How can we deal with boredom well?

What's the best way to deal with being bored?
22 February 2021

Interview with 

John Eastwood, York University, Canada


photo of someone walking in a forest


How can we get the agency back that is lacking when we feel bored? Katie Haylor asked clinical psychologist and cognitive science researcher John Eastwood. First off, Katie asked John if it's really true that "only boring people get bored"...

John - Yeah. That's a great point. And I find that quite curious to be honest, right? We don't have that same moral judgement surrounding other kinds of feelings, but we get quite worked up when, you know, our children say they're bored or our friend says they're bored or we're bored. And, it's interesting to try to figure out what's going on there and why that's happening. Certainly when we judge something to be boring, we're doing social work, right? We're rejecting this thing, we're denigrating it. We're putting it down. We're saying this is boring. Therefore, this is bad, It's another way of saying this is bad. And you know, I think sometimes you think about kids maybe at school who are maybe struggling to do their math homework or their English or whatever the case may be. And because the material is difficult for them, they're having a hard time becoming engaged with it. And they might say, "well, this is boring" as a way of saving face. You know, "I could do the work, but it's boring, so I'm not going to do it". It may also be a way for young people to individuate and to reject adult parental culture, you know, what mom and dad are interested in is boring. This is dumb. Right. You know, and so, so it's a way of separating from the adult world, let's say, and defining themselves. You know, it's a real cool, detached, aloof place to be when you're bored, right. You're standing above it. It's almost a narcissistic kind of stance. I'm better than this, and this is not good enough. So I'm not having any of it kind of thing. Like a refusal to engage.

But I think that it doesn't help to moralise or to judge people for being bored. I think that we need to understand that it can be a very debilitating experience for some. And it's just another feeling like any other feeling and that we should be more compassionate towards people that are bored. Certainly giving glib advice doesn't help. Telling a bored person "Oh, why don't you just read a book or play this game? There's so much to do. Why don't you do that? Why don't you do that?" It's a little bit like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. You know, the bored person knows there's things to do, and if they could want to do them, they would engage with them. But they can't, and they're caught in this bind. And so I think we would do well to be more, more compassionate and understanding towards people who express and struggle with boredom.

Katie - So boredom itself, it's not a pathological state. There are an awful lot of things in life that we simply can't control at the moment. And I guess the reality is that along with fear, anxiety, anger, we are just going to be bored sometimes. What can we do to get that agency back over being bored?

John - Yeah. Well, first of all, I'd say, you know, don't panic when boredom strikes! Relaxation strategies like going for a walk or deep breathing might even be able to help just to settle yourself there in the moment. Acknowledge the feeling for what it is, and don't get into a fight with it. Don't get into this kind of like resisting thing. Sort of a curious, accepting mode will serve us much better than a rejecting kind of hostile mode.

And I would suggest that we try to use the break from engaged activity to become reacquainted with ourselves. We might even try journaling or just a moment to reflect on our values and to think about what's important to us, rediscover who we are, what we care about and how we want to express ourselves in the world. And then look for activities that flow from and give expression to our curiosity, our passion and our creativity and limit passive entertainment. So passive entertainment will certainly blunt boredom in the short term, but it may further erode our ability to be self-determined in the long run.

And finally, I'd say, you know, don't overthink it or look for the really grand gestures. I'm going to read War and Peace during the pandemic,  just get going and fine tune as you go. Sometimes we put all this pressure on ourselves and say, we have to accomplish cram things during this time. Just get started and learn from your activity what is resonating and what's not.


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