How To Deal With Boredom, Digested

By Emily Reynolds

One year into lockdown, and it’s safe to say a lot of us are very, very bored. We’ve watched all the boxsets we can stomach, developed (and subsequently ditched) a long list of increasingly esoteric hobbies, and have quite probably exhausted every possible walking route within several miles of our home. Yet the boredom persists.

Lockdown is, for most of us, an unusually boredom-inducing situation to be in, unable as we are to engage in many of the outside activities we would usually pass the time with. But boredom itself is common: as Camus rather pessimistically put it, “the truth is that everyone is bored”.

So how do you deal with boredom? And does being bored even come with some benefits? Here’s the research on boredom, digested.

Don’t look at your phone

The first thing many of us do when we feel even a twinge of boredom is reach for our phones, ready to endlessly scroll until we’re bored of that and switch to something else.

But one study suggests that, at least during working hours, smartphone use doesn’t actually do very much to relieve boredom. While phone use increased as workers became more bored, it also worked the other way around: participants were more bored after using their smartphone than they were when they started.

It could be that the act of switching tasks from work to using a phone depletes our mental resources, and the reward of a sneaky look at your phone isn’t able to counteract the additional cognitive load. Or perhaps looking at your phone can underline the tedium of the task you’re trying to escape from. Either way, the results suggest that clinging to our phones might not be the way to relieve our boredom.

Reframe the way you think about boredom

Nobody really likes being bored. But thinking about boredom not as a chore but as an opportunity for introspection might make it easier to bear.

In 2016, Tim Lomas, from the University of East London, purposefully made himself bored while on a long haul flight, making minute-by-minute notes about what he was thinking and feeling over the course of an hour. Rather poetically, he described his thoughts “emerging unbidden like fish appearing in an ocean”, and was “intrigued by how slippery, elusive and strange the mind was, a fleeting dance of vague ephemera”. He concluded that if people “were to regard boredom as a meditative experience, it may no longer be appraised as negative; indeed it may no longer even be boring.” York University’s Professor John Eastwood has similarly argued that boredom offers a chance to “discover the possibility and content of one’s desires”.

So with a bit of introspection, you could turn your boredom into something more meaningful.

Do something creative

In a 2014 study, Sandi Mann and Rebekah Cadman, both from the University of Central Lancashire, found that boredom actually increased creativity.

Participants were asked to either write something novel or do something undeniably tedious: copy numbers out of the telephone directory. All participants then completed a creative task, coming up with as many uses for two polystyrene cups as they possibly could. And those in the boring condition came up with far more uses than those in the non-boring condition.

So not only could indulging your creativity be a way out of boredom, boredom itself might also give your creativity a boost.

Get nostalgic

At the moment, a lot of us are probably feeling pretty nostalgic for a life before the pandemic. Could focusing on that nostalgia help our boredom, too?

In one 2013 paper published in Emotion, participants were first induced into high or low states of boredom by being asked to copy down either two or ten pieces of text about concrete mixtures. They then retrieved either a neutral or nostalgic memory. Those who were in high states of boredom before retrieving a nostalgic memory recorded feeling more nostalgic overall than those who were in low states of boredom. A follow-up experiment also found that nostalgia can actually counteract the effects of boredom, creating a sense of meaning in people’s lives.

Boredom often comes with a sense of existential emptiness, so reestablishing yourself as a person with meaning and purpose could help — and the way to do that could be through meditating on meaningful past times.

Let your mind wander

Mind wandering isn’t always a positive activity, particularly if you’re trying (and failing) to get on with an important task: mind wandering has been linked to poorer reading comprehension and worse memory, to use just two examples.

But, if you’re bored, it could offer some relief. According to one literature review, mind wandering can make boring tasks feel shorter, help us disengage from boring surroundings, and improve our moods while we’re doing something tedious. And as mind wandering has also been linked with increased creativity and problem-solving skills, there are other potential benefits too.

Tackle it head on

Schoolwork can be a serious cause of boredom — who doesn’t remember watching the clock tick slowly by as we sat in a class we hated? Luckily, this also makes school a good place to study boredom, and in 2011 one team explored a variety of different ways of dealing with boredom, focusing on avoidance (thinking or doing something unrelated to the boring situation) and “approach coping” (thinking or doing something that actively changes the boring situation itself).

The team grouped students’ responses to a boring maths lesson into three categories: “reappraisers” dealt with boredom by meditating on the value of mathematics and therefore changing their view of the situation; “criticizers” tried to act to improve the situation by suggesting changes to the teacher; and “evaders” tried to avoid boredom by occupying themselves with something else.

The reappraising group were the least bored overall, and also experienced the most positive outcomes when it came to emotions and motivation: they enjoyed maths more and experienced the lowest levels of anxiety. So, as Tim Lomas’ research also suggests, rethinking what boredom actually represents, rather than trying to avoid it altogether, might be the best way of ameliorating it long-term.

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest