This month - we're boring into boredom! What does it mean to be bored? Should we embrace it? Should we avoid it? How do you get through it? Stick with us to find out...
In this episode
01:04 - Can you blag a blagger?
Can you blag a blagger?
Helen Keyes, ARU; Duncan Astle, Cambridge University
This month, cognitive neuroscientist Duncan Astle from Cambridge University looked at a study from the Journal of Neuroscience which asked "do the brain areas that are involved in voluntary emotional regulation also regulate social pain - like the pain felt when feeling left out?"
Duncan - One popular view is that structures towards the front of the brain within prefrontal cortex might be able to regulate other brain areas, like the amygdala. So the idea is that maybe areas like the amygdala are involved in the processing of the emotional responses, but their activity can be regulated by other parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex. And that may be how it is that we go about regulating our emotional responses. So these authors were trying to ask whether there is a causal role for the prefrontal cortex in regulating our emotions.
They recruited 90 participants and these 90 people were given three sets of emotional images. And within each set, they were told to rate for each image how emotional they found it. And these images would be things like people being bullied, people being socially excluded. And in one set of images, they were told to just view them. In another block, they were told to try and reappraise them whilst viewing them. For example, "imagine how you might fail if this turned out differently?" And then in another block, they were told to watch the images, but to try and distract themselves -produce unrelated, neutral thoughts.
And what they found overall is that people are actually pretty good at regulating their emotional responses. So what you find is that people rate the pictures as significantly less negative when they're either reappraising them or when they're distracting themselves. So this behavioural manipulation, the no regulation vs. reappraisal vs. distraction has a really big impact on how negatively people feel the images are making them feel.
But the question is, what about this whole role of the prefrontal cortex? So what I haven't told you is that these 90 participants were divided randomly into three groups. And in one group, part of their prefrontal cortex was stimulated with TMS, which stands for transcranial magnetic stimulation. Coils essentially wrapped in wires and it's plugged into a very large power supply. And when you turn it on, it creates an electromagnet. And if you place it on the outside of the skull, it can stimulate cortex underneath the location that you're applying it to. So you can use it to stimulate parts of people's brains. And for one group, this transcranial magnetic stimulation or TMS was applied to their dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. So part of their prefrontal cortex. A second group had a different part of their prefrontal cortex stimulated for the TMS, called the ventral lateral prefrontal cortex. So that's ever so slightly lower than the first location. And a third group were a control group. And they receive what's called sham TMS, so a TMS wand which is placed on the top of their head, which we think won't have any impact on the prefrontal cortex.
Katie - What's the hypothesis? Is it that increasing activity in these brain areas will stimulate the brain and therefore you'll see an increased effect of this emotional regulation?
It's a very good question. If you read the TMS literature, you find that you get some studies where doing the TMS seems to make things worse. It seems to disrupt the activity of that area. But other types of TMS seem to improve things. So in this study they used what's called repetitive TMS. So before each block of images, for eight minutes, they would stimulate the respective part of the brain, at a 10 Hertz rhythm. So 10 blasts a second, essentially. So very, very rapid. And the idea behind that kind of TMS is that it might well provide a kind of facilitatory effect on brain activity.
Katie - And is that what they actually found?
Duncan - So they found out that those who had received the real deal TMS - so not the sham, the real TMS - to the prefrontal cortex rated pictures as significantly less negative than the control group. And interestingly, there was some differentiation between where the TMS coils were placed. So those with ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, that's the kind of slightly lower down the head stimulation, they showed the biggest drop in negative feelings during the reappraisal block. Whereas those whose stimulation had been delivered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, so a little bit higher, their stimulation showed the biggest drop in negative feelings during the distraction block.
Katie - What does that actually mean?
Duncan - So I think it means that stimulating prefrontal cortex in general will boost your ability to regulate emotional responses. And that there's some functional specialisation. So depending upon the strategy you're using to regulate your emotional responses, you're probably using slightly different parts of that brain network. If you're reappraising something, you're probably using the kind of ventral lateral area, if you're just distracting yourself, you're probably using the dorsolateral area, the area just above it.
