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Making Boredom Help You Thrive During COVID-19

photo of social distancing

Dec. 28, 2020 -- Blake Guntharp fights boredom every day.

The 23-year-old lives in Pontotoc, MS, not far from the University of Mississippi, where in May he graduated with biology and psychology degrees. He enjoyed substituting as a high school science teacher, but that ended.

He compares himself to being on a hamster wheel as he tries to figure out what to do next in his life in a state with 7% unemployment. His circle of friends shrank because of graduation and COVID precautions. He only rarely sees the friends who mask and socialize safely.

“Boredom is very real to me every day and has been since the beginning of the pandemic,” he says. “From what I see on TikTok, a lot of people are bored too, but it’s also leading them to find more meaning in the day-to-day, to develop a new skill, or find a way to enjoy the alone time.”

He’s tried, too. He gave up on knitting, but finally finished cross-stitching a “Welcome” sampler from his mom after she got bored with it. He has two screenplays in process. He listened to music and podcasts that interested him and some that didn’t. Goat yoga (where you do yoga among -- and in tandem with -- actual goats) was fun but too far away. He made terrariums and the plants died; Japanese bamboo painting didn’t cut it either. Perhaps most telling are the self-help books that are only partly read.

“I’ve been sticking with journaling and yoga lately, and that’s been empowering,” Guntharp says. “I know from teaching that I can stick with what I’m doing and quell the boredom when I have a meaningful result.”

Pandemics breed boredom for many. And for some people, boredom leads to risk-taking that can spread disease. But no matter how bored you are, psychologists say, understanding boredom can help anyone survive the current pandemic.

“Boredom is crucial in human life,” says Corinna S. Martarelli, PhD, a researcher and assistant professor at the Swiss Distance University Institute. “Boredom triggers exploration behavior. Without it, human beings would remain in known environments and not explore new situations.”

But how can anyone explore when a deadly virus has us distanced from other humans? The key is recognizing how boredom-prone you are, and tapping another internal source: self-control, or willpower.

Boredom a Privilege and a Pain

Certainly, simply being bored is a privilege for many. As the pandemic rages on, hundreds of thousands are still reporting to work in grocery stores, restaurants, and factories -- not to mention hospitals, ambulance services, and doctor’s offices -- alert to the virus as a constant threat. Firefighters, police officers, teachers, and others are, too. For them, the chance to be bored might be a dream.

Still, for millions, it is a reality. Stuck at home, even if working remotely, with friends physically out of reach, family secluded, and entertainment options limited, boredom is sometimes inevitable.

Employment can solve boredom, but the economic fallout from the pandemic isn’t helping. The economy in November added the fewest new jobs in 6 months, Reuters reported, and nearly 4 million Americans have been out of work at least 6 months. One recent poll found that nearly 40% of parents said they’ve skipped a meal to make sure their kids had food to eat, according to Parents magazine.

Boredom can depend on your current state (being stuck in a dull situation) and an individual trait (how likely you get bored). Martarelli’s research, published months into the pandemic in early July, points out that young men are most likely to get bored quickly, and research also shows that they are the least likely to comply with COVID-19 precautions. Because people ages 18 to 29 account for almost a quarter of the more than 19 million COVID-19 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC’s COVID Tracker, helping young male adults deal with their boredom is critical.

Meaning Can Be Mundane

As a cure for boredom, your search for meaning might lead to crafting a grandiose plan for self-improvement. But you don’t need that kind of pressure in your life.

“Meaning could be as simple as deciding that what matters to me are my closest relationships and I want to work to keep and maintain them,” says James Danckert, PhD, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, who co-authored research on understanding pandemic boredom.

In Atlanta, 72-year-old Taffy McLaughlin approached the pandemic knowing she wanted to finish four quilt projects that had been lingering the past 5 years. She also created stations in her living area for absorbing activities such as jigsaw puzzles, sudoku, a book, and a yellow pad where she notes a memory from each day of the pandemic. “It helps the days pass when I mark it,” she said on Dec. 5, day 268.

Staving off boredom led McLaughlin to find meaning by helping a friend who is easily bored. Mary Lou Mojonnier, 69, also enjoys the time-consuming process of making quilts, but when one project becomes tedious, she moves on to the next.

