Coronavirus pandemic a boom time for researchers who study boredom
The panic hit her first.
Holed up at home in Queens, with New York City about to be overwhelmed by COVID-19, Yijun Lin worried about her mortality. Doom settled into alarm. Then, as days passed in isolation, a different feeling took hold.
“I began to feel a little bored,” she said.
Lin was uniquely suited to do something productive about it, though. She’s an incoming doctoral student in psychology at the University of Florida, where her advisor is Erin Westgate, one of a handful of scholars in the world who studies boredom and its surprising benefits.
“Are you researching any topic related to COVID-19?” she wrote in an email to Westgate. “I feel it is a perfect opportunity to study boredom.”
Westgate agreed, immediately setting off to organize a study. With millions around the world stuck at home and the novelty of watching the entire Netflix inventory waning, boredom scholars, who are actually quite interesting, are scrambling to study a vast petri dish of boredom - young and old, rich and poor, East and West.
“This really is a once-in-a-?lifetime opportunity to hopefully learn some really important things,” Westgate said.
She won’t have trouble finding study subjects. Boredom abounds. In a subreddit devoted to boredom, someone wrote: “Bored while stuck at home and apparently beer and pringles isn’t the answer! What should I try next?” The next day, someone replied: “Try counting the tiles at home! It cured my boredom.”
It’s not just adults. Just ask parents. “My kid is so bored being home he VOLUNTARILY practiced his piano!” a Buffalo man tweeted recently. “One thing I keep telling my 9-year-old,” another tweeted. “Some day you’ll have kids who complain that they’re bored. And you will be able to lay down the best-ever ‘When I was your ?age …’?”
As a scholarly matter, boredom is a relatively new research area in psychology. Historically, boredom was the turf of philosophers, a more dreary, Debbie Downer posse of thinkers.
“The literature in philosophy has been very negative about the experience of boredom,” said Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg, a psychologist and boredom scholar at King’s College in London. “They looked at it from a more existential point of view. The psychologists, we look at emotion - not whether it’s good or bad emotion, how it functions.”
But boredom was somehow overlooked in psychology for centuries.
About a decade ago, Sandi Mann, a psychologist at the University of Central Lancashire and author of a not-boring book on boredom, looked into the subject and was startled by how little research had been done.
“That really appealed to me,” she said, fighting a cough while recovering from an apparent case of COVID-19. “Boredom isn’t an overstudied area like, you know, stress. Before I studied boredom, I studied anger, and that’s been studied so much that it became a bit boring.”
The central question in boredom studies - and the one that makes Westgate and others so anxious to examine boredom within the confines of a pandemic - is the fork in the road that appears when boredom sets in.
Bored people can take the sit-on-the-couch-and-eat-a-lot-of-Pringles path. Studies have shown that boredom can increase obesity, smoking and crime. Or the idled can take the Isaac Newton approach. During the Great Plague of London in 1665, he used his social distancing time to discover calculus and gravity.
Mann and van Tilburg, among several other researchers, have in the last decade conducted experiments trying to tease out the potential benefits of boredom. A tricky aspect of conducting such studies is inducing sufficient boredom - far less of a problem during a pandemic.
In van Tilburg’s case, he has conducted experiments in which participants are told to count the number of letters in academic footnotes about imperial Rome. Those who became bored became nostalgic for more productive times in their lives. His boredom studies also showed a tendency for bored people to replace feelings of emptiness with caring acts such as blood donation.
Mann, in her experiments, has asked study subjects to copy numbers from a telephone book. “Meaningless, boring repetitive, it ticks all the boxes,” she said. Mann then gave a creative task to the bored people and a nonbored control group - come up with as many uses as possible for plastic cups. The bored did better than the nonbored.
While these and other studies show the tantalizing promise of boredom, scholars don’t yet know how bored people, in moments of boredom, choose productive vs. nonproductive paths.
The answer might be related to personality type or the setting around them. Scholars are anxious to learn more.