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Boredom in Quarantine, or the Art of Turning Into a Skid

Action is often boredom's remedy, but insight might be the better vaccine.

A March study of the mental health of 3,500 Italians living under national quarantine found that boredom was a more common complaint than loneliness, lack of social activities, and even loss of job and income.

Feeling constrained and restricted—in lockdown as we've come to call it—is fertile ground for boredom. Unable to exercise our free will, cut off from many of our usual sources of meaning, and even bereft of the anticipatory excitement of weekends (which don't feel any different from weekdays anymore), makes us sitting ducks for tedium. Whether we're doing something we don't want to do, or not doing something we want to do, it comes down to not feeling meaningfully engaged with the world. Now multiply that by a few billion people who are sheltering-in-place (and with the onset of summer, perhaps also sweltering-in-place).

To put it in some perspective, though (which may or may not be a consolation if you're climbing the walls), boredom is something of a privilege in this case. It means you're probably not scrambling desperately for work and livelihood, or struggling to keep up with homeschooling and housework that's suddenly amplified by having more family members around, or tending to, worrying about, or grieving loved ones who have fallen to the virus. It means you probably have a roof over your head and food in the fridge, and aren't among the 70% of Americans who have less than $1,000 in savings, or the 45% who have none.

But still. Boredom is a boggy state of dispiritedness and disconnection that may feel perilously close to depression; a state in which we're starved for stimulation and engagement, novelty, meaning. And though it's certainly meaningful to sacrifice some of your freedom and comfort for the well-being of others, which is much of the point of all the quarantining, and though life itself simply has a certain amount of boring in it, it can wear pretty thin after months.

The boredom born of sheltering-in-place and social isolation may not be your fault, but it is your responsibility to address, especially as an adult. When you’re losing traction with the road, you turn into the skid, not away from it.

After all, boredom is a signal like pain, or a dashboard light—it's there to get your attention. And if you don’t use your boredom as a tonic to catalyze you, it can easily become a narcotic that paralyzes you. There’s a reason we talk about being bored stiff. It’s the opposite of being in the flow. And it's no coincidence that addictive behavior, bingeing, and other less-than-optimal coping strategies have spiked during the pandemic.

There are essentially two kinds of boredom, both of which might be welling up to the surface as a result of the lockdown. One is situational (you’re stuck in quarantine, or the checkout line, or a boring Zoom meeting) and the other is existential (you’re bored with your own company, your work, your marriage, your life). It's what the French call ennui, the Germans call unlust, and scientists call hyper-boredom, and it will generally still be there when there's no more boredom-cleaning to do, or you're Zoomed-out, or you've come down from your highs, or the moment the credits begin to roll on yet another Netflix movie.

Inside both kinds of boredom, though, are frustration, but it’s what you do with that frustration that determines the outcome of your dissatisfactions. Action is often boredom’s remedy—undoing your sense of helplessness by acting rather than being acted upon—but especially with the deeper kind of boredom, the vaccine is more likely to be insight. By turning your attention toward your boredom, inertia, or impassivity—and with the kind of “beginner's mind” that allows children to hear the same bedtime story 100 times and not get bored—you stand to be enlightened by it. Or as I heard a sociologist once say, “Bored people are lonely for themselves, not, as they think, for others. We miss the individuality we’ve lost.”

When Jonah was stuck in the belly of the whale for three days and nights, he composed songs of thanksgiving. As author Thomas Moore says of it, “There is only one psalm to sing in the dark night—the song that praises the dark.”

Research out of York University in Canada confirms a positive correlation between people’s boredom-proneness and their lack of emotional awareness. It showed that it’s possible to predict how susceptible people are to boredom, and how difficult it is for them to cope with it, based on their emotional literacy—the amount of attention they pay to their thoughts and feelings, their capacity for examining and identifying their moods. If you study your boredom, you may find that it’s full of wisdom and insight.

Submersion is the only solution that’s guaranteed not to be a distraction (a word that means to be pulled apart). And boredom may end up surprising you with its kaleidoscopic underwater terrain, fascinating the way fractals are fascinating, though repetitiveness is their very essence.

In some ways, this is the logic behind any mindfulness practice—taking ordinary and everyday activities (breathing, sitting, walking) and by subjecting them to watchful and impartial attention, coming to know their richness. Ditto with thoughts, feelings, sensations, and states of mind like boredom. You can bring presence of mind to a condition you normally equate with an absence of arousal, and suddenly it becomes engaging.

Granted, the emptiness at the core of boredom, certainly ennui, would seem to be qualitatively different from the emptiness that mindfulness practitioners, meditators and mystics seek, which is filled with presence rather than absence, an expression of spirit rather than a depression of spirit. But maybe they’re the same, and it’s only how you look at it. Maybe just a quarter-turn to the right or left and the emptiness that’s the bane of the bored can be seen as the boon of the Buddhists. You feel empty? How wonderful.

Mindfulness practitioners tell us that the antidote to boredom isn’t necessarily activity, but sitting with boredom. Rather than going with the desperate unthinking drive of it, the urge to fill up the hole by any and all means available, instead sit at the edge of it and ponder its dimensions, it’s hole-iness. Notice that emptiness is not at all nothingness. There’s a lot of there there—light, space, potential. It reminds me of a meme I saw recently: it showed an enormous, hangar-sized empty room with a sign at the entrance that reads “Air and Space Museum.”

Take your boredom on as a contemplation, a vision quest right there in your own living room, one that’s not about distraction but investigation, not about destruction (end the boredom) but creation (write it down, dance it up, draw it out, sing the blues, compose a Suite for Weeping Violins). Using creativity to combat boredom follows the logic that if you can’t beat it, join it. Sink a well and draw up creative juices.

Parents are often counseled that when their children come to them complaining of boredom, they should avoid rushing to help them simply fill the time and get back to busyness-as-usual. Rather, they should stop what they’re doing and focus on the child for five minutes, using the time to just connect, chat and snuggle, whereupon most children will probably get the refueling they need and be on their way. (Or you can inspire them even quicker by offering to enlist them in housework or yardwork to ameliorate their anguish.)

The same goes for the grownups. Don’t rush to fill up the empty spaces. Just give yourself some attention. Pull your bored self up into your lap for a little quality time.

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