Broadening Your Perspective on Boredom

By April 13, 2020, North Carolina was only 18 days into our lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to recent news coverage1, city officials lifted Wuhan’s stay-at-home orders on April 8, 2020 after 76 days of social distancing. If our experience mirrors China, North Carolinians are preparing for 58 more days without social get-togethers or formalized entertainment. This thought might leave some Americans with a racing heart, shortness of breath, and internal discomfort. 

How do we handle eight more weeks of quarantine? What do we do with the unavoidable boredom that results after social media and Netflix lose their luster?  As a counselor, I often hear about how many video games my teen clients are playing …or how restless they are while staying at home during lockdown. It makes sense; I empathize and navigate the topic with them. At the same time, I know there is much more boredom to come.

This blog post will delve into the idea of what to do with the boredom we are all experiencing. You may be surprised to hear that surviving boredom during quarantine can be done by embracing it rather than trying to fight against it, ignore it or avoid it altogether. I will first walk you through the psychological definition of boredom, which will offer a foundation for why it can be so difficult to manage. Then, I will discuss how monotony can be helpful if you use it appropriately, which may offer confidence as you prepare for the possibility of 58 more days at home.

Understanding the complexity of boredom

I imagine you know what boredom feels like; it is certainly an unsettling sensation…but where does it come from and what is its intended purpose? Psychologically, boredom is a complex emotion (i.e., it is a compilation of several emotions). According to Dr. Neel Burton2, boredom is “a deeply unpleasant state of unmet arousal. We are aroused rather than despondent, but, for one or more reasons, our arousal cannot be met or directed.” I think this is a fantastic, multilayered description of boredom as we experience it. Unpacked, this explains our desire to arouse or awake ourselves when we feel despondent, which is an emotion similar to hopelessness or despair. In a state of despair, we try to find something that gives us relief. During boredom, however, we cannot find relief (e.g., such as through entertainment) that suits us, so we are left in despair with unmet expectations. 

Why boredom is tough

Boredom is not just hard…it can be tormenting2. This might be due to the human propensity to explore our environment, as well as the underlying despair involved when we cannot. The emotion of boredom keeps us in a state of feeling out-of-control. It indicates that we are unable to understand or create meaning in our circumstances. Said another way, the emotion of boredom can bring us to a crossroad in life. Sometimes, that crossroad is overwhelming when we do not have particular life skills, say because we have experienced abuse or neglect in childhood. Underneath our emotion, without knowing it, we might be challenging our personal expectations or family values. 

An example of a family value or personal expectation is the idea that “boredom can be our way of telling us we are not spending our time as we should,” noted Burton2.  For the person overwhelmed by an emotion, should is a dangerous word. In counseling sessions, I try to reiterate something my counseling mentor once told me: “should is the only cuss word we cannot use in my office.” Saying we should do something effectively communicates a mental expectation we adopted from someone else, oftentimes unconsciously. 

Whether from our family-of-origin or a respected teacher, believing we should engage in an activity versus could participate in it (by desire alone) shows a lack of inner motivation, and this often leads to internal tension. Being bored can sometimes be a reflection of that unsettling tension. In counseling, this is called incongruence. To become congruent, we must align our thoughts, feelings, and actions with our values. This requires giving up others’ expectations and deciding for ourselves what our expectations will be as driven by our personal beliefs.

Biology of boredom

Let’s talk about what is happening in the brain during boredom as we try to distract ourselves from the unsettling tension of incongruence. When we feel bored, neurons in our brain are firing within the amygdala, an organ that governs our emotions. If we did not learn to effectively handle difficult emotions in childhood, our amygdala immediately signals for us to soothe ourselves through arousal. Arousal occurs when we find something around us attractive or stimulating, at which point neurochemicals flood our brain’s reward system (i.e., the “pleasure center”3). This is important because “the brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal”3. The brain does not distinguish between what we use to arouse us…it only registers that we are aroused, that we like the arousal, and that we want more of it. Thus, handling the emotional state of boredom inappropriately over time can lead us to destructive ways. “People who suffer from chronic boredom are at a higher risk of developing psychological problems such as depression, overeating, and alcohol or drug misuse”2.