Katie - How would you view the significance of this paper? Is this saying it's useful to know which bits of the brain are involved when people are, for example, reappraising a situation, or is this actually a suitable potential therapy for people who are really struggling with social pain?
Duncan - Well, it's certainly the first of those two options. It tells us some important information about the brain network involved in regulation of emotions. So everyone will be familiar with seeing in the press sort of pictures of brains with kind of colorful blobs in them. It's one thing to show that activity in a certain part of the brain is correlated with us doing something. That's really different from showing that it's causally involved in our ability to do it. And the really nice thing about this study is that it shows that these brain areas are causally involved in our ability to regulate our emotions. So that's really nice from a science perspective.
Now, the second thing is, is it useful from a therapy perspective? And you can imagine that there are conditions where people, for example, who have chronically low mood where that has been linked to the way that they appraise social encounters, that you could imagine that this could form part of some kind of therapy, but there's going to be some big hurdles to get over. Firstly, there's probably quite a lot of variability as to how effective the TMS is going to be across people. Secondly, it doesn't last for long. So the current setup is that you use the TMS for about eight minutes and then in the subsequent 10 minutes or so you do a block of pictures. So you're talking about quite short-lived effects potentially. So you need to find ways of making sure it lasts longer. And thirdly, I guess we'd want to see that it has a real effect in the real world, not just when someone's sat in a room, looking at pictures.
Katie - Who did they use for the study? And were these people any more or less sensitive than the general public to feeling social pain?
Duncan -They're not selected on the basis that these people have particular difficulties with the emotional pain.
Katie - I understand there's precedent for using TMS and that it's used in some cases of depression, right? Do you think it's a technique that would be suitable for everyone?
Duncan - Yeah. I suspect that it isn't for everybody. Having said that, we know that current treatments are only really effective for probably about half the people who have major depressive disorder. So it's important that we do explore alternative possibilities of ways that we can try and help those for whom current gold standard treatments are not being particularly effective.
Perceptual psychologist Helen Keyes has been looking at a British Journal of Social Psychology study about blagging. Does being someone who frequently blags make you more or less likely to be taken in by others’ blagging?
Helen - People who report that they frequently engage in lying behaviour also report that they themselves are very difficult to deceive. That is, they think they are better than average at detecting lies. But the evidence on this remains quite mixed. But blagging, particularly persuasive blagging where you're trying to persuade or impress someone, is a little bit different than outright lying. And there is some suggestion that this type of persuasive blagging is negatively related to cognitive ability and analytic thinking. Similarly, you might not be surprised to hear that our tendency to fall for blagging or for false information - particularly our tendency to write pseudo-profound made up buzzwords as actually profound - is also negatively related to cognitive ability and critical thinking. And because of this, the authors of this paper wanted to establish if those people doing the blagging are actually more receptive to blagging themselves, challenging the notion that you can't blag a blagger!
Katie - How did they try and find out what the relationship was?
Helen - So across a few studies, they looked at quite a large number of participants, anywhere between 200 and 400 participants per study. They looked at blagging frequency using a BS frequency scale - so self-report on how often you engaged in blagging behaviour. And they also looked at how receptive people were to blagging statements. Pseudo-profound statements which sound profound, but are entirely made up. An example of this would be, "we are in the midst of a high-frequency blossoming of interconnectedness that will give us access to the quantum soup itself". So entirely made up! But profound-sounding sentences. And they also used fake news headlines and looked at people's susceptibility to believe those headlines.
They found that the extent to which somebody engages in persuasive blagging in their own everyday lives was positively related to their susceptibility to blagging. In other words, frequent blaggers are more likely to fall for blagging themselves. However, this wasn't true for people who engaged in what we call evasive blagging. So the other type of blagging you might do that's not just designed to impress or persuade people, but evasive blagging, you might engage in it when you're essentially trying to avoid hurting someone's feelings or skirt around an issue. And they found that that type of evasive lagging wasn't at all linked to you being more susceptible to blagging. So those who engage in evasive blagging weren't more likely to fall for blagging themselves.
Katie - I've got to ask - are the authors confident that people have told the truth on these self-report measures?
