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Nothing to do? Boredom can have an upside, experts say

COVID-19’s mental health impact
Stephanie Mackendrick, CEO of Crisis Services Canada, explains how COVID-19 and self-isolation can impact our mental health and what you can do for yourself and loved ones in need.

Boredom can be excruciating.

You watch the minutes tick by, aimlessly flicking channels or re-reading the same posts in your social media feeds, all the while knowing something better is out there.

And these days, with lockdown orders imposed on much of Canada due to the novel coronavirus outbreak, it seems like there are a lot of bored people out there.

While being bored is very uncomfortable, experts say, it doesn’t have to be all bad.

“It helps us self-regulate. It helps us manage our pursuit of meaningful goals in our lives,” said James Danckert, a psychology professor at the University of Waterloo and co-author of the upcoming book Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.

READ MORE: Self-isolating in a small space during the COVID-19 pandemic

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That might sound a bit lofty for dealing with the day-to-day boredom of a pandemic, but keeping this in mind can help you manage things, he said.

It’s worth noting that right now, not everyone is bored. Some people are extraordinarily busy: still at work, sometimes in professions that put their health at risk, or caring for children and loved ones, or trying to deal with financial hardship.

But right now some people seem aimless, just waiting for physical distancing to end.

The biology of boredom

Boredom, like many human emotions, seems to have a biological function.

“It’s like physical pain,” said Dr. John Eastwood, a clinical psychologist and associate professor at York University in Toronto, who is also Danckert’s co-author.

“Physical pain tells us we’re in danger of hurting our body and tells us to stop doing what we’re doing or to make a change. And so it’s adaptive in that sense.

“I see boredom to similarly be adaptive. It’s an uncomfortable feeling that tells us that we’re not fundamentally authoring our lives. We’re not mentally engaged and we’re at risk of stagnating. And so it pushes us to get out of that place.”

Researcher speaks out about benefits of boredom for kids
Researcher speaks out about benefits of boredom for kids

Even animals seem to experience boredom and react negatively to the feeling: engaging in riskier behaviours and eating more in response.

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A study from the University of Guelph found that minks, when kept in a cage with little environmental enrichment, would eat more food than normal and interact more with any stimuli presented to them, whether it was unambiguously good, like treats, or an indication of danger, like bobcat urine — bobcats being a natural predator to minks.

READ MORE: Feeling anxious about the coronavirus pandemic? Here’s how to take control

People also overeat when bored, some studies suggest. In one study, teens who reported being bored were more likely to binge-drink. Another study found a link between pathological gambling and boredom.

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“You see animals — you see this in zoos — in that study exhibiting signs of boredom when they’re constrained, when they’re not free to act in the world in a way that they normally would,” Danckert said.

“It’s much like being quarantined and not being able to get out of your house. We’re sort of minks in a cage in that sense.”

Making choices

To Danckert, boredom is fundamentally the sense of a loss of agency — that you’re not in control of your own life.

“We want to believe that the actions that we choose have effects on the world that have meaningful outcomes. Otherwise, why bother? Why bother acting at all?”

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So if you’re feeling bored, you might want to think about ways to regain that agency.

READ MORE: Tuxedo-clad dad arranges fancy dinner party for kids during coronavirus isolation

Obviously, this is difficult in the middle of a pandemic. But, Eastwood says, there are ways.

“Reaching for Netflix, when you’re bored, it’s going to do the job in the short term,” he said. “But I think it’s precisely counterproductive because it’s continuing to treat yourself like this empty vessel to fill with compelling experience rather than seeing yourself as this source of meaning-making.”

READ MORE: A self-isolation playlist for those stuck inside during coronavirus pandemic

If you really want to watch Netflix, go for it, he said, but don’t do it because it seems like there is nothing else.

It’s about choice, Danckert said. “I can’t tell you what to do, you have to choose what to do yourself.”

“What my advice would be, for anybody, is to consciously choose what you’re going to do.”

Picking a task and sticking to it, no matter how mundane, helps to address the problem of agency, he said.

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While recognizing that many people are under significant stress, Eastwood would also urge you to think bigger if you struggle with boredom during the pandemic.

“I do think that some people will struggle to be agentic and author their lives and will find the feeling of boredom uncomfortable and will essentially numb themselves with distractions,” he said.

“I think that there will be others who I hope can take this as an opportunity to hit the reset button, perhaps, to really take a step back from the hurly-burly of life, all the business and say, ‘Ok, who am I? What matters to me, what’s really important, what are my passions, what are my interests?’

“That may be a positive that could come out of this time of slowdown.”

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

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To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.