An interesting parenting column in today’s New York Times has me thinking about whether boredom is just another name for stress dressed in sweatpants. Although not a parent of small children anymore, I can certainly relate to the excruciating sameness we are all experiencing. It’s also combined with the inability to meet some of our basic human needs such as anticipation, order and control, and touch.
Wherever possible, it’s helpful to search out little ways to feel happier. Could be planning a trip, varying your routine even if only to get takeout from somewhere new, moving some furniture around, calling a friend rather than emailing, etc. But let’s not get all Pollyanna about this — the seemingly-endless pandemic sucks. Read on!
By Jessica Grose April 7, 2021 Updated 2:57 p.m. ET
Before the pandemic, I found comfort in the routine of my life and the rhythms of my family — what Nora Ephron once called the “peanut-butter-and-jellyness” of days with children. I liked the morning thunderdome of getting the children dressed and fed and breaking up some fights along the way, dropping them at school and taking the 20-minute walk to the subway. When I got off the subway, I had an array of coffee shops to choose from, which at the time did not seem exciting, but after a year of pandemic isolation would probably feel like bungee jumping.
At this point my commute is the five feet from my bed to my desk, and I am somehow both tired and agitated when I start work each day. My kids never leave the house, except when we go to the same three parks in our neighborhood. Sometimes when I go running outside, I fantasize about just … not stopping, my eyes thirsty for some new horizon.
In other words, I’m so freaking bored.
I’m not the only parent — or nonparent, to be sure — having trouble with the monotony of this moment. A study conducted early in the pandemic of more than 4,000 French people found that though respondents felt an increase of stress and fear, they mostly experienced a “slowing down of time” that was attributed to boredom and sadness.
“I’ve particularly struggled with boredom this year, in fact it resurfaced so many of the mixed emotions of maternity leave for me, feeling lonely and bored but simultaneously guilty for not treasuring every moment with my daughter,” said Jenny Brewer, the mom of a toddler in London. She said she feels her brain cells “ebbing away,” and like she’s not achieving anything at work. “I am so used to organizing days out and time with friends and family, that when it was taken away I was at an utter loss for how to kill the hours,” she said.
The way Ms. Brewer describes boredom is actually very close to the way boredom researchers — yes, there are boredom researchers — have defined the emotion. “‘Feeling unchallenged’ and perceiving one’s ‘activities as meaningless’ is central to boredom,” according to a study by Wijnand Van Tilburg, an experimental social psychologist at the University of Essex in England.
Or, as Leo Tolstoy put it, boredom is “the desire for desires.”
“The bored person does want to do something quite desperately, but does not want to do anything in particular,” said John D. Eastwood, an associate professor of clinical psychology at York University in Toronto, and co-author of “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom.” Boredom is distinct from apathy, because if you’re apathetic, you don’t want to do anything at all — but if you’re bored, you’re both restless and lethargic, Dr. Eastwood said.
Even in normal times, boredom is a very common emotion — a study of almost 4,000 American adults found that 63 percent felt bored at least once in a 10-day sampling period. While most cases of boredom are mild, chronic boredom can metastasize into depression, poor health behavior like drug use, or risk-taking behavior, said Dr. Van Tilburg. The causes of boredom are multifaceted, but a lack of control over your situation is a common one. He added, “There’s research that shows when you’re limited in your control over the situation — that intensifies boredom.”
Parents of very small kids may find our pandemic lot particularly stifling because it’s both repetitive and involuntary — we have no choice about keeping up the routines for our little ones, who cannot do things for themselves. Emily Lyn-Sue, a stay-at-home mom of two in Miami, said that while her husband and older son have outlets outside the home with work and school, she feels isolated and bored at home with her 3-year-old. “We speak an entirely different language that no one else understands. We are literally on an island alone, together — he is my Wilson and I am his Tom Hanks,” she said, referring to the relationship Hanks’ character develops with a volleyball while shipwrecked in the movie “Cast Away.”
Knowing that many of us may not be able to have much control over our movements for at least the next few months, how do we try to alleviate our boredom? First, the researchers I spoke to said it’s important to acknowledge there’s no easy fix for our doldrums — so much of what is happening right now is beyond our control, and the vaccines are just beginning to be tested in children under 12, so we may not be able to make big moves just yet.
That said, there are small changes you can make to break the monotony. James Danckert, a professor of psychology at the University of Waterloo in Ontario and the co-author with Dr. Eastwood of “Out of My Skull,” said that because boredom can result from a lack of control over your life, finding even small ways to assert your agency can make you feel more engaged. For me, that means sometimes walking to a restaurant in the neighborhood to pick up lunch rather than making myself the same sad desk salad every workday.
Dr. Danckert also suggested finding some joy in the minutiae of a regular activity; he quoted Andy Warhol, who said, “You need to let the little things that would ordinarily bore you suddenly thrill you.” To be honest, I have struggled with this approach. When I took my younger daughter to a place we call “toy park” — a park filled with discarded and half-broken toys, which she loves — I tried paying close attention to the interactions of the children and the interplay of light from the spring sun breaking through the trees. But boredom won out, and I ended up looking at Twitter.
One bit of advice that resonated more with me came from Dr. Van Tilburg, who emphasized that boredom doesn’t just have to be a negative thing — it can also be a wake-up call encouraging you to find activities that are more meaningful.
I am by nature sort of a hermit, but pandemic isolation has stretched the limits of my introversion. This weekend, we saw relatives I adore for an outdoor Easter egg hunt. Just 90 minutes of warm interaction with these beloved adults made me feel so happy and alive that I was smiling for the rest of the day.
As the weather gets warmer here in the Northeast and more of my peers are inoculated, I am planning more get-togethers, with and without my kids. Whenever I drop back into the doldrums among those discarded toys, I will think about all the walks and dinners and hugs on the horizon.