Boredom is not a feeling we generally seek out. Descending on us in moments of inaction, boredom brings restlessness and agitation. In these times of social isolation, it can feel ever-present and suffocating.
Each day around 4:00 p.m. I start to get a little antsy. Having finished whatever work I had for the day, I start pacing around my living room, looking for something to occupy my mind. I might pick up the guitar, tinker for a bit only to put it back down, unsatisfied. I’m looking for something to do, something that makes me feel as though I am being an effective human being. A few weeks ago, in the throes of this kind of boredom, I baked a cake just so I had something to do, and so there was an end product to show for my labors. The cake was horrible but baking it fixed my boredom, for that day at least.
We typically try to avoid or squash feelings of boredom. But in trying to outrun boredom, we run the risk of failing to heed its true call. Pain is a helpful metaphor here. The function of pain is not to make us feel hurt. Pain exists to galvanize us into action to remove the source of the pain. Boredom is no different. The function of boredom is not to make us bored, it is a call to action. It is telling us that what we are doing now is failing to satisfy us is some important way. But its purpose is not to just push us into any action. Boredom encourages us to choose actions that give expression to who we are. Our actions have to matter.
We typically try to avoid or squash feelings of boredom. But in trying to outrun boredom, we run the risk of failing to heed its true call.
Failing to satisfy our need for agency is one of the driving forces behind the discomfort that is characteristic of boredom. When we’re feeling bored, it is uncomfortable precisely because we want to be doing something—we just can’t figure out what that something might be. We’re stuck in what Tolstoy called “the desire for desires.” At a basic level, our desire is to interact with the world purposefully. We want to feel capable. We want to feel useful. Failing to satisfy that desire to act can make us feel ineffective. It is this feeling of inadequacy that makes boredom so uncomfortable. If we didn’t care about being bored, we’d be feeling something more akin to apathy.
Right now, the threat of boredom is acute. Even as some stay-at-home orders lift, it may be a while before life returns to what it was. For many of us, the normal range of things we would like to do has shrunk to fit within our four walls. For some this has led to creative ways of demonstrating agency, like running a marathon seven meters at a time. Unable to do this extraordinary task in the way one normally would, this runner found a way to do it anyway. I’m not suggesting he ran a marathon out of boredom. Rather, he found a way to do something he had always been planning to do, in such a way that he was able to maintain a sense of agency despite the restrictions of social isolation.
Our desire is to interact with the world purposefully. We want to feel capable. We want to feel useful. Failing to satisfy that desire to act can make us feel ineffective. It is this feeling of inadequacy that makes boredom so uncomfortable.
In a recent study, Italians reported that the number one negative consequence of lockdown was the “loss of freedom.” Number two was boredom. In a study of the SARS outbreak, which affected Toronto more than anywhere else in North America, boredom was listed as the number one reason for breaking quarantine rules. It is not a stretch to suggest that lack of freedom is, in this instance, the root cause of boredom. Removing agency runs the risk of making us feel like animals in a cage.
Indeed, there’s evidence that animals, too, experience boredom—and will fight to get rid of it. Robert White called this effectance motivation—the need to see that when we act on the world there are measurable outcomes that matter to us. For White, this desire to be effective—a desire to demonstrate our agency—is what motivates us to act in the first place. One of the studies White pointed to as evidence for effectance motivation examined exploratory behavior in monkeys. In the study, the reward monkeys were working for was surprisingly relatable, given our current situation. It was not, as it is in most primate research now, a juice reward. Instead, the monkeys worked toward the ability to open a small window that gave them a view of a different—and therefore novel to them—part of the laboratory. Restricted and essentially in lockdown, the animals worked hard to gain a new experience. For White this was evidence that the animals would work for rewards that enabled them to explore their world and act upon it in purposeful ways.
In our desperation we fail to see the truly challenging, and positive, question boredom poses—what matters most to you?
So what should we do about the feeling of boredom when it descends upon us? First, stay calm. Boredom is a restless, unpleasant feeling that we try to avoid. But in our desperation we fail to see the truly challenging, and positive, question boredom poses—what matters most to you? It’s hard to figure that out if you’re pacing around the house, lunging at anything you think might satisfy. Second, make conscious choices. If the marathon you signed up for or the wedding, event, or party you were looking forward to was canceled, think proactively about how you can create a modified version. Find ways to regain control over the things you care about, even if those ways aren’t what you had originally envisioned.
But also know that it’s okay to binge-watch “Tiger King” (just about everybody has). If you recognize it for what it is, mindless entertainment, and you see yourself as the agent choosing to do it, boredom will be minimal. In other words, find ways to consciously exercise your agency.
Finally, make realistic choices. While top-ten lists of what to do while bored in the pandemic abound, there’s no obligation to make your next action grand. You can start to learn Spanish if that was a goal you always had, but aiming high while still in lockdown could set you up for failure. To combat boredom, it’s not what you do that matters so much as that you were the one who chose to do it.