For college students like me, feeling bored is a universal experience that most often strikes when we find ourselves reading arduously long articles for school. For you, maybe it’s a day with no pressing errands or obligations, and nothing to idly pass the time with.
In order to alleviate this sense of boredom, we might try to divert some time to our hobbies, like painting or playing a musical instrument. Or we may use that time to catch up with an old friend or follow a new recipe. However, a new study has uncovered a counterintuitive pathway to avoiding boredom: being more self-compassionate.
Researchers led by Muireann K. O’Dea at the University of Limerick conducted three studies where they surveyed adults and undergraduate students on their levels of self-compassion, proneness to boredom, and meaning in life. Self-compassion means being kind toward yourself, not beating yourself up for your faults and mistakes, and not harshly judging yourself when you’re struggling—but recognizing that everyone struggles at times.
Through all three studies, they found that people who are more self-compassionate tend to have a greater sense of meaning in life and, in turn, be less prone to boredom. They also found that even across people’s daily lives, they are typically less bored at times when they’re feeling more self-compassionate.
“People long for and infuse their lives with meaning in many ways, with self-compassion being one potential avenue,” the researchers write. “Self-compassion acts as a psychological resource against boredom [which] adds to the body of literature that posits that self-compassion is beneficial for well-being and for coping with psychological threats to the self.”
How could self-compassion possibly increase our sense of meaning in life? This is a correlational study, so the researchers can’t say for sure that it does, but there are reasons to believe so. Being self-compassionate helps us satisfy our needs for self-worth and belonging, because it’s an antidote to self-criticism and to feeling alone in our suffering. And self-worth and belonging are important sources of meaning in life.
“Self-compassion encourages us to assume our self-worth instead of evaluating it,” O’Dea explains. “Furthermore, self-compassion involves recognizing individual suffering as part of the common human experience. This can reduce feelings of isolation, increase feelings of connection, and foster social relationships.”
Being self-compassionate is hard, especially amid the stress of the pandemic, working from home, and modern life in general. But it is something that can be improved over time with meditations and exercises. To get started, you might try writing yourself a self-compassionate letter, taking a self-compassion break during a moment of difficulty, or trying to treat yourself the same way you would treat a friend going through hard times.
The process of becoming more self-compassionate toward yourself is something that requires time and care, O’Dea says, “consistently offering kindness to ourselves, talking to ourselves in a non-judgmental manner, and viewing our struggles as common human experiences.”
Boredom and meaninglessness are common human frustrations, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves when we’re feeling them, either—and that kind gesture in and of itself might even help us feel better.