During this pandemic-induced period of indefinite self-quarantine, most of us are lying on the edges of the spectrum marked by chronic boredom on one end and compulsive engagement on the other. We cannot go to work, all establishments are closed and having a social life outside of your doorstop is basically prohibited by law. It’s just you, your cave, too much free time on your hands and no idea what to do with it.
Boredom is the restless and frustrating experience of wanting but being unable to engage in satisfying activity, manifesting mostly when we feel isolated or trapped in a mundane task. This is a feeling we are not accustomed to, partly due to our busy routines. Many of us feel the pressure to be constantly engaged, whether it’s setting appointments or doing the shopping. We chill out on the couch while replying to emails. We perceive this as functional productivity or “getting things done”, but neuroscientist Dr. Daniel Levitin (2019) explains that when we shift our attention between tasks, our brain engages a neurochemical switch that uses up nutrients in the brain. So, when multitasking, you’re not actually doing four things at once, but rather shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources.
We equate being busy with productivity and boredom with laziness, but that is not necessarily the case. However uncomfortable the state of boredom might be, it also offers benefits that we are increasingly missing out on as our ability to distract ourselves increases. But what are we distracting ourselves from? We don’t let ourselves succumb to boredom because it can often lead us to uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Thus, in order to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind, we occupy it with euphoria and incessant activity.
Yet, our brains flourish when we let ourselves be bored. Researchers have found that passive activities, such as folding the laundry, can lead to more creativity. When you get bored, you promote daydreaming, igniting a network in your brain called the “default mode”. So, when reading a book or pacing randomly, our body goes on autopilot but our brain gets activated. Ever think of something seemingly out of the blue? That’s because, as researcher Dr. Sandi Mann (2014) explains, “Once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking a little bit beyond the conscious, a little bit into the subconscious”.
In the default mode we connect ideas, find solutions to our troubles and engage in “autobiographical planning” – the process whereby we look back at our lives, reflect on our impactful memories, form a personal narrative, set goals and plan how to achieve them. This explains why our greatest ideas seem to come to us in the shower. Interestingly though, our default mode network is not activated when we engage in seemingly mindless activities such as watching TV or scrolling on our phone because activities with visual cues and plots do not allow the mind to wander.
Ironically, boredom seems to be able to increase our productivity while motivating us to pursue new goals in place of previous, stagnant aims which no longer serve their purpose. For a long time, we’ve seen boredom as something that needs to be vanquished and filled up with activity. However, this period of social distancing and isolation serves as a perfect opportunity to let our mind wander. Allow yourself to stare into the void, without the perpetual guilt accompanying inactivity. Indeed, parts of the brain which tend to be dormant are being activated, so you are not inactive after all.
With this being said, a distinction has to be made between allowing your mind to wander and lethargy. Anything beneficial can turn harmful when engaged in excessively, so this is not suggesting turning into a couch-potato. Chronic and apathic boredom can lead to anxiety, depression, binge-eating, substance use and gambling. Therefore, it is recommended to disengage ourselves mindfully and purposefully, as a way to allow ourselves to rest and blossom.
- Axelrod, V., Rees, G., Lavidor, M., & Bar, M. (2015). Increasing propensity to mind-wander with transcranial direct current stimulation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(11), 3314–3319. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421435112
- Bench, S., & Lench, H. (2013). On the Function of Boredom. Behavioral Sciences, 3(3), 459–472. doi: 10.3390/bs3030459
- British Psychological Society (BPS). (2013, January 9). Being bored at work can make us more creative.
- Howard, J. (2016, July 29). Americans devote more than 10 hours a day to screen time, and growing.
- Levitin, D. (2019, February 8). How Multitasking Depletes Your Brain’s Resources – And How to Restore Concentration.
- Mann, S., & Cadman, R. (2014). Does Being Bored Make Us More Creative? Creativity Research Journal, 26(2), 165–173. doi: 10.1080/10400419.2014.901073
- Mental Stimulation: Why do I need mental stimulation? (n.d.).
- Van Tilburg , W. A. P. (2011). Boredom and its Psychological Consequences: A meaning-regulation approach (dissertation).