Now that we are essentially in lockdown mode, stuck in our homes, with not a whole lot to do, the temptation to eat anything and everything out of boredom is high on the list of “things you should not do”
Everyone from time to time eats out of boredom. That 6-hour layover in the airport, stuck in the house on a rainy Sunday: we’ve all done it. For some, boredom just triggers a desire to reach for food.
As a personal trainer and life coach dating back 34 years, I have always preached; do not eat when you’re bored. But even I know this advice is useless without an alternative plan of action. Being bored stems from a need that isn’t being met. Now food is not the best solution to that need, but for most, it is a quick-fix.
In the absence of a solution, most of us will reach for the quick-fix. Even though we know we probably shouldn’t and will most likely regret it if we do. The fact is that most people will, and getting all righteous about it won’t help anyone actually get healthier.
What Is Boredom?
Boredom is sometimes caused by having “nothing to do,” but that’s not always the case, and many people can do “nothing” without feeling bored. Finding “something to do” won’t necessarily cure boredom. Most of us have been bored at work or at school, where we did have something to do, but the thing we had to do was boring.
Boredom also isn’t caused by repetition. I have a deep desire to be as healthy as I can, therefore, I regularly attend the very repetitive gym workouts (e.g. training the same body, with the same routine, doing the same exercises) but don’t find them boring.
Different things are boring for different people. Some people find exercise boring; for other people, it’s the highlight of their day. Some people think fashion is boring; other people live for it. Nothing is “boring” by itself; it depends on what you think about it.
The cornerstone of boredom isn’t empty time, or repetition, or having to do any one particular thing.
“The real cause of (most) boredom is a feeling of meaninglessness”
That’s why two people can do the exact same job, but one person finds it boring and one person finds it interesting. The bored person thinks the job is pointless and silly; the interested person thinks it’s relevant and important. Pointless or meaningless things are boring, even if they’re new. Meaningful things aren’t boring, even if they’re repetitive.
But if boredom is a problem of meaning, why do people eat when they’re bored? Eating isn’t terribly meaningful (in the big picture of life) to most of us.
Boredom Eating is a Quick-Fix
Junk food can distract you from a boring situation…but it’s only a distraction, not a solution.
Junk food is basically a quick-fix that distracts us from whatever boring (meaningless, pointless) situation we’re in. It doesn’t actually fix the problem, because junk food isn’t very meaningful for most of us. But it does provide a distraction and some kind of feeling.
Boredom eating fits the modern lifestyle, where many of us have to concentrate on boring things for long periods of time. People who are bored at work can’t just “find something else to do” unless they don’t care about paying their rent that month. But they can have a snack while they work and at least take away the boredom a little bit that way.
Eating is cheap, and “fun food” is always available. Eating is low-effort and easy, even when you’re tired or rushed on top of being bored.
Food is a cheap, easily available kind of sensation that you can experience whenever you have “nothing to do,” or even while you’re doing some boring job that you have to do. The modern world traps a lot of us in boring jobs, and then makes it very easy to self-medicate boredom with food, and so food is what we use.
Managing Boredom Eating
If you’re Bored Because you Have “Nothing to Do”
Learn to get comfortable with empty time. There will always be times in your life (plane rides, rainy days…) when you don’t have outside entertainment. Phone batteries die, books aren’t always available. But having “nothing to do” doesn’t have to be boring.
Being able to enjoy time alone with your thoughts is a rare skill – and definitely becoming rarer in this age of smartphones – but if you can do it. It can be very uncomfortable at first but stick with it.
Watch a tree sway in the wind,
Go for a walk,
Listen to the birds,
Go to the seashore where your thoughts can wander,
You can just contemplate whatever question or problem comes to mind.
Once you’re OK with being alone with your self, you can step back and think about what you really want to do, without being tempted to rush for the very first thing you see just to escape the boredom. Chances are good that it won’t be food.
If You’re Bored Because of What you Have to Do.
Assuming that you’ve given the boring situation a fair chance, that you’ve tried to engage with it and find something interesting about it, and that you’ve unfortunately failed, what to do?
For the short term, some non-food quick-fixes try music – just like food, music increases levels dopamine in the brain, so it might do the same job of giving your brain something to latch onto.
If your life is continuously boring, then change it! You deserve better than constant meaningless boredom.
Get enough sleep.
When you’re tired, it’s easy to get bored because you don’t have enough energy to really pay attention to anything properly and engage with it. If you’re well-rested, it’s easier to get into things and find the interesting aspects of a situation, even a situation you expected to be boring.
Putting it all together...
Most people will take just about any sensation to escape from boredom, but eating is socially acceptable and widely available, so in practice, food is a popular choice. But eating is just a quick-fix; it doesn’t actually add any meaning to your life, so it doesn’t solve the root problem of boredom.
Finding “something to do” can help alleviate boredom and prevent boredom eating if that “something” is meaningful to you or enjoyable for its own sake. But it’s also very useful to get comfortable doing “nothing” and just letting your mind relax – having “nothing to do” doesn’t have to be boring.
Non-food distractions can help prevent boredom eating in the short term, but if you’re constantly bored, maybe something bigger needs to change in your life.