Learning From Pandemic Boredom

We have to understand its message to respond well when boredom strikes.

Posted Jul 02, 2020

Renata Apanaviciene/Shutterstock
Source: Renata Apanaviciene/Shutterstock

July—International Anti-boredom month—is upon us and here we are, still shackled by COVID-19. Some are starting to enjoy increased freedoms, but others continue to feel trapped. In April, an Angus Reid Poll reported that 30% of Canadians struggled with boredom. Other research places boredom as one of the biggest emotional challenges during quarantine and self-isolation, and a significant challenge to following the rules of physical distancing. Now that we’ve had some experience with boredom, months of practice really, you’d think we should have learned a thing or two. Unfortunately, it seems we haven’t learned a whole lot.

“Take up scrapbooking. Learn a new language. What about organizing your closet?” During the physical distancing brought on by COVID-19, we bet you’ve heard similarly useless advice. We ought to know better. If we try hard enough most of us should recall a time as children when we pleaded with our parents to fix our boredom. Standing steadfast, paralyzed really, in front of your mother as she ran down a long list of things you could do? And you dismissed them all. It didn’t work then, and it won’t work now. 

Our reactions have revealed we don’t really understand boredom. Top 10 (and in one instance top 150!) "things to do when bored" lists are popping up on the internet. But, as the restless child pleading for a fix to their boredom knows, telling a bored person to take up a hobby is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would. Boredom signals a deeper problem, and requires a more thoughtful response.

Leo Tolstoy, the Russian writer, understood boredom. He summed it up in four words: a desire for desires. Boredom is a strong desire to do something, blocked by a lack of desire to do anything that is currently possible. The bored person wants to, but can’t, muster up an actionable desire. Years later another writer, Saul Bellow, put his finger on the second central component to boredom: the pain of unused powers. Boredom is a state of dis-use. Our mental abilities are under-used, and we are itching to engage our mind.

Tolstoy and Bellow offer a critical insight. To truly respond well to boredom’s challenge we need to exercise what psychologists call agency. You might say that having agency is the ability to guide your own actions, make choices, and feel like you are the author of your own life. Think of the difference between a cork adrift in a stormy sea and the boat captain charting a course for shore, both face the power of the sea, but only the captain can hatch a plan and then act on it. 

During physical distancing brought about by COVID-19, we face challenges to our agency on two fronts. First, we are constrained—we can’t do things we want to do, when and how we would normally do them, and we have to do things that we don’t want to do—namely, stay indoors. Second, and this may seem a little contradictory, we feel unconstrained; all of our routines and schedules have fallen away, and we discover that without routine to guide us, we are not really sure what it is that we want to do.

We can hear you protesting: “Wait a second, I know exactly what I want to do. I want to go shopping, eat out at that new restaurant with my friends, go to a concert and, most urgently, I want to get a haircut!” True enough. However, it is because you can’t say what you want to do under your current circumstances that you are bored. Boredom occurs when you can’t want to do anything that is doable. 

So there are two sides to pandemic boredom—limited options and a limited ability to form an actionable desire—and they converge to leave us stuck, unable to move forward. Yet, and here’s the ironic twist, unconstrained moments when we have nothing to do are precisely one of the best times to discover your agency. 

In our pre-COVID-19 lives, we were propped up by routines, busyness, and structure so much so that we never had to stop and decide what to do. It was all laid out for us. Get to the train by 5:30 a.m., our inbox was stuffed with marching orders, leave the late afternoon meeting in time to get the kids to soccer. Lather, rinse, repeat. 

When driven by routine and structure, our mind is occupied and we don’t feel the pain of boredom. Days, weeks, and months can go by without us stopping to consider what really matters to us, or why we are doing what we are doing. Our lives may have already been lacking in agency, but we were too busy to notice that boredom was lurking. Busyness numbs us to the fact we are not authoring our lives and we can lose our agency without even recognizing the loss. 

But when the tide of busyness goes out, when we step back from the onslaught of stimulation coming at us, the distress of boredom invites us to take stock of our thoughts, desires and feelings, determine what matters to us, engage the world on our terms, and in so doing, not be bored. 

It is only possible to discover who we are and what we care about when our mind is not being controlled by outside forces. Engaging the world under our own steam requires both an ability to articulate what we want to do, and the capacity to control our mental faculties to achieve those goals. Constantly being on the receiving end of stimulation robs us of both. Georg Simmel, a sociologist writing at the beginning of the 20th century lamented that the use of technology is like falling into a fast-flowing river; forces outside ourselves carry us along and eventually we forget how to swim. We become the cork instead of the boat captain.

Potentially boring situations offer risk but also reward. Courage is required, so too is the willingness to tolerate some initial discomfort. Perhaps the most surprising gift of potentially boring situations is the opportunity to find within ourselves what we need to be free of boredom’s curse. Self-reflection and taking the time to let desires crystalize is crucial. But this is easier said than done. Rather than being alerted to the need to find our agency, we typically interpret boredom as a need for entertainment and we respond by merely numbing the distress. 

Treating ourselves like passive objects to fill with entertainment will get rid of boredom until the credits roll, but it sets us up for future boredom. Trying our hand at other people's projects won’t work either unless we come to feel the activity as our own. What we most need is to reclaim our agency: activity that flows from, and gives expression to, our passion, our curiosity, and our creativity.

This pandemic has brought all kinds of challenges. When it comes to boredom though, there is a possible silver lining. We can learn from pandemic boredom and emerge with a clearer sense of what really matters and a reaffirmation of our agency, which is at the very foundation of what it means to be a person.