Boredom in the Pandemic: Living With Lockdown 2.0
How to deal better with pandemic boredom.
Posted Jan 08, 2021
In early July last year, we wrote about learning from pandemic boredom. We — in Ontario, Canada — had just had restrictions eased somewhat from the earliest stages of the pandemic; the weather was improving and cases were dropping. Things were looking up. And some of us had even managed to be energized and excited to take on new things during the pandemic, learn a new language, learn to bake sourdough, or even tackle that novel we’d always been meaning to write.
We now know that the second wave, as predicted, was worse than the first, and in Ontario at least we find ourselves back in lockdown. We may have baked a few pretty darn good loaves of sourdough, but are we fluent in Spanish? Has the novel progressed? And if not, what are we to do with ourselves now that the Groundhog Day of lockdown is upon us?
What we might be discovering is that our initial enthusiasm in lockdown 1.0 might have been a little overreaching. Staying home didn’t mean finding all kinds of free time. Working from home while trying to manage our kids' online education and keeping our pets out of our Zoom meetings, meant we felt like there was less time. So instead of achieving those goals we thought were within our grasp, we found ourselves exhausted, under strain, and perhaps feeling just a little guilty.
In lockdown 2.0, with the holidays firmly behind us, perhaps we can learn from lockdown 1.0 and try to deal with boredom differently this time around.
In that original blog post, we focused on what it is that boredom — during a pandemic or otherwise — was actually signaling. That when we’re bored, we are in a state of wanting — we need to find something to engage with that matters to us. What makes boredom feel so bad is that we are struggling to satisfy that desire, and in that struggle, we are confronted with two truths: that we are not exercising our need for agency and that what we are doing is not particularly meaningful.
In a lockdown, we might feel that the cause of these two unpleasant realities is obvious — we can’t go anywhere or do anything we would normally want to do! But there is something more to it than this. There’s plenty we could do around our own homes (how many of you redecorated some part of your house or Marie Kondoed things from top to bottom? And yes, we just used her name as a verb!).
It’s more about the feeling that we have not chosen these things; they have been foisted on us by the imposition of lockdown. We know there are things we could do; we just don’t want to do those things at this moment. The constraints of lockdown thwart our attempts to establish agency and exacerbate our sense that what we could do is meaningless. This all leads to a desire bind — that intense feeling of wanting something to engage with, but not wanting anything right in front of us.
So what should we do?
Elsewhere in our attempts to answer the $64,000 question of how to solve boredom, we have given, essentially, a three-part answer. Stay calm, reflect, choose to act.
Boredom and the threat to our sense of agency is uncomfortable. Two of the most common words people associate with being bored are restlessness and agitation. It’s difficult to solve one’s boredom when you’re pacing around distressed at your failure to satisfy your need to be engaged.
The “reflect” part is a little more complex — we can reflect on what is causing our boredom and try to reframe the circumstance. Admittedly this kind of reframing is hard to do in a pandemic lockdown — but imagine telling your kids you’ve moved to a deserted island instead of saying you’re in lockdown. And then act accordingly. Dress up in pirate costumes and send each other messages in bottles! But perhaps stop short of talking to volleyballs!.
Beyond reflecting on the situation itself, we could reflect on what matters most to us in our lives. It is this suggestion to reflect on what matters that raises the challenge of meaning-seeking. Again — in a pandemic lockdown, how does one simply choose meaningful actions?
We clearly need to feel that what we do in our lives, the relationships we foster, the goals we pursue, the jobs we toil at, are meaningful. But do our actions have to always be on a grand scale? Does meaning need gravitas? Put another way, was it realistic to launch into learning a new language just because your commute to work now only meant going downstairs to your basement office?
This brings us to the third piece of advice we offer for what it is worth — choose to act. Boredom cycles in on itself when we fail to launch into some kind of action. And while there are clear lines to be drawn — some actions are ill-advised[i] – we may do well to abandon the need for all of our actions to be productive, efficient, or grandiose. This need becomes a millstone around our necks, one that is difficult to shake within the constraints of a pandemic lockdown.
In Buddhist philosophy, it is desire that we need to rid ourselves of. Each desire, once met, sets us immediately on the path to a new desire leaving us in one of two states — unfulfilled or searching for new desires. Ultimately both states are painful and anathema to a good life — according to Buddhism. We might suggest that desire is not all bad. It is what propels us into action and helps to keep us moving from one goal to another. But the need for all goals to reach some lofty heights, however, is a heavy burden.
The first lockdown certainly showed that we can launch into activities with great gusto to keep our minds occupied when our normal range of possibilities has been diminished. There was the sourdough craze, heightened attention to the board (not bored) game renaissance, and jigsaw puzzles, none of which could lay much claim to satisfying some grand, world-beating goal.
What they did do was occupy our cognitive resources (especially the sourdough craze — who knew it took three days of prep before you even had a loaf to speak of?), allowing us to exercise our own sense of agency. We made the bread. We played out the board game. We finished the puzzle.
Finally, we could in fact cultivate downtime — focus on doing nothing! The Dutch have a word for this — niksen, which loosely captures the notion of intentionally being idle, doing nothing or at least doing nothing of purpose. The key word being “intentionally."
This might feel a little contradictory to all we’ve said so far. But our times have pushed us into a corner within which we see time as a unit of efficiency and productivity. If we are not doing something of value, we are by definition inefficient. That shuts out time for reflection — step two of our “How to solve boredom” prescription.
To intentionally set aside time to do nothing is to make space to step outside of our regular responsibilities and stresses. To unencumber our minds. No one would suggest that doing nothing is a sustainable strategy for the long-term. But setting aside some time without any burden to be productive could help us destress, and could open up time for us to engage our minds in different ways. To daydream, to encourage nostalgic reverie, or to indulge in fantasy — what would you do if you won the lottery? These things may seem trivial but they may also allow for a different kind of engagement, one that promotes our sense of agency and well-being.
Considering our value only in terms of productivity per unit of time shuts out time and space for doing things simply for the sake of doing them — acting not to achieve some efficiency goal but simply to ward off boredom and demonstrate our own agency. Can completing a puzzle or playing a family board game really be considered “productive?"
What each of these action choices — and yes, choosing to do nothing is an action choice — share in common, is that we are the ones who choose what and how we engage with the world. When we can see ourselves as choosing, autonomous beings, we satisfy the twin needs signaled by boredom: the need to occupy our mental resources and the need to demonstrate our own agency.
It is difficult, if not impossible, for boredom to get a foothold when we willingly choose what to do. And if we can unburden those action choices from any need to defeat the world, to make a splash, or to solve some dire problem, then we put ourselves on a better footing to cope with the boredom that comes from the constraints of a pandemic lockdown.
[i] We recently showed that people high in boredom proneness were more likely to break the rules of social distancing, which is certainly not advised. Others have shown increased alcohol intake during the pandemic and other behaviours (e.g., increases in domestic violence) that are clearly not healthy. To simply act is not enough – we have to choose wisely.