“A distinguished Paris neurologist was consulted one day by a patient whom he had not seen before. The patient complained of the typical illness of the times — weariness with life, deep depressions, boredom. ‘There’s nothing wrong with you,’ said the doctor after a thorough examination. ‘Just try to relax — find something to entertain you. Go see Deburau some evening, and life will look different to you.’ ‘Ah, dear sir,’ answered the patient, ‘I am Deburau.’”
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project
Walter Benjamin would have never imagined that the metaphor of the epidemic that he used to refer to the boredom of the middle of the last century would take its literal meaning almost 50 years later because of a virus called COVID-19. Neither Hans Blumenberg nor Henri Lefebvre, before him, would have bet that the metaphor of boredom as a plague would go literal as part of a pandemic lockdown at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Now, many of us are Deburau. Our daily life has completely changed as a result of COVID-19. The pandemic we all are facing for almost a whole year brings not only physical problems but also disruptive socioeconomic and psychological effects worldwide. One of the latter has to do with the increased experience of boredom.
Boredom may be defined, according to the Meaning and Attentional Components (MAC) model by Erin C. Westgate and Timothy D. Wilson, as “a functional emotion with both attentional (‘can I focus?’) and meaning (‘do I want to?’) components … experienced when people feel either unable or unwilling to cognitively engage with their current activity” due to environmental factors (e.g., insufficient stimulation), attentional aspects, and functional perceptions (e.g., the value of the task).
This definition of boredom as an emotion primarily dependent on context responds to what has been called “state-boredom” in the specialised literature; what philosophers and writers called “simple boredom” or “passing boredom” over history. But boredom can also be “chronic boredom” when the subject suffers from high levels of “boredom proneness” (due to their personality or any other—presumably unknown—physical reason) and always get bored no matter how exciting the context is. This is not exactly the same experience that the “profound boredom” or “complex boredom” described by the philosophers and writers of the past, whose suffering might affect the individual alone or the entire society as a result of a particular (usually cultural, political, and economic) environment. This is l’ennui de vivre, the boredom of living. Nowadays, we are fighting these three types of boredom at once as a consequence of the pandemic. But not only. Our own way of addressing boredom through media entertainment and the ineptitude of our social and political agents when facing the crisis are also responsible.
Complaints about boredom (of all kinds) during this pandemic have been common. In social networks like Twitter we have seen the expression of boredom from one end of the planet to another: @cielito1889, from Argentina, says “I get bored and do anything but homework” (April, 16); @Vegas_sin_s, from Madrid, shares “#WorkAtHome and I get bored” (April, 17); @borja_gallego, from anywhere tweets “I’m bored, I go for the fridge” (April, 16th), and so on endless “I get bored a lot”, “I get really bored”, “I get bored and I have no one to talk to”, “I get bored all day”, “I get bored at home”…
Many of us are suffering from boredom since the pandemic began, but not equally, nor has our experience been the same over time. Although the vast majority of us have found that our routines have disappeared, the possibilities of adaptation to the new circumstance differ greatly depending on socioeconomic and demographic factors such as age, purchasing power, place of residence and characteristics of housing, the labour sector to which one belongs, the cultural level and even gender, to name a few. Likewise, those related to health are also determining, such as the fact of belonging to a risk group, having previous pathologies, one’s personality, and psychological traits that make us unique, including the predisposition to boredom.
In other words, the abrupt maladjustment we have run into when we are deprived of the possibility of carrying out with our lives does not affect us all in the same way. People not very streety, used to enjoy the pleasures of home, have not gotten bored during the lockdown. Those who have a strong inner life are not so affected. Some others (like me) who usually work at home do not suffer as much as those who exercise their occupations outside. In the same vein, people confined in an apartment of 30m2 are in a disadvantageous position. The unfortunate ones who have fallen prey to the coronavirus (or their relatives) have more important things to think about. Depressed people and patients with high levels of stress and anxiety feel fearful when their ailment is increased by lack of activity. Finally, those who are more creative are better able to avoid boredom, while those who usually get bored easily and tend to calm their boredom with little meaningful entertainment or activities now face monstrous boredom.
The context in which this pandemic has been unleashed favours to some extent that the latter occurs more frequently than we would like to admit. Since technology plays the leading role in almost all scenarios of our daily life, including, of course, entertainment, leisure, and free time, we had not had to face a situation of lockdown and mobility restriction like the current one. At the beginning of the new millennium, we have experienced SARS, in 2002, but it mainly affected Southeast Asia and did not require confinement measures worldwide. Three years later, the H5N1 strain of bird flu became a pandemic threat, but there were only a few dozen victims to mourn. Between 2009 and 2010, swine flu of North American origin was classified as a pandemic for 14 months but did not require quarantine. Finally, from 2014 to 2016, several Ebola outbreaks of sub-Saharan origin alerted the world, again without the need to take measures of social isolation. We can safely assume that it is the first time that two elements converge; on the one hand, a quarantine due to a pandemic loaded with a lot of free time and, on the other, a predisposition to the use of technology as a means with which to entertain ourselves and fill our leisure time.
