Never a Dull Moment

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

So many people have been grumbling about how bored they are during the pandemic that, frankly, it’s boring just listening to them. Like, tell us something we all don’t already know.

Who hasn’t experienced soul-crushing ennui in this year of mass lockdowns and stay-at-home orders?

OK, so maybe not front-line health-care workers who haven’t had a break in over 12 months, or working mothers who suddenly find themselves juggling homeschooling with a spike in work-from-home Zoom calls on top of the usual heaps of household laundry and spousal support, emotional and otherwise. For them, having idle time on their hands would be a luxury.

But the rest of us? So bored we have made a virtue out of online shopping for clothes only our mirrors will see, mainlining gardening shows or buying up shares of GameStop, the hot-ticket retailer for gamers trading at record prices on the stock market. Desperate for distraction, we have also allowed Meghan and Harry to mesmerize us with their celebrity-meets-monarchy woes. As if nothing else matters.

None of this is entirely surprising to John Eastwood, a York psychology professor who studies boredom for a living. As the director of the University’s Boredom Lab (tag line: “Exploring the Unengaged Mind”), he has spent two decades examining what many people might call having nothing to do. But boredom is much more complex than that.

“I think of boredom as a certain mental state,” says Eastwood, who is also a clinical psychologist. “It’s an unfulfilled desire to be engaged in satisfying activity.” The way he sees it, boredom is not unlike a toothache. It signals to the brain that something is not well and that some sort of action is needed to address the problem. But not everyone knows how.

As Eastwood has observed, people often confuse “satisfying activity” with stimulation. Going for quick fixes like binge-watching Netflix or repeatedly scrolling through social media feeds is often a misguided attempt to escape having to face the void. Why is that a problem? “You’re seeing yourself as an empty vessel that needs filling, as opposed to seeing yourself as a meaning-making creature that needs to effectively express itself in the world,” Eastwood says.

It’s worth figuring out, because we all contend with boredom. It’s a fact of life. As the playwright Samuel Beckett so bluntly informs us in Waiting for Godot, his absurdist masterpiece about the boredom of living, “We are bored. No, don’t protest, we are bored to death, there’s no denying it.” Beckett puts these words into the mouths of vagabonds who, hobbled by impotence, ignorance and, yes, crippling boredom, can never escape the emptiness of their existence. But can we? Living, by contrast, not in a work of fiction but in the real world? Eastwood certainly thinks so.

Finding meaning in boredom is the theme of Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom, Eastwood’s latest (and very timely) book, co-authored with James Danckert, a fellow boredom researcher and cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Waterloo. In it, Eastwood argues that boredom does not have to be such a bad thing after all. Boredom begs the question, Why am I feeling disengaged and unfulfilled?, sparking a process of self-reflective inquiry.

The answers will, of course, vary from person to person. But just thinking about why we are bored and what can be done to alleviate the discomfort of boredom inspires a focus on the self in ways that can be therapeutic. “Boredom is a call to action,” Eastwood says. “It’s an invitation, sometimes more of an urgent demand, to initiate change in your life.”

But not just any change will do. The key, Eastwood says, “is to recognize that boredom signals a need to pursue activities that flow from, and give expression to, our unique desires and abilities.”

The boredom wrought by the pandemic has prompted scores of people do just that – make conscious decisions about how they want to live their lives. In the wake of COVID-19, they have taken up new hobbies, rekindled old friendships, read more books, done more puzzles and baked more sourdough bread. People have also moved in droves, out of cities and into smaller towns surrounded by nature, presumably as a result of a shift in priorities. Eastwood calls this period in our shared history the great reset of the self.

“In the lockdowns, people have asked themselves, What are my passions? What are the things that give me joy? How do I want to express myself in the world? And they’ve gone after them, which is one of the good things to come out of the pandemic.”

The hope now is that the lessons learned from the boredom people experienced over the past year will linger, “to ensure we all live well in a post-pandemic world.” But how to make boredom work for you?

Eastwood suggests looking at it in fresh ways, not as a void but as a blank slate on which to express some new ideas. “A great thing about boredom is that it can often spark the imagination and open a door to innovation, but we have to rise to the challenge of the moment,” he says.

“We have to take boredom as an opportunity to rediscover who we are and what we care about, and then, armed with that understanding, re-engage with the world in ways that express our creativity, curiosity and passion.” And, he might add, turn that feeling of nothingness into something ultimately good.  ■

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