Wake up, email, Zoom, Netflix, sleep and repeat, sound familiar? In our pre-pandemic lives, we experienced a variety of activities or change of scenery throughout our work week, but in the age of COVID-19, the same home “office,” the same computer screen, the same daily grind. Is it Monday? Wait, it’s Thursday? Does it matter? What is causing this perpetual state of boredom and how do we continue to function as professional when every day feels the same as the last?
Say you wanted to make the perfect lab conditions for an experience of boredom, how would you go about it? Feeling bored is a delicate balance between mental arousal and lack of activity. Low arousal and low levels of activity usually lead to feeling relaxed, whereas high arousal and high levels of activity usually leads to feeling productive or energized; but mix high arousal and low activity and you are probably feeling bored. So to create boredom in a lab you would need is to create a situation that was mentally arousing or even anxiety-provoking (say the global spread of a deadly virus broadcast on 24-hour cable news?) and then prevent your lab subject from engaging in their normal activities, closing most workplaces and sources of recreation should do the trick.
Additionally, to experience true boredom, you must be put in an environment where you are unable focus on just one thing. When our attention is fractured, we move from one task to another, not feeling satisfaction from one activity. Returning to the lab, we would need to develop an environment where our subject’s attention is split in many different directions. For our experiment let’s try a typical American home with pervasive social media, a spouse who is “working” from your bedroom, children that are out of school, and housework that is piling up.
The final key to boredom is lack of control. When we feel stuck in environments or situations that we cannot change or escape we are more likely to experience boredom. To really make our lab rat feel bored we would need to take away their feelings of control over their life, perhaps something like a state mandate that they must stay home with no defined end date.
Perfect! The coronavirus has created the perfect conditions for boredom. Now, that we have a whole country in a lab designed for optimal boredom, what can we expect the outcomes to be in for our unwitting population stuck in this boring hamster wheel of an existence?
Boredom appears to be the gateway to many negative emotions and behaviors. Being bored has been linked to overeating and choosing unhealthy foods. Studies indicate people reporting high levels of boredom are also more likely to suffer from chronic pain. We often attach negative emotions toward the perceived source of our boredom, and this can often lead to irritability or aggression. Boredom can be a trigger for more serious mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety. Boredom has been shown to be the single biggest predictor of alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use. Boredom is also a leading contributing factor for many people that engage in infidelity. In short, boredom often feels uncomfortable and is a common denominator in most unhealthy or self-destructive behaviors.
Luckily, there are things you can do to combat boredom, even during this pandemic where every day feels like Groundhog Day. Remember that movie “Groundhog Day?” Bill Murray plays Phil Connors who is doomed to live the same day over and over again — slowly losing his mind in the process. He experiences all the pitfalls mentioned about above; he drinks, he fights, he even unsuccessfully attempts suicide. However, (spoiler alert) in the end he is able to break the cycle (and get the girl) by doing a few key things:
1.) Learn Something New. Phil learns lots of things: ice sculpting, jazz piano and French poetry to name a few. This is a great way to combat boredom and you can see it all over the country lately — sourdough bread making and home gardens became trending search topics overnight once the lockdowns began. Start by making a short list of new skills you would like to learn, whether that is learning to speak Spanish or perfecting your cross-stitching technique and acquire any supplies you may need. Then, when your old friend boredom shows up, commit to spending time engaged in your new activity.
2.) Connect with Others. Phil starts off as a mostly unlikable loner but through taking an interest in others and making social connections, he was able to break the Groundhog Day curse. This can be a challenge, especially considering social distancing, but bonding with your friends and loved ones though this shared experience is still possible. Group conferencing platforms that you use for work are just as effective for virtual happy hours or even remote game nights. Sporting events are not happening, but there is nothing stopping you from tailgating with your friends in one of many empty parking lots in your town with plenty of room to stay 6 feet apart. Even an extended phone conversation with an extended family member or friend that you have fallen out of touch with can go a long way toward eliminating the negative consequences of social isolation.
3.) Contribute to the Greater Good. Phil completes his rebound by doing good deeds all around town. Not only did he make others happy, but he improved his own mood as well. There are many opportunities to help others and make a difference in your community right now. Sew masks for health care workers, donate supplies to local homeless shelters or food banks, or take the kids out for a walk in your local park and see who can pick up the most trash. This pandemic will end and our communities will be much stronger and resilient if everyone chooses to improve our neighborhoods for the eventual reopening.
Through honing your skills, uniting with your loved ones, making a difference, and being the best version of yourself you can combat boredom and bring variety to an otherwise monotonous pandemic lifestyle. Waking in the morning to the thought that this day is the same as the last is equally an opportunity to do something different with the day stretched out before you.
Through honing your skills, uniting with your loved ones, making a difference, and being the best version of yourself, you can combat boredom and bring variety to an otherwise monotonous pandemic lifestyle. Waking in the morning to the thought that this day is the same as the last is equally an opportunity to do something different with the day stretched out before you.
Dan Ficalora, LCPC, LCADC, is a supervisor at Bridge Counseling Associates, bridgecounseling.org.