Helen - That's very good question! It's only a self-report measure and it's really difficult to follow people around and see how much they are actually engaging in blagging in their everyday lives. And of course, people who tend to engage in evasive blagging may also maybe rate themselves as "of course I don't engage in this bravado or this persuasive blagging!". So we don't quite know,
So a second study that the authors did looked at whether frequent blagging and the susceptibility to fall for blagging was linked with people's cognitive ability. And they found that how much you engage in this persuasive impressing bravado blagging was negatively related to both cognitive ability and analytic thinking. And interestingly, again, this wasn't the case for evasive blagging. And it links really nicely into wider research that shows that people who are really good at lying, that's usually linked with higher intelligence. So this links back in with your ability to kind of create a lie or be evasive, is linked with higher intellectual ability. However, your ability to believe in profound statements and to come up with, you know, pseudo-random jargonistic statements was linked with lower cognitive ability.
In this study, the authors measured how frequently people engaged in blagging behaviour, but it's likely actually that bigger blaggers may not be better blaggers. In other words, people who are very good in general at lying or have high intellectual capacity, they mightn't be the people who engage most frequently in blagging behavior. So what this study measured was how frequently people blagged and that is what's linked with lower cognitive ability. So it may well be that people with lower cognitive ability are often in situations where they need to act up and impress and persuade using persuasive blagging. So that would be a really nice mechanism to explain these findings.
And another study they did found that if you're someone who engages a lot in this persuasive blagging, so trying to make yourself sound really impressive, you really struggled in particular to tell the difference between pseudo-profound statements and really profound statements.
Katie - Are you able to sum up the findings in general?
Helen - So essentially, those who engage quite frequently in persuasive blagging, are very much themselves more susceptible to blagging. So you can indeed blag a blagger. This however is not true for those who engage in evasive blagging. In a perfect world, you would have other people's ratings of the blaggers themselves. Or indeed you could even follow someone around for a week and record their behaviour. That will be so research intensive that it's unlikely for that to have happened.
Katie - Okay. So we are relying on self-reporting. And finally, how significant do you think this is?
Helen - I think it's nice because it shows that in a way we have a blagging blind spot. So we may think that we ourselves are hugely profound and persuasive without taking time to reflect that we may be the very people who are falling for this pseudo-profound language all around us. So it helps us to be a bit more reflective about what we are taking in.
The other thing I would like to add is that blagging is really dangerous because even though the initial blag or the initial BS might be intentional, the spread of it is often not. So people who are very receptive to blagging and BS may very well believe what it is that they're spreading and be taken in and therefore spread that information much further. So I think this susceptibility to blagging is really quite interesting and would be good to follow up on and look further into what personality traits, what cognitive traits in people make them quite susceptible to blagging. And what it is that can be done to particularly tap into that population and to help them understand the facts of the matter a bit better.
18:51 - Life on pause - lockdown boredom experiences
Life on pause - lockdown boredom experiences
Julian Haladyn, OCAD University, Canada
Art historian Julian Haladyn from OCAD University is fascinated with boredom and recently expressed his views on covid lockdown-related boredom, in an article on The Conversation website. And Katie Haylor asked Julian to elaborate...
Julian - It's a little bit of a mash between personal experience, as you say, and trying to reconcile some of the work that I've done with boredom in the past. This idea, if we could define boredom at it's most basic as a kind of a lack of interest at a very core level of the self, what I've noticed with a lot of my colleagues, friends, and in lot of the media-related texts, even critical texts that I read, there seems to be a general sense in which this is no longer just a singular event. You know, you go to a movie you're bored, you get up and you leave. Whereas I find with at least a couple of my colleagues, I've had conversations with them about bingeing television shows, and they would tell me that they just can't maintain a level of interest in it. And so I say, "so you stopped watching it?". And they say, no, they just started watching five others. And there seems to be this tendency to - what I talk about in the article is - a folding where instead of one experience, it becomes multiple over and over. And for me, this is why I ended up deciding to kind of give it its own little term Covid boredom because of this very unique and interesting way of folding different experiences of boredom on top of each other.
Katie - You are an academic and you teach students, you relate boredom in the article to this fear of missing out on things that are going on or might be going on in the future.
