Pizza is the perfect food; warm, gooey cheese over a savory sauce, supported by a firm yet chewy crust makes for a mouthful of wonderful. Granted, tacos are also quite delectable, but pizza right out of the oven is in a league of its own. Delicious and versatile (pineapple, anyone?), pizza is simply perfect.
But as praise-worthy as pizza is, even the most devoted fans would lose interest if they ate nothing but pizza. Repetition and monotony often lead to disinterest and boredom, leaving us hungry for something new and different. Boredom is an uncomfortable feeling, one which most humans want to avoid. Eating different types of food is one way to keep meals interesting, just as enjoying a variety of activities may keep boredom from creeping into our daily existence.
Thanks to COVID-19, humans have limited options for alleviating boredom. Surprising no one, recent studies found that boredom has increased over the past year as billions around the world wait out the pandemic close to home. As the pandemic wears on, some endeavor to learn healthy coping strategies to manage their boredom while others struggle with an extra bit of gloom in their mood. Whether it’s keeping pizza night special or surviving a pandemic, boredom is an equal opportunity feeling.
Like other emotions such as happiness and fear, boredom plays a significant role in how humans relate to our environment.
Research suggests that emotions give us information about how well we are progressing towards our personal goals. Once the information is received, we have an opportunity to adjust our behavior depending on our objective.
Boredom occurs when we try—but fail—to engage in something meaningful. To earn a good grade on a math test we need to remain engaged during class, which requires us to pay attention and follow along. Zoning out interferes with our ability to do that, so we need to find ways to stay focused. If we are successful in managing our attention and reengage in class, we’re back on the path toward our objective. Awesome—Boredom averted! Failing to stay focused reduces our level of engagement, which may result in feeling bored. Not awesome.
Alternatively, boredom may mean that it’s time to abandon the goal altogether. Activities are more engaging when the outcome is tied to something we value. Recognizing that our goal has lost its value, motivates us to redirect our energy. Listening to the math lesson before taking the exam is probably beneficial. Listening to it after the test might not be the best use of your time or mental resources.
Some studies posit that boredom signals that our current activity may not be compatible with our abilities. Our brains like to stay busy, which requires an activity that is neither too easy nor too difficult. Think of our brains as a gray, wrinkly version of Goldilocks. Goldilocks may find a lecture on the various types of grain used in making porridge difficult to follow, but someone explaining the obvious differences between a bear and a kitten would be too easy for her to comprehend. Neither scenario would engage her; possibly leaving her extremely bored. Discuss various types of mattresses, and you might just hold her attention.
The Complexity of Boredom
Boredom often mixes with other emotions, making it more difficult for some individuals to identify and manage their boredom effectively. Research shows that it’s fairly common for boredom to bring along some restlessness or frustration, compounding an already tough situation. Other studies propose a relationship between feeling bored and experiencing anxiety or depression. This is not to say boredom causes mental health issues, but some researchers suggest it may compound or aggravate preexisting negative emotions.
Humans—being the wonderfully diverse creatures that we are—respond to boredom in various ways. That diversity means some people experience boredom quite frequently while others rarely do, even when living in the same environment. The ability to develop and deploy effective coping strategies also varies from person to person, but there is no guarantee the same strategy will work every time.
Without appropriate coping skills, the desire to alleviate boredom and frustration may lead to impulsive or risky behaviors. Studies show that boredom—if not managed—can increase the likelihood that some individuals will break rules, including safety guidelines instituted during quarantine. Keeping boredom under control is vital to staying mentally and physically well. Now that we know what it is, managing it might be as easy as (pizza) pie!
Engage and Re-engage
Boredom occurs when we want to engage in an activity , but are unsuccessful. Let’s expand on what that means. When struggling to re-engage, problem solving can be a useful first step.
In the math example above, there may be a reason for disengaging during class. Not enough sleep the night before might make it hard to focus, or maybe the information is too easy or too advanced to follow along. Is there a solution that would facilitate re-engagement? In this case, more sleep, or speaking with the teacher about the course content are possible strategies that may alleviate the issue.
When you’re looking for a new activity to engage in, effort is required. Compare different types of activities with your personal interests. Many people find that using their imagination is important, while others enjoy the process of learning. Loud and stimulating activities suit some, and others find joy in silence. It’s different for everyone.
One group of researchers studying boredom label an activity as either novel input or novel output. Novel is a term indicating a new activity that currently holds our attention. As the names suggest, input is when we take information in, and output means we create something outside of ourselves. Concrete examples could be reading information on a website (input) and writing a story (output).
Passive activities are often considered the least helpful in terms of alleviating boredom. Research indicates that these can make people feel worse rather than better when bored.
Scrolling through memes or skimming social media are likely to be passive; the level of attention required is minimal. Novel input can easily be mistaken for a passive activity, but to be fully engaged in reading, listening to music, or watching a movie we must focus while actively process the information we receive.
Does it matter if we prefer novel output or novel input? Is one considered better than the other? Nope. Research suggests different approaches vary on how they impact boredom, but preferences most likely reflect personal characteristics such as temperament or thinking styles. The important thing is knowing which type you find to be more engaging, rather than bouncing from one thing to another just because it’s new and seems exciting.
Remember that emotions like boredom are a natural part of being human, even when they aren’t very pleasant. All humans struggle occasionally. If you’re trying to avoid or manage boredom while living through the pandemic, be kind to yourself. This hasn’t been easy, and developing effective coping strategies takes time.
Do your best, hydrate, and have some pizza—or a taco—it’s all good.
Erika Stewart Wheelhouse, MA, LMHC Website: https://www.strivefamilyresources.com/
Erika served in the US Army Medical Corps before earning her Masters in Counseling Psychology. She treats teens with traumatic stress in a clinical setting and advocates in the community for reduced stigma associated with mental illness as the managing director of Strive Family Resources. She is also a proud volunteer Psychomancer with TakeThis.