“Taffy told me early on that she needed to get her projects done before she died,” Mojonnier says. “I never thought about it because following through to the end doesn’t interest me. When she volunteered to finish some of my quilts, that was OK with me.”

Intention can be a superpower against pandemic boredom. McLaughlin is putting the last stitches in her latest quilt as her daughter’s dog visits. Timmy is a 12-year-old mutt rescued during the pandemic, and seeing him snuggle happily in the quilt makes her work even more meaningful.

For people like McLaughlin, boredom is easier to avoid because they have great self-control or willpower. That trait, according to psychologists like Danckert and Martarelli, allows them to switch from boredom to a fulfilling activity without as much effort, even in the pandemic.

Another habit to beat back boredom is mindfulness, the practice of turning your attention to the present. Scott Bea, PsyD, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, models this every morning by brewing his dark-roast coffee carefully in his favorite cup. He focuses on each sip and listens to the quiet. Instead of thinking about what he’s not experiencing, he observes what is unfolding. This practice became valuable to him long before 2020, when he began losing his sight to retinal degeneration.

“We can control behavior choices and our attitudes,” Bea says when asked for anti-boredom tips. “My advice is to stubbornly refuse to feel sorry for yourself. When people say they are so bored they can’t take this anymore, well, they are going to take it, and by saying that, they just made the task harder.”

Never-Bored People Struggle, Too

Erica Hatchett, 50, says she never feels boredom’s primal twinge to explore and find a more stimulating environment. As a child, traveling across the country with her mom at the wheel, Hatchett entertained herself by steering her Frisbee and holding a pen like her mom’s cigarette. The pandemic is another such joyride.

Working from home relieves Hatchett from a 3-hour daily commute from her home in California’s San Fernando Valley to her office job in Beverly Hills. “Driving 7 miles in an hour and half -- now that was boring,” she says.

Hatchett wondered why her closest friends were so bored and ready to take risks, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. Her Black moms’ support network met online, and Hatchett pushed back on their trips and other risky plans to relieve boredom. “I was the loudmouth in the room, and I know I was annoying sometimes,” she says.

If you’ve got boredom under control, “don’t demonize the choices of others, because they will stop listening to you,” Danckert says. “You might say that you hear them and feel for them, because they are not intentionally trying to screw things up for the rest of us. They are doing it because their sense of agency is threatened.”

Agency is the sense that you can take action to achieve your goal. In Hatchett’s group, some of the risk-taking women felt the pandemic robbed them of their agency. Feelings were high when the group held their annual retreat on Zoom this year, and many members didn’t want to leave.

So they kept their Zoom room open, and apart from some glitches, it still is going. No matter the day or time, Hatchett can join and find up to 20 friends at work or chilling together, keeping boredom at bay. In the middle of the night, she can find comfort in seeing some of her friends, even if they are asleep.

“It’s made me realize that some people need constant stimulation to make it through this,” she says. “I’m not one of those, but I’m thankful I have this. It’s a weird thing that came out of that pandemic feeling of being alone and wanting comfort of friends, leaning on them, and sometimes not saying anything and the sound is off and videos are off. We all need to be connected, to help us not feel lonely or bored.”

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Sources

Corinna S. Martarelli, PhD, assistant professor, Swiss Distance University Institute (FernUni).

Nature: “Too bored to bother?”

CDC COVID Tracker: “Demographic Trends of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US reported to CDC, Cases by Age Group.”

Blake Guntharp, unemployed recent college graduate, Pontotoc, MS.

Mississippi state department of labor unemployment statistics online.

James Danckert, PhD, professor and cognitive neuroscience research area head, University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

Taffy McLaughlin and Mary Lou Mojonnier, retirees, Atlanta.

Psychology Today: “Learning from Pandemic Boredom --We have to understand its message to respond well when boredom strikes.”

Scott Bea, PsyD, psychologist, Cleveland Clinic.

Cleveland Clinic: “Why We Crave New Experiences and How to Get Them During the Coronavirus.”

Reuters: “U.S. labor market losing steam as COVID-19 pandemic rages.”

Parents: “Hungry Parents Are Skipping Meals to Feed Their Kids Due to the Pandemic.”

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