This ranking makes sense to me. Boredom is incredibly uncomfortable. Commonly experienced as irritable restlessness, boredom is something people will go to great lengths to avoid—in one study, most people chose to self-administer electric shocks rather than sit alone with their thoughts for six to 15 minutes. In this sense, boredom is a motivating force, which is how researchers differentiate it from depression.
Read: All the cozy little things keep me going
People are so motivated to avoid boredom that they’ll often take unfortunate shortcuts to do so. In The Music Man, Harold Hill cons a whole town just by insinuating that boredom will lead its citizens’ sons to play pool, and from there head down a slippery slope to booze and consorting with “scarlet women.” Restless in self-isolation, you might take a similar trajectory toward bad habits: eat snacks you’re not hungry for, check your phone 800 times, drink too much (happy hour, in fact, was a Navy invention to give sailors a break from the monotony of life at sea), pick a fight, and finally post about it all online, perhaps set to Tyga and Curtis Roach’s painfully catchy quarantine anthem, “Bored in the House.”
If you haven’t done any of these things over the course of social isolation, I’d wager you’ve at least had to deal with someone who has. Arlene Soto, who’s raising seven kids in Brooklyn, told me that she recently had to ban the floor game Twister after it devolved into a wrestling match between her stir-crazy sons. “Their energy,” she said, “is at a thousand.”
Boredom spurs people to do dumb things because it makes them itch to do something, anything, other than what they’re actually doing at the moment, whether that’s working from home or going to school at home or exercising at home or … well, we’re home a lot these days. Such itchiness is what makes boredom so difficult. It’s also what makes it great.
Read: You have a moral responsibility to post your boring life on Instagram
Boredom happens to us for a reason. The mood is highly correlated to feeling trapped—in a dead-end job, a community we don’t connect to, or even just a crappy conversation—so our experiencing it in mandated seclusion makes sense. Boredom’s “itch” is how our brain alerts us to the fact that we’ve lost the sense, even temporarily, of being the protagonist in our own life. “Boredom is an emotional signal that makes people very aware that in their current situation there is a lack of purpose,” the social psychologist Wijnand Van Tilburg told me when I interviewed him for my book about boredom. This annoying feeling is actually a sophisticated alert system, a sort of inner (and free!) life coach tapping us on the shoulder to suggest that we might want to change something.
Unfortunately, we can’t always improve the situation right away. Finding a new job or making a new friend takes time and effort; when it comes to sheltering in place, staying put is a moral imperative, even when it doesn’t feel good. Plus, achieving any kind of real life change almost always involves aspects beyond our control, whether we’re waiting for an email response or waiting out a recession. Seeking a quick fix in some kind of diversion is easier, and at least temporarily satisfying. Nothing is inherently wrong with this—sometimes you’ve got to blow off steam via, say, an episode of Terrace House (my chosen boredom therapy, ironically, as the show has been described as “hypnotically boring”). But boredom serves its purpose only when we don’t immediately quash it, when we take a beat to see where our mind goes when it’s trying to evade the feeling.