Julian - I will say, I do think that it relates to more than just younger students and, um, young scholars. I think it is a larger phenomenon. Uh, I know a number of, uh, retired professors who feel like, you know, especially at an older age that they're missing out on vital years of their lives. But in terms of younger students, this has been a phenomenal issue in the way that it's asked questions of them that I don't know - I've never had to deal with those. And that is, you know, do I go on to grad school now? Do I put it off? Do I do my PhD? Do I put it off? And there is a general sense in which for a lot of these students and some of them have spoken out and there are a lot of articles written on this, they really do feel like their lives are completely being put on hold. And this is not only in education, but you know, again, through many articles, talking about problems of dating, talking about issues getting on with your career, doing basic things, all of these are paused in a really key way.
Katie - You mentioned the idea of life being on pause. And from what I understand, you're actually focusing on this idea of a paused kind of here and now, and you're writing a book about this. So what are you hoping to achieve?
Julian - To capture something that feels very unique to me. In the research that I've done on writing and previous pandemics I haven't seen it either. There seems to be two different kinds of writing on pandemics. There seems to be ones that focus on how this came about, diagnosing it, giving a pre-history, and then those that are predictive that look to the future, the kind of past. And in Covid I found this exactly the same. I've read a number of books on this. And at some moment in time, almost all of the authors will say "in a post-Covid world" or "after Covid". And it became really a big interest for me to not think about that and to try to accept where I am now and write about that. And the concept of the pause became the kind of fulcrum for me because of the fact that it was a term that's been used a number of times in the media. It was used by my own institution. We were put on pause. The national hockey league, the NHL, they were put on pause. And just this idea of the pause button, which is just such a fascinating concept. You hit pause, and then the assumption is when you hit the pause button again, everything just continues where it was. And I think that very problematic conception is leading to a lot of the psychological issues with this prolonged pandemic that a lot of people are faced with.
Katie - I guess the reality is a lot of things aren't going to be the same when you un-pause life, as it were.
Julian - Exactly. And I think at some level we all know this and I think it's becoming increasingly a reality, but at the same time, making that reality part of our own lives is not easy. And I think until we're forced to do it, until there is a post-Covid world, all we can do is just imagine. And there's a lot of writing on imagination in pandemics and the way that imagination runs wild, and it can do pretty crazy things, which is where boredom also comes in as a kind of foil for imagination.
24:23 - Boredom isn't depression-lite
Boredom isn't depression-lite
John Eastwood, York University, Canada
John Eastwood is a clinical psychologist and researcher into cognitive science. Katie Haylor asked John to unpick a few bits and bobs of boredom...
John - Boredom occurs when our mental capacities are under utilised and we desperately want to be doing something, but don't want to do anything that's available. It's like we can't muster up an actionable desire, you might say, and boredom is associated with slow passage of time, difficulty concentrating, a sense of meaninglessness and also oscillating energy levels - maybe restless at one moment and then listless the next. Boredom is importantly different from apathy. When we're apathetic, we're content with the status quo. And we sort of desire for nothing. Boredom is also different from frustration because when we're frustrated, we have a clear desire to be doing something in particular, but we're blocked in that pursuit of that activity. Tolstoy famously summed up boredom as the desire for desires.
Katie - Why does this happen? I've always viewed it as a motivator to find the thing that I want to do. I don't know if that's accurate. Why do we get bored?
John - Well, we can speculate about this. You know, of course it's hard to say for sure, we can try to look at its function and how it operates. And I would say that boredom, like all uncomfortable feelings is natural. And it serves a purpose. The key is to hear its message properly and to respond well. And we often don't respond well when boredom occurs. I would say that boredom tells us that we're not being agentic, that is we're not effectively making choices, executing our intentions. In a nutshell, we're not being self-determined. The discomfort of boredom ensures that we don't linger in this state of stagnation.
Katie - What factors might mean someone's more likely to get bored? Does it kind of break down in any way by demographic?
