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Can a pandemic be boring? Yes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing

COVID-19Culture

COVID-19 and self-isolation can impact our mental health. Photo from Pxsphere.

In August of 2013, Christopher Lane was jogging along a residential street in Duncan, Oklahoma. Lane had come from Australia to study at East Central University on a baseball scholarship. Three teenage boys watched as he ran by them and decided to follow in their car. One shot Lane from behind with a .22 caliber revolver, piercing both his lungs and two arteries. He staggered across the road, collapsed, and died before an ambulance could arrive. When the boys were later apprehended, the driver told the officers that Lane had been targeted at random: “We were bored and didn’t have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody.”

For those acquainted with mid-twentieth century French literature, the chilling emptiness of motive behind Lane’s murder is reminiscent of Meursault, the anti-hero of Albert Camus’s absurdist masterpiece, L’Étranger. In the novel’s climactic passage, Meursault fires four more bullets in the body of his dead victim just to “hammer on the door” of his own malaise of alienation and indifference. Jean-Paul Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin is also brought to mind. In Sartre’s La Nausée, Roquentin’s plaguing sense of “nothing new” and “nothing more” ultimately drives him to accept “profound boredom” as the very “heart of existence.” The realization is life-changing.

This is about as dark and as deep as boredom gets—both in life and in novels. And perhaps for that reason, we resist seeing such cases as continuous with the ordinary situational boredom that we all experience from time to time. Few of us would grant our own boredom the power to inspire grievous transgression or existential epiphany. For boredom is on the face of it rather unremarkable, objectless, and, well…just plain boring. And yet we cannot escape the suspicion that a common thread runs through all cases of boredom, from the most banal to the most portentous.

The poet Joseph Brodsky reminded Dartmouth College graduates of this in a 1989 commencement address. “In general,” he said, “a man shooting heroin into his vein does so largely for the same reason you rent a video: to dodge the redundancy of time.” Brodsky was in a position to know. Before coming to America, he had been confined to mental institutions and sent to a prison farm by the Soviet authorities for the dissident crime of “social parasitism.” There, he was forced to endure more than his fair share of boredom and redundancy of time.

We too have become burdened with boredom of late. But that’s perhaps not so obvious. The global costs of the COVID-19 pandemic—physical, social, cultural, and economic—have been staggering. Recovery will take years; and some regions may never fully recover. Efforts to reduce the spread of the virus have necessitated physical isolation, cessation, reduction, or modification of routine activities, institutional shutdowns, and limited social contact. It’s almost obscene to suggest that a health crisis that has taken the lives of over 7,000 Canadians to date—and killed more than 50 times that worldwide—could be a cause of boredom. Anxiety, fear, sadness, anger, frustration, sympathy, gratitude, yes. But boredom?

Clearly, the human toll of this pandemic has not bred public or private indifference. It has been a source of pain and distress for everyone living through it. The lockdown, however, has been stultifying for many. Spending so much time apart from others and away from the things that formerly filled our hours has exposed our underlying susceptibility to boredom. An Angus Reid Institute study published in April found that 30 percent of Canadian adults chose the word “bored” to describe how they’ve been feeling during the pandemic. Adults aged 18-34–Millennials and Gen Z–were especially bored, at 40 percent. Additional ARI findings posted in May revealed that children have been left feeling the most disengaged during this difficult time. A hefty 71 percent of those aged 10-17 felt that “bored” captured their state of mind, making it the most common descriptor.

Why are we so bored? And what exactly is this mood called boredom? Historically, it has proven notoriously difficulty to specify. The social historian Elizabeth Goodstein refers to it as an “experience without qualities” that emerged as a cultural theme in the 19th century. Ask people today what it feels like to be bored and they’re likely to struggle a while before offering up the tautology “boring.” Keep digging and you might also get “restless,” “wanting more,” and if you’re dealing with a teenager, perhaps “annoyed” or “irritated.” You might also hear “needing a change,” but that’s perhaps better interpreted as a learned response to boredom, or how one typically attempts to escape from it. More on that later.

Although boredom has its historical precursors–the taedium vitae of the Stoic philosophers, the acedia that plagued the early Christian monks, the 18th-century ennui of French Romanticism–it became recognizable in its present form only after the Industrial Revolution. To say that boredom is a distinctly modern affliction is not to say that our pre-modern ancestors didn’t often find life tiresome, dull, monotonous, or uninspiring. They surely did, and probably more often than we do. They just didn’t interpret the mood as boredom. They operated within a different “rhetoric of reflection,” as Goodstein puts it, perhaps structuring their emotion into a matter of personal responsibility, spiritual lapse, social failing, or physical or mental deficit.

We, in contrast, blame the world by default. With good reason, some would argue. For all its organizational, technological, economic, intellectual, and political advances, late modernity remains a Weberian “iron cage” of bureaucratic rationality, secular disenchantment, empty clock time, and crises of meaning. The postmodern turn, sadly, has done little to change that. It has added only disorientation, skepticism, cynicism, irony, depthlessness, and fragmentation to an already overburdened subjectivity. A world of discredited narratives and unfulfilled expectations is a world of boredom.

So how do we specify this “experience without qualities”? Psychologists James Danckert and John Eastwood define boredom as the “aversive feeling associated with wanting to be cognitively engaged…but not being able to find anything in that moment with which to become engaged.” The philosopher Lars Svendsen sees boredom as stemming from a “lack of personal meaning,” or inability to experience the present as expressive of what one values, enjoys, or takes an interest in. The classicist Peter Toohey adds that “predictability, monotony, and confinement are all key.” Too much of anything becomes boring in time. The literary scholar Patricia Meyer Spacks describes boredom as a “disruption of desire,” an “inability to desire or to have desire fulfilled.” She sees it as an “interpretive category,” an “invention” that is “invoked to explain or condemn increasingly diverse circumstances.”