The COVID-19 pandemic has rendered many helpless in the face of boredom. We have spent a good percentage of our history trying to reduce the time of duty in favour of the time of power, but now that we have the first in abundance it is a hindrance, and we get bored because we do not know what to do with it. We are forced to deal with a large amount of free time, which months before we longed for, without being very clear about how to fill it. Many are finding themselves disoriented in the face of the accumulation of free time imposed by lockdown and mobility restrictions.
We have lost the ability to tolerate boredom over time. Also, we have become used to having little free time. One has always to work, take care of the offspring, attend to friends, accumulate material and non-material capital. But perhaps the most remarkable thing these days is that when we have a little time to ourselves during the day, to get bored, we are easily content with the fastest available entertainment option. If we have a couple of free hours in the afternoon, we can watch a Netflix series, and the next day the same, and the next, without worrying too much about what will happen when it ends because the platform itself will already have another series that matches our tastes ready for us. If during a subway trip we want to enjoy some music to distract ourselves on the way, we will only have to think about the first song and the YouTube algorithm will do the rest. When we are sitting in our doctor’s waiting room, Facebook makes the wait more pleasant. Is there a line to pay at the supermarket? We enter Instagram. We don’t know what to do on the weekend? TripAdvisor is the solution.
With the abundance of free time resulting from COVID-19 lockdown, many of these fast entertainments are getting boring too. For a while a day, when we come home tired and without much desire to think, they are fine. But in the long run, these forms of mediated entertainment are no longer satisfying, and time needs to be spent in a more meaningful way. My colleague Daniel Lesmes emphasised that “the endless supply of content on the internet” and “media clichés” can “saturate us even more” than we already are by the simple fact of having lost our horizon of daily action. Simply put, the offer of entertainment mediated by technology that in the domestic sphere is usually capable of guarantee the balance between our expectations and our willingness to make efforts, no proves incapable of providing the flow we need in the long term.
This phenomenon has been observed in social networks too: @tomasmuller1414 said on April, 16 “I am bored with Netflix, I am bored with games, I am bored with social networks, I AM BORED WITH EVERYTHING”; @zuryzaaday told on April, 15 “I’m bored with chatting, I’m bored with watching videos, I’m bored with Netflix, I’m bored with existing”; @Candelaglez wrote, “from Twitter to Instagram, through Netflix, WhatsApp and Parcheesi, and so on for hours until I get bored and fall asleep.”
During the first two weeks of the pandemic, the novelty of the situation put our adaptive mechanisms to the test, revealing then who were the strongest, that is, those who were best prepared to react constructively to boredom and to tolerate it for a longer period of time. Many, unfortunately, have been left behind because they were so unaccustomed to having to deal with their free time to the point that, when the usual remedies have failed, they have panicked. And it is that sustained state-boredom demands something more on our part not to become chronic boredom. It is no longer enough to fill time in any way, we need to occupy ourselves with something meaningful. But we don’t know what! We don’t know ourselves; we don’t know what we like, what fills our heart, what makes our being-in-the-world meaningful because we haven’t had to bother ourselves thinking about it for a long time. We haven’t had to listen to our boredom for at least a couple of decades.
For the disoriented, the machinery of fast entertainment offered through technology has created countless resources to avoid the suffering of having to think about what to do with boredom. The Web is filled with pages and articles entitled “Corona Lockdown: 50 Great Ideas to Avoid Boredom at Home”; “Harnessing Boredom in the Age of Coronavirus”; “Overcoming Free-Time Boredom During COVID-19”; “Six Things to Do If You’re Bored at Home During the Coronavirus Pandemic”… The list is endless. Those capable of better reorganising their routines begin to fill their time with meaningful activities that they would have never thought about under normal circumstances. Boredom has made restless minds rethink many things. Does this mean that boredom makes us more creative? Unfortunately not.
We all know that boredom, far from being a state of passivity, is reactive. The experience of boredom is so powerful that it cannot be ignored. When we get bored, it seems that time stops, and life is emptied of sensations. When the bored person feels that the environment does not meet their needs, thanks to its unpleasant experience, they begin to be aware that something is not going well and must be changed: boredom makes us react. Boredom is a sign of dissatisfaction with the present situation, includes a critical element, an expression of deep discontent. After this first stage of introspection and cognitive reappraisal, boredom leads us towards the change, towards action. We can say that boredom expels us from our comfort and prevents us from continuing to be happy minors who delegate Netflix the responsibility of leading our lives.
Many people these days have responded positively to boredom; they have adapted and have learned to tolerate it, showing the best of themselves. But this does not mean that thanks to the boredom suffered during lockdown we can become more creative. This optimistic outlook on boredom has begun to spread on the internet with headlines such as “How Boredom Can Spark Creativity”; “COVID-19 Lockdown Is Unleashing People’s Creativity”; “Coronavirus Lockdown: Bored Yet? Good ¾ You’re on the Verge of a Creative Explosion,” and even those that pray “Lockdown Boredom May Prompt “Greatest Period of Creativity in History” and “How the Boredom of Lockdown Could Lead to the Most Creative Period of All Time.”
