The panic hit her first.
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 adviser 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, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus. “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 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 the University of Essex in England. “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 in England 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 past 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 non-bored control group: come up with as many uses as possible for plastic cups. The bored did better than the non-bored.
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.
“Boredom isn’t good or bad,” said John Eastwood, who runs the Boredom Lab at York University in Canada and is co-author of “Out of My Skull,” a forthcoming book on boredom. “It’s what we do with that signal.”
That’s a confusing moment, especially amid the pandemic, with news outlets and social media publishing endless lists of things to do with all the newfound time, from the juiciest TV to downloading hours of podcasts — a digital bounty that Newton, thankfully, didn’t encounter.
“When you don’t have a lot going on, you might say, ‘Wow, I’m going to binge watch Netflix. This is perfect,’ ” Eastwood said. “That will get rid of the feeling in the short term. But treating yourself like an empty vessel to fill with a compelling experience makes you more ripe for boredom down the road.”
“Because what you’ve done,” Eastwood said, “is you’ve failed to become the author of your own life.”
So what should bored people do?
First of all, children and adults should embrace boredom, the experts say. When the brain is bored, it is magical, finding connections, devising ideas, making plans. Remember why you doodle during meetings. Because you’re bored. The doodles are creative, even if they aren’t pretty.
Another suggestion: Parents shouldn’t create too much structure for their children. If they’re bored, let them be bored. But they also need to create the right conditions for boredom to be meaningful, and that means limiting screen time. (This reporter, who has two children, realizes this will be painful at first.)
“There is literally so much time with absolutely nothing to do,” Mann said. “Their minds should be wondering and wandering. What will they come up with? There’s enormous potential that we risk losing here if we don’t capitalize on it.”
As for Westgate and her new doctoral student, they came up with a survey that they are sending to bored people, asking them how they are spending their time and why and when they chose to do certain activities. If they were bored, how did they deal with it? Did they do something new for the first time?
“This is like one of those party game prompts,” Westgate said. “Like, ‘You’re stuck on a deserted island. What book do you read?’ ”
Only now, the question is real.
“You’re stuck at home for weeks, possibly months,” she said. “What do you do? That’s what we’re living.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated where Wijnand A.P. van Tilburg is a professor.