John - So we can think about boredom being caused by both external factors or by internal factors. External factors - boredom occurs when what's on offer doesn't connect with our values, is either too easy or difficult for us to engage with, lacks the variety that we crave, or takes away our choice or our freedom. So you could say that boredom ensues when there's a mismatch or a misalignment between us and our environment. And some of us might find ourselves in those kinds of environments more so than others. However, we're partially responsible too, like what we bring to the table matters in terms of our personality or in terms of psychological factors. People who are afraid of their feelings or avoid their feelings or lack facility with their feelings, they're more likely to be bored. The idea is that emotions are like compass points that orient us or guide us in life. And when our compass isn't working, we have a hard time moving towards valued activities.
We also know that people who have weaker attention abilities, or they have executive functioning problems, are more likely to be bored. We also know that our biology matters. So some of us have a lower kind of resting state of energy or alertness. And so we need more excitement or more stimulation from our environment to become energised enough to focus and to pay attention. You know, like the risk takers among us, right? People who want to seek thrills and jump out of airplanes to feel alive and to feel that excitement. And so people who are more of those sensation-seeking types are more likely to be bored. And it may be because they're trying to up-regulate their energy levels to be able to focus and attend more effectively. Like love, boredom is in the eye of the beholder. You know, what might lead one person to be terribly bored, someone else might really be able to find a way to engage with that activity.
Katie - Earlier, you were talking about boredom, not being apathy and not being frustration, but actually both of those emotions resonate with me in terms of potential depressive symptoms. What is the link between being bored and being depressed?
John - Well, we know that people who say they are bored or say they're depressed are more likely to express also the other emotional state. We also know that they predict one another over time. Now, the stronger direction of prediction over time seems to be boredom at time one predicting depression at time two. Now there's some evidence that it can also go the other way so that if you're depressed that time one you may be bored at time two. We don't know for sure why there is this tight association between the two. It may be that boredom is a risk factor for subsequent depression. So when you're bored, you're disengaged from meaningful and satisfying activity. And for those who are at risk for depression, that might be a dangerous place to be. You know, as you withdraw from the external world, you might start to ruminate and engage in depressive kinds of thinking, uh, that could lead you down towards a depressive episode. So that's certainly one possibility.
But there may be other variables that both cause depression and cause boredom. For example, we may look at certain kinds of motivational styles - high behavioural inhibition, people who are sort of very timid and cautious tend to withdraw from the world because they want to minimise pain or minimise problems. And by turtling in into that little protective shell, you might avoid pain, but you also set yourself up for increased boredom. And that could also be a factor contributing to depression. And there are other possibilities related to motivation and self control as well. But, you know, to be honest, we don't know for sure why the two are so closely related. And we also importantly know that they're different. Boredom is not a mild version of depression. They have very different defining features and our self-report tools that we use to measure both of them have been shown to be psychometrically distinct. And what that simply means is that we can do some fancy statistics and show that our boredom tool is not getting confused and actually picking up depression or vice versa. They're actually cleanly assessing discrete things, boredom and depression.
During the pandemic the thing that we might go to quickly in our minds and say, "Oh, well, I'm bored because I have fewer opportunities for things to do". And indeed, you know, it's hard to want to do what's available when there are fewer options, right? So you can get caught in that desire bind we spoke of earlier. But there are other factors that we know contribute to boredom that might be occurring during this pandemic. People who feel that their life lacks meaning, lacks any kind of organising principle, are more likely to be bored. And, you know, that's been been shown even in the lab. During the pandemic it's sort of like the rug has been pulled out from under us, right. Things we thought we could count on, things we thought were solid, things that we thought made sense are kind of up in the air. That is maybe a less commonly thought of contributor to boredom during the pandemic time.
Another one is emotional trauma. People who go through traumatic events actually report more boredom. And that again, might be very surprising for people to think about. But if, you think about what happens during an emotional trauma, people often become numb or kind of emotionally flat. It's like they disengage from their emotions. And then because they're numb, they're then without their orienting mechanism to help them move towards meaningful activities. This is one of the thing that we've been studying during the pandemic ourselves and our research hasn't been published yet. We're just finishing the analysis and the write-up of our results. But so far, what we're finding is - we did a longitudinal study where we tracked people over time - people who had the most emotional upheaval and difficulty because of the trauma in their life, because they had this difficulty at time one, we then looked at time two, to see how well they were able to regulate their emotions. And then at time three, we looked at how bored they were. And what we found is this pathway from emotional upheaval, emotional trauma to poor emotion regulation, to enhanced boredom.