But think about this: If we say that boredom is responsible for increasing our levels of creativity when we observe that some respond to it creatively, then we also have to admit that boredom is the culprit that deviant and pathological behaviours occur when others react to it destructively. Boredom is not the source of creativity or destruction, despite Kierkegaard’s regret. Do not think that by being at home bored during the lockdown you are going to write a bestseller, when you have never read a book, or you are going to discover skills to open, after the pandemic, a gourmet restaurant, when you were not able to dress a salad before the crisis. Do not be terrified either, thinking that because of boredom and being in full possession of your mental faculties, you are going to take a knife and stick it in the dog. Boredom is only going to make us feel bad, react to discomfort and what comes next will depend, again, on a wide range of social and psychological factors. Probably, if you were already a creative person before COVID-19, you will react to boredom more creatively. If, on the contrary, you were a destructive person, your reactions will be too. Likewise, if the coronavirus has come at a time when your context is healthy, with space for recreation, some savings with which to buy new things and good company in a united family, the possibilities that your reaction to moments of boredom is creative are greater than if the bored person lives alone, in a hovel without windows and without a coin because your company has fired you out.
Many are trying these days to be downright optimistic by writing articles on the many qualities of boredom. Let us not fool ourselves, though. No one is relieved to read or listen to another praising the virtues of boredom during quarantine, and no one is going to be convinced and stop having a bad time because an expert tells that being bored is good. What you want is to stop being bored and not die of boredom trying. Boredom is neither good nor bad, it just is. Boredom, along with many other states that are experienced in a circumstance like the one we are experiencing, from anxiety to stress, is only what makes us react; we cannot blame boredom for the reaction itself. The effect is the result of the cause, but the cause is not boredom, nor when the effect is good or when it is bad, the cause is lockdown due to COVID-19. Boredom is just another effect. Boredom is just a symptom. The only good thing about it is that without it, we would be trapped in the current situation until it consumed us.
We should not, therefore, condemn boredom due to the bad reactions that it sometimes triggers, not even in times of coronavirus. But, on the other hand, we should not voluntarily promote boredom to provoke creative responses. This is clear if we think about children. Boredom is not something we want for ourselves or our children. There is little point in forcing children to be bored in the false hope that they will become more creative later. But neither is boredom something that we can permanently avoid in ourselves or them. Therefore, the only thing we can do is to learn to tolerate boredom, not only now that we have no choice but also when everything returns to normal. Returning to the case of children, teaching them to tolerate boredom instead of offering them continuous entertainment will prepare them for adult life and will help them not to create false expectations in situations like the one we now live in (of course, most of the time it is easier to lend them the smartphone and let them experience the virtues of the recommendation systems of fashionable apps).
Getting bored is not good, but not getting bored never is worse. Not getting bored never increases our intolerance to boredom and is detrimental to our ability to react. This does not make us more or less creative or destructive, or better or worse people, it simply increases the discomfort of those who get bored when these fast entertainments fail in times when, like now, they are not able to meet expectations for which they have not been designed.
Now it seems that we have received a reality bath. After this, what we all wonder is what will happen when the pandemic is finally overcome, and we can recover our routines. On the one hand, the fact that many felt truly helpless when this all started and that regular entertainers like Twitter and YouTube quickly left them in the lurch may make us wake up. It remains to be seen whether the suffering will really be accompanied by a further reflection on the destiny of our own lives and, in the best of cases, on the future of contemporary society and our usage of technology. That we have resulted in being unable, in some cases, to manage boredom should make us rethink many things. This phenomenon may have consequences in our lives after the coronavirus. Old remedies may give way to more meaningful forms of entertainment after a period of personal discovery. If this happens in a generalised way, which remains to be seen, perhaps we will see in the first person if boredom, not only individually, but also socially, has that emancipatory charge that is usually attributed to it.
However, as this situation drags on in time, another much more dangerous form of boredom is echoing across the world in a generalised way. I refer to the boredom of living caused by the lack of light at the end of the tunnel, by the ineffectiveness of our political representatives, by the constant bombardment of contradictory information that leads people to play with the danger of the pandemic as a way to relieve boredom and, in the worst cases, to adopt a denialist stance against COVID-19. But I am not ready to talk about this yet. We are being guinea pigs of a social laboratory that no one would have imagined a few months ago and from which it is still too early to conclude, but perhaps the return to normality is far from being a return to the situation preceding the coronavirus. Now, boredom can sow the seeds for revolution from the individual (but shared), private (but public) experience of the lack of meaning of some progress and agents in which we had placed our trust. For this possibility alone, it may be worth rethinking the value we place on boredom and considering the option of opening up to its experience, even when it is painful, from time to time, whatever the consequences.