The family resemblance across these contemporary accounts is that boredom is fundamentally a form of disconnection or alienation. Its source is neither oneself nor one’s immediate situation; it arises from the relation between the two. Boredom is an affective mode of awareness that involves subjective judgment of a situation, or what the philosopher Charles Taylor refers to as “import-ascription.” The import in this case is that we fail to discover anything in the situation that engages us. In other words, the only significance of the situation for us becomes its lack of significance. In such instances, time crawls, we become restless and uncomfortable, and often feel an urge to change or leave the situation.

Escape from boredom can be as commonplace and reflexive as changing the channel, bringing up a new webpage, listening to a song, scanning our messages or feeds, or exiting a social exchange. It can also be the stuff of tragedy. The British actor George Sanders committed suicide in 1972 by overdosing on barbiturates. One of the suicide notes he left behind began, “Dear World, I am leaving because I am bored.” Sanders was depressed and afflicted by dementia at the time. Even so, it appears that boredom was central in precipitating his final act.

Boredom is not synonymous with depression. But neither is it unrelated. According to the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, either “depressed mood” or “markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day” for at least two weeks is a diagnostic requirement for clinical depression. The second symptom, also called “anhedonia,” sounds a lot like pervasive boredom across a range of involvements that were once engaging. Consistent with this, a recent British study of depressed adolescents by Rebecca Watson and her colleagues revealed that many suffered from a “cycle of boredom.” This consisted of jumping from activity to activity in the hope of deriving some pleasure or gratification, only to find everything equally boring.

The link with depression alerts us to the importance of distinguishing everyday “thin” boredom from its “thick” existential counterpart. Thin boredom is transient, situational, readily escapable, and experienced by all. Thick boredom is chronic, pervasive, difficult to dispel, and far less prevalent. Depressive boredom is a species of the latter genus. The problem, however, is that it’s not always easy to diagnose which we’re suffering from, individually or collectively. To make matters worse, thick boredom can masquerade as skinny with our complicity. How so?

Lifestyle for many has become a frenetic attempt to avert boredom. We respond to the inability of activities, situations, and people to maintain our attention, provide enduring meaning to our lives, and shore up a stable self-identity by deftly hopscotching between them. Dimly aware that none of our modest time investments offers more than fleeting respite from bored agitation, we’re reluctant to persist at anything for too long. Multi-tasking, binging, “always on” digital connections, extended reality, the gig economy, short-termism, self-reinvention, keeping up with fashion–they all share a concern with speed, succession, diversification, and endless stimulation.

Might it not be that the pace and intensity of our multiplex, scattered lives masks a deeper underlying boredom? We dismiss each episode of boredom as thin because we can make it vanish with ease. We have the tools. They’re always at hand. A new spectacle, a new game, a new face, a new job, a new drug, a new pseudo-commitment to last the week or month. That’s all it takes. Surely, boredom this easy to dispel must be thin. In the aggregate, however, it is not. As a persistent oscillatory pattern, it is disturbingly thick. It points to a hollowness at the heart of our connection to the world around us.

Like the mirror-image of Franz Kafka’s hunger artist, who starves to death because he can’t find any food he likes, we keep ourselves overly busy and distracted–stuffed–because we can’t find anything to provide a steady horizon of meaning. Beneath the surface, we too are starving. Life in a “culture of boredom,” as Svendsen calls it, is a standing invitation to confront ourselves and make radical adjustments. Confronting and interrogating ourselves, however, is precisely what our typical responses to boredom are designed to forestall. When self-reflection brings uncertainty and disquiet, we avoid it.

In a telling series of studies, Timothy D. Wilson and his colleagues found that American university students were not so fond of spending 6-15 minutes lost in their thoughts with little else to do. Compared with spending the same amount of time reading, listening to music, or browsing the internet, participants enjoyed just thinking less, found it more difficult to concentrate, and felt their mind wandered more often. In one startling study, 67 percent of men and 29 percent of women chose to self-administer a painful electric shock one or more times rather than just sit and reflect. The “mind does not like to be alone with itself,” the researchers conclude. There may be some truth to that in context. But we should take care not to universalize the culturally contingent. It might be more accurate to say that a mind on the run from boredom–and itself–finds it unsettling to be alone and unengaged. And yet, perhaps it needs to be from time to time to better understand itself and find its bearings.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused most of us to withdraw into ourselves to some extent. For those not fighting on the front lines of the battle, coping with the illness or death of loved ones, or scrambling desperately to survive on reduced means, life has slowed considerably. Standing still has brought its share of boredom. But with so much of our social and institutional surroundings slowed as well and no longer impinging on our awareness, we have been denied many of our habitual avenues of diversion and escape. One can only watch Netflix for so long. This had left ample time for recollection, reflection, self-examination, and greater honesty with ourselves and those closest to us.

Forced to sit with our boredom and examine its significance for the lives we’re living, we’ve had to confront the cracks and gaps, large and small, that reveal where our involvements lack authenticity, integrity, and self-expressive value. Philosophers and psychologists teach us that boredom can be a good thing when it provides impetus for articulating our moral commitments and pursuing the personal and societal changes needed to realize them. There is reason to believe that is happening now. Let us hope that once the pandemic is behind us, and we’re left dealing with its fallout, we will all reap the benefits of that realignment. After all, life is short and boredom is always around the corner.

Romin W. Tafarodi is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto. He can be reached at romin.tafarodi@utoronto.ca.

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