Boredom: More Than a Side Effect of the Pandemic

Research suggests boredom may be a symptom of illness.

Posted Oct 11, 2020

“How are you?” I asked my neighbor, a neurologist, who was just now allowed to see patients in the hospital rather than from his living room on Zoom.

“Bored,” was his immediate reply. “I am glad to be back in the clinic, but there is no socializing with colleagues allowed, and there is no traveling to medical meetings. Plus, I can’t see my children who live across the country, and I miss going to concerts. And I avoid restaurants because I don’t want to risk getting the virus and exposing my patients.”

Many who find themselves busy and bored have probably echoed his complaint. Perhaps it is the predictability of our routines… even to what we eat on a particular night or the inability to find a new way of spending whatever we have of our free time: There is the absence of new episodes of our favorite TV shows that usually appear in the fall, the inability to go to sporting events, live concerts, movies, plays, fall fairs, or museums without making reservations—the list goes on. Zoom events, be they yoga classes, virtual museum tours or concerts, lectures or cooking demonstrations, have long lost their novelty. And the future seems a continuation of the boring present.  

But it may be wrong to assume that the mood, the feeling of boredom, is due only to lack of stimulation, of novelty, of change in one’s daily life. To be sure, the absence of external stimuli is certainly related to boredom. However, it turns out that boredom may be a symptom of serious psychiatric or neurological disorders.

In a study that sought to define and measure boredom, the authors discuss the causes of this mood: Is boredom due to the absence or limitations of external stimulation, or the inability to engage oneself in external stimuli? They cite research supporting the concept that boredom is a consequence of the absence of external stimulation. Those of us who feel deprived of events that captured our attention would agree with this definition and concur with the experts named in this paper, who claim that repetitive events add to the feeling of boredom.  

“Every day seems alike...” is a statement many of us make when asked how our summer went. “It was a blur of nothing,” said one friend. “Every day was the same, and I had trouble distinguishing a weekday from the weekend.”

Other researchers cited disagreed, explaining that boredom results from an absence of motivational skill, interest, or cognitive and emotional engagement. We need not be bored, but we are because we lack the motivation to become involved in any external event or are emotionally incapable of doing so. According to the Goldberg paper, the inability of some people to engage and show interest in their surroundings (e.g., people, events) may be due to lapses in memory, attention, difficulty in concentrating, restlessness, and even the absence of belief that life has meaning.

People who suffer from traumatic brain injury are particularly prone to boredom. The brain injury makes it very difficult for such patients to engage their minds in anything. An extremely effective woman, who multi-tasks with great efficiency, told me that for about 18 months after an accident that caused traumatic brain damage, she lost all motivation to do anything… including the brain exercises that were supposed to help restore the brain functions injured by the accident.

“I couldn’t focus on anything for more than about 3 milliseconds,” she told me. “I was bored because I had nothing to do and wanted to do nothing. I knew I was getting better when I was interested in reading again and talking to friends on the phone.”

Susceptibility to boredom is a worrisome symptom of ADHD because it may result in difficulties in interpersonal relationships, poor academic and job performance, and Internet addiction, including online gambling. The ADHD brain seeks out stimulation but may find it hard to become engaged, and impulsive behavior often occurs as a result.

Eating, not unexpectedly, is a common response to boredom and the restlessness that accompanies it. Moms carry cereal to give to a bored toddler, hoping that the task of picking up a Cheerio one at a time will relieve the boredom of sitting in a stroller. And we adults do the same (although not in a stroller) when we munch mindlessly on popcorn or nuts or chocolate chips.

Boredom can be a potent trigger for overeating and an obstacle to weight loss. In one study, obese women ate significantly more food when presented with a boring task than women of normal weight; both groups had consumed a complete meal before the tasks were presented. The weight gain that is reported anecdotally in relation to the pandemic may be due to the boredom experienced during the long weeks of home isolation.

Not surprisingly, alcohol and nicotine consumption increase as a consequence of boredom. Males significantly increased their consumption of alcohol during periods of sustained boredom, and a survey of motivations for smoking found boredom ranking almost as high as stress. Thus, proneness to becoming bored may be a symptom of an underlying emotional, behavioral, or neurological problem and not a casualty of the pandemic (although it may be exacerbated by it). Boredom can have adverse effects on health and may require therapeutic interventions.  

Those of us for whom boredom is a result of limited opportunities for external stimulation should find solace in the absence of external stress that comes with medical, financial, familial, and natural catastrophes (e.g., hurricanes, fire).

In other words, boring is good.