33:48 - What does a bored brain look like?
What does a bored brain look like?
James Danckert, University of Waterloo
Cognitive neuroscientist James Danckert from the University of Waterloo knows all about the bored brain. And he spoke to Katie Haylor...
James - There's really very little so far that's been done on the neuroscience of boredom, on the brain signals that are associated with boredom. We have a handful of studies that look at the electrical signals that come from the brain when we make people bored. Those have sort of variable results. And then we have a handful of studies that have put people in MRI scanners and looked at the brain activity associated with boredom in that instance. And what we know from that is that a particular network of brain areas is commonly activated when people are bored. And this is a network that's called the default mode network. And it's a group of brain areas that are associated when there's nothing outside there in the world for you to do right now. So think about things like daydreaming or mind wandering or things that you have to do in the future. You don't have a task in front of you right now. And so you sort of reflect internally. The thing that's interesting about finding that part of the brain or that network in the brain activated when you're bored, is that typically there is something for you to do when you're bored.
And so when we looked at this, we had people watch a movie of two guys hanging laundry. And so there was something for you to watch, something for you to try desperately to engage in, but it was so boring that you activated this network that's normally associated with instances where there's nothing for you to do. And in our neuro-imaging study, when we looked at the boredom mood induction, we found that there was one particular part of the brain, the part known as the anterior insular cortex, that was down-regulated when people were bored. So what I mean by that is that that area was reduced in activation relative to other parts of the network when people were bored. And we know that that part of the brain is important for representing things that we think out there in the world are behaviourally relevant to us. You know, if something happens in the world that we think, "Oh, I better attend to that", or "I should pay more attention to a particular event in the world". The anterior insular cortex is often important for signaling that importance, that need to attend to something. And so when we make people bored, that part of the brain just seems to shut off. And so there's a lot more to do to try and understand what might be going on in that part of the brain when we're bored. But it's certainly one place that we're interested in looking more deeply.
Katie - Curious to see just how boring this video James was talking about was, I gave it a watch.
So there's two blokes with a laundry era and a bunch of presumably wet clothes. It's quite a mundane activity. They are very slowly hanging the clothes... Yep... There's not much to say... It's pretty dull... There's still an enormous pile of clothes on the airer. And they're just moving around one or two pieces... This is painfully slow laundry hanging... I'm getting annoyed, just watching it because I could do this so much faster... I really losing interest in this now...
Katie - James, I have watched that video. It was extremely boring. I go as far as to say painfully boring, actually, because the blokes putting up the laundry were not doing it in a very efficient way. I found myself getting slightly angry and had to stop, but I guess that's probably the point.
James - I have to confess I've never watched the movie all the way through, because why would I? I don't want to make myself bored! And my graduate student Colleen Merrifield made the video for a study that we published in 2014. But I have been told many times, particularly by women, that the two guys hanging laundry are doing a horrible job. So when I heard that I made myself watch at least 15 seconds of it. And to my eye, unsurprisingly, I couldn't figure out what they were doing so badly.
Katie - What?!
James - Like I said, I only watched 15 seconds of it.
Katie - So actually looking at the bored brain can tell you a certain amount, what is understood about boredom from analysing people's behaviour?
James - We look at this from the point of view of what we call individual differences. You know, what is the sort of boredom-prone person personality like? And there's still, again, a lot more to do, but we know for instance, that people who struggle with self-control tend to also be boredom-prone. We know that people who are boredom-prone also struggle with other aspects of their mental health. Rates of depression and anxiety are higher among people who are boredom-prone. And there are other things that are associated with being boredom prone like neuroticism, for example. So people who tend to worry a lot about what happens in their lives also tend to be a little bit more boredom-prone. And so we have some sense, some picture of what the individual differences are that are associated with being boredom-prone. That kind of work is correlational in nature. So we don't know about causes so well. I mean, I can't tell you really what causes one person to be more boredom-prone than another. I can really only talk about the relationships between different variables.
39:43 - How can we deal with boredom well?
How can we deal with boredom well?
John Eastwood, York University, Canada
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.