How boredom can be helpful

Now, to be clear, being bored does not always lead to an existential crisis or substance addiction! Sometimes, being bored is completely OK. That is why interpreting our boredom correctly is so pivotal. How we judge our situation means everything. Boredom can lead to beautiful behaviors if we let that emotion inform versus inhibit us. If we view boredom as a tool to direct our actions, we feel in control again. By design, emotions were meant to complement our decisions, not control them…to offer considerations, not instructions. That means that how we interpret and repeatedly act on boredom is the difference between perspective-changing creativity and say…chronic substance misuse. Using emotion appropriately leads to believing you can change your circumstances and act congruently. In therapy, these are the principle means to overcoming hopelessness!

Let us talk about perspective-changing creativity. This requires mindfulness4 and acceptance5, both which are outlined in recent blog posts by my trusted colleagues at the Center for Family Transformation (CFT). Mindfulness means being fully present in our situation, while acceptance means relating to our thoughts and emotions in a less judgmental way. Through mindfulness and acceptance, it is possible to use boredom as a launching pad for creativity. Many people think that they lack the skills necessary for stereotypical creative processes like drawing, writing, painting, sculpting, carpentry,  and more. However, creativity is not the same as being artistic; it is not limited to these means! Creativity is disciplined curiosity. Creativity is emotional expression, regardless of its perceived value by others. To be valuable, our creative works do not need to make others feel a sense of awe. They only need to offer us an emotional outlet.

Ways to be creative

My hope for you is that you feel liberated in your creativity, and you might even believe you can be creative as a means of constructively expressing your boredom. As mentioned earlier, you might still have two months left of quarantine. It is not within my therapeutic scope to offer thoughts on how to spend that time. Instead, I desire to offer you a broader perspective. As opposed to staying stuck in your boredom and doing anything (even destructive things) to survive it, consider these two options. 

  • If your boredom is due to hopelessness or incongruence, it would benefit you to begin working through it with a counselor. Many counselors like those at the CFT are still seeing clients remotely during the pandemic.
  • If your boredom is due to unmet internal expectations, give yourself permission to create. Notice what is around you in your home and neighborhood, and what you find intriguing about those things…then engage curiously with them! Study them. Combine them with other things in a safe way. Talk about them with others, specifically what you have never noticed before. This is creativity…and thankfully, “everyday creative activities predict personal growth”6.

Conclusion

Boredom is an emotion, albeit a tough one for those of us who value our time but are unsure what to do with it. When we allow our emotions to drive our actions versus inform our decisions, boredom can lead to destructive coping and even addictions over time. However, when utilized appropriately, boredom can be an incredible outlet for creativity. If you have found yourself struggling with crises amid your boredom during COVID-19, please reach out to us at the CFT; we would be honored to help. Otherwise, giving yourself permission to create as an emotional outlet might help your stay-at-home experience become one of internal freedom!

References

  1. Gan, N. (2020, April 8). China lifts 76-day lockdown on Wuhan as city reemerges from coronavirus crisis. CNN.com. Retrieved from https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/07/asia/coronavirus-wuhan-lockdown-lifted-intl-hnk/index.html
  1. Burton, N. (2020, February 14). The sunny side of boredom. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/202002/the-sunny-side-boredom
  1. Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2011, July). How addiction hijacks the brain. Health.Harvard.edu. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/how-addiction-hijacks-the-brain
  1. Cole, C. (2020, November 19). Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – part 1 – majestic mindfulness. Familytransformation.com. Retrieved from https://www.familytransformation.com/2019/11/19/dialectical-behavior-therapy-dbt-part-1-majestic-mindfulness/
  1. Robbins, S. (2020, April 5). The flexible mind – part 1. Familytransformation.com. Retrieved from https://www.familytransformation.com/2020/04/05/the-flexible-mind-part-1/
  1. Pringle, Z. I. (2019, July 19). Creativity is more than just coming up with ideas: An international scholar panel shows creativity is action, not just thinking. PsychologyToday.com. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativity-the-art-and-science/201907/creativity-is-more-just-coming-ideas

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