As I write this post, my family and I have been in self-quarantine for sixty-seven days. Except for the occasional, socially distanced walk around the block, we have stayed inside, becoming Zoom pros and trying to maintain our work and virtual school schedules as best we can. Surprisingly, our diminished circumstances have not produced the mind-numbing boredom I might have predicted. True, many people struggle. But others are coping well—even thriving—while cooped inside, upping their baking game, learning new instruments and languages, or taking up urban gardening. The unexpected social experiment that is underway around the globe may teach us much about human nature, including what makes us prone to boredom—or helps us resist it.
New research indicates that feeling bored can be a function of our environment, and the opportunities it affords us. The study, published earlier this month in Cognition and Emotion, suggests that our experience of tedium doesn’t just depend on the task at hand, but on whether we feel we’re missing out on better ways to spend or time.
To reach this conclusion, Andriy Struk and his colleagues at University of Waterloo, Canada, and Duke University, recruited over two hundred volunteers and assigned them randomly to one of two rooms. One room was bare, containing a chair, an empty bookshelf, a chalk board with no chalk, a filing cabinet, and a desk. The other room contained these same items, plus numerous other interesting objects with which people normally interact: chalk for the chalk board, a laptop computer with a Google front page already opened, a partially completed Lego car puzzle, a partly completed jig-saw puzzle, three sheets of blank paper, and a set of crayons. Participants in the two rooms received the same instructions to stay seated and refrain from engaging with the environment, using just their thoughts to entertain themselves for a fifteen-minute period.
Because the participants’ task was the same in each room, one might have expected them to experience comparable levels of boredom. This was not the case, however. Instead, people in the fun-filled room reported higher levels of boredom than those in the room devoid of amusements. That is, the environment that presented the best alternative activities was more boring than the environment that offered no entertainment.
Counterintuitive as they might seem, the results made sense to the research team. Boredom is more likely to arise when opportunity costs are high; that is, when there is high potential value of engaging in activities other than your own. In other words, a main component of boredom is FOMO—the unease you feel when you realize you could be doing something far more exciting with your time.
The findings have interesting repercussions for those of us living in semi-isolation in the current pandemic. Because boredom is linked to the presence of available alternatives, having fewer options outside our homes (with many entertainment venues closed or offering reduced services for the time being) means that staying inside is less insipid than if there were lots of engaging opportunities outdoors.
The current lockdown scenario “approximates our empty room condition,” Struk says. “A person who had to work double shifts and missed going out with friends may feel less boredom now” than they did before the pandemic. Yet, individual circumstances matter. “Somebody who lost their job, lives alone, and spent most days at the pub may have a worse time during the lockdown than people who worked at home before the pandemic and are now quarantined with their families.”
Struk also worries about the risks that some people may take to avoid dullness during the lockdown. “A lot of participants broke the rules [of our experiments] despite the instructions” he says. “Ignoring safety guidelines and seeking out prohibited activities in real life is not an adaptive way to cope with boredom.”