double-edged sword, Mann said. Unchanneled, it can lead us to look for stimulation in the wrong places.
“So you get vandalism, antisocial behavior, you get risk-taking and thrill-seeking. Getting addicted to the shopping channel at the moment. All these things can be bad,” she said.
Don’t scroll boredom away
Of course, not everyone is experiencing boredom during the pandemic. Many of us are under pressure, busy working and homeschooling, while others are grieving and looking after people who are sick.
But if staying at home has gotten monotonous, what should you be doing?
“Harness your boredom by getting bored,” Mann advised.
“That means real boredom, which is where you have to let your mind wander. This is the real key. Daydreaming and mind wandering. Don’t turn to the internet or try to scroll your boredom away.”
In her work, Mann made people bored by getting them to copy and read numbers from a phone directory. She found the tedious nature of the task helped the participants’ minds think more freely, subsequently allowing them to come up with more creative uses for plastic cups than those who hadn’t completed the monotonous task.
“Would mankind have created the wheel or fire had they not been experimenting and messing about? They had to be sitting there wondering what would happen if … ” Mann said.
Why do we get bored?
Boredom has evolutionary logic, Mann said. If we were constantly distracted by the trees on the horizon, we’d never spot the lions approaching.
“If you imagine a life without boredom, we’d never get used to anything. We’d never habituate to anything. Everything would be constantly exciting for us. We’d be like toddlers thrilled by the rainfall, puddles and leaves falling. We’d never get anything done,” she said.
John Eastwood, an associate professor at the department of psychology at York University in Toronto, Canada, has been studying boredom for almost two decades and runs the institution’s Boredom Lab.
He described boredom as the “uncomfortable feeling of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity.”
“I think people misunderstand boredom. They think it’s simply borne out of the absence of things to do. It’s really important to emphasize that is not the case,” said Eastwood, who is the coauthor of the upcoming book “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.”
“The bored person knows there’s things to do. The problem is they can’t muster up an actionable desire.”
He said boredom is a signal like pain, alerting us to the fact that we’re not engaging our minds. It’s up to us to respond to that signal wisely.
“Boredom can be this initial push that some people are able to use adaptively to engage in creative or innovative activities. But it won’t directly lead to those things,” he said.
In this way, boredom could inspire a search for change and variety and spur us to learn a new language, redecorate or look for a new job. However, Eastwood said boredom doesn’t have to lead to a productive activity. You don’t have to be baking sourdough Simply sitting and staring out the window is worthwhile, in his view.
But be wary of tackling something too challenging, said Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida, whose latest research is titled “Why Boredom Is Interesting.” She said there are two things to consider when you hit that wall of boredom and start searching for a way to dig yourself out of the rut.
“What you’re doing needs to feel meaningful, but you also have to feel successful at it,” she said.
“It doesn’t matter how meaningful it is if what you’re doing is so hard you can’t even concentrate.”
She described boredom as “a dashboard light that goes off that says, ‘Hey what you’re doing either isn’t meaningful or you’re not doing it well and something needs to change.’”
For worried parents struggling with kids who whine about being bored during a pandemic, Eastwood said it’s important not to get frustrated. Boredom is a normal feeling, and there’s no truth in the reproach that only boring people get bored.
“We should help them learn how to deal with downtime and monotony. That’s going to take exposure to an uncomfortable situation.”
Mann agreed: “Do the same that I do to my kids and say ‘Great!’ and leave it at that.
“You can give them some resources to ‘unbore’ themselves, but try not to do it constantly. It can be stuff you’ve got lying around the house. The den building kit only has to be tablecloths and broomsticks. And let them get on with it.”
Eastwood suggested that younger kids may need an initial steer. Get them started with a puzzle or another activity and then withdraw – what he described as “scaffolding.”
He said it was important to schedule downtime for older kids, too, in order to allow them to develop their problem-solving skills and adopt a more creative mindset. He added that parents needed to stay calm when faced with a whiny child – you’re not failing your child in any way if they say they’re bored.
What not to do
Boredom while self-isolating isn’t just about having fewer opportunities to do the things we like to do, Eastwood said. The upheaval that the pandemic has triggered can also leave you with a jumble of conflicting emotions, making it harder to figure out what it is you want to do.
If you’re finding living under coronavirus-related restrictions tedious, Westgate said you shouldn’t judge yourself – or others – for feeling bored.
“We have this idea that feeling bored says something not so great about who you are as a person, and that’s not the right way to think about it.
“Boredom is usually adaptive. It stops us from being stuck in our house all the time. That’s actively working against us right now. This is the one time, where no, I’m stuck at home and I need to stay here. It [boredom] is a totally natural feeling to have.”
Eastwood urged people not to simply resort to passive forms of entertainment, as once the Netflix credits start rolling yet again, that feeling of being adrift will only resurface.
“The more we treat ourselves as an empty vessel to fill with entertainment, the more we make ourselves ripe for future boredom,” he said.
A time to reimagine
He said we should embrace the downtime.
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“You’ve got to try and not just run from it and blunt the negative feeling, but try to take stock and use it as a time to figure out those questions: Who am I and what matters to me, what am I good at, how do I like to express myself and connect with the world?”
Mann agreed that the pandemic offers a rare moment we can seize.
“I think the problem before lockdown was that we just didn’t have enough (boredom), the problem now might be too much – but we can use that boredom to come up with creative solutions,” she said.
So this is our chance. Stop the doom scrolling, step away from the screen, kick back and let our minds dream up some new ideas.