By Erin C. Westgate
More and more of us are staying home in an attempt to slow down the spreading coronavirus. But being stuck at home can lead to boredom.
Boredom is a signal that we’re not meaningfully engaged with the world. It tells us to stop what we’re doing, and do it better – or to do something else.
But, as a social psychologist who studies boredom, I know that people don’t always make the best choices when bored. So if you’re stuck at home, dutifully practicing your social distancing, how do you keep boredom away?
What this research reveals is that just because something is objectively meaningful doesn’t mean it feels that way to us all the time. And even meaningful work can be boring if the person performing it finds it too hard or too easy. Once that happens, individuals might struggle to stay focused.
Reducing boredom requires that individuals solve the problems that produced it – not having sufficient activities that are both meaningful and optimally challenging.
However, sometimes people turn to activities that make them feel better in the moment, but that don’t provide long-term meaning or challenge. For instance, studies have shown that people are willing to self-administer electric shocks when bored.
While these may feel good in the moment, they provide only temporary relief from boredom. To prevent boredom and keep it away, we need to find solutions at home that provide lasting meaning and challenge.
1. Remind yourself why you’re doing this
People generally prefer doing something to doing nothing. As staying home is the most effective way to prevent the further transmission of the coronavirus, it is meaningful to socially isolate. However, it may not always feel that way.
Like all emotions, boredom is about whatever you’re thinking at the moment. That means staying at home will only feel meaningful when we’re actively thinking about the greater good it does. For instance, in studies, when students were prompted to reflect on why their schoolwork mattered to them personally, researchers found that their interest in learning increased.
In other words, reframing our activity changes how we feel about it.
Creating simple reminders, such as a note on the fridge, or a morning meditation, can help us keep the big picture in view: Staying home is a sacrifice we’re actively making for the good of others.
2. Find a rhythm
Routines structure our days, and provide a sense of coherence that bolsters our meaning in life. People’s lives feel more meaningful in moments when they’re engaged in daily routines.
We lose those routines when we give up going to the office, or when we are laid off. Even retirees or stay-at-home parents are disrupted by closures to cities, restaurants and schools. This loss of routine can foster feelings of boredom.
By creating new routines, people can restore a sense of meaning that buffers them from boredom.
3. Go with the flow
Figuring out what to do when faced by long days unstructured by work or school can be hard. A recent study of people in quarantine in Italy found that boredom was the second most common issue, after loss of freedom.
One thing that makes such situations hard is that it can be tricky to find activities that are just challenging enough to keep one occupied, without being too demanding. This situation can leave people bored and frustrated.
It helps to keep in mind that what counts as too challenging, or not challenging enough, will shift throughout the day. Don’t force yourself to keep at it if you need a break.
4. Try something new
Boredom urges many of us towards the novel. Embrace that urge, judiciously. If you have the energy, try a new recipe, experiment with home repairs, learn a new dance on TikTok.
Doing new things not only relieves boredom, it helps acquire new skills and knowledge that may relieve boredom in the long run. For instance, we feel a surge of interest when we read an interesting novel or go through complex experiences, but only if we have the capacity to understand them.
Evidence shows that embracing new experiences, can help us lead not only a happy or meaningful life, but a psychologically richer one.
5. Make room for guilty pleasures
It’s okay to binge on television, if that’s all you can handle at the moment.
We sometimes paint ourselves into a box where our most meaningful hobbies are also mentally taxing or effortful. For instance, digging into a classic Russian novel may be meaningful, but it doesn’t necessarily come easily.
Similarly, well-intentioned suggestions for how to cope at home, such as hosting a virtual wine-and-design night, may be simply too exhausting to be pleasurable at a time when many of us are already struggling.
Give yourself permission to enjoy your guilty pleasures. If need be, reframe those moments as much-needed mental refreshment, nourishing and recharging you for a later date.
6. Connect with others
Finding easy meaningful alternatives – bite-sized options that don’t take much effort, but that we find deeply rewarding – can be a challenge.
Luckily one good option is open to us all: connecting with others, whether virtually or for those lucky enough not to be quarantined alone – in-person.
Looking at old photos, or reminiscing with a friend, are simple meaningful actions most of us can take even when we’re not feeling our best. One does not need a reason to call up a friend – our best socializing is the kind that happens casually, in the unstructured time between scheduled activities.
Create room for that virtually as well: Next time you’re pouring a glass of wine or watering the plants, call up a friend while you do it. Make dinner together. We don’t have to be bored, when we’re all in this together.
Boredom itself is neither bad nor good, only our choices about how to counter it make it so.
Erin C. Westgate is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida. She wrote this piece for The Conversation, where it first appeared.