The Belgica, a Norwegian-built ship commissioned by the Belgian government, was forced to overwinter in Antarctica in 1898, the first ship ever to do so: bound by ice, with nowhere to go and very little to do. The ship’s doctor, an American named Frederick Cook, captured just how oppressive it felt to be cooped up in that way. “We have told all the tales, real and imaginative, to which we are equal,” he wrote in his memoir in 1900. “Time weighs heavily upon us.” One of the sailors was so bored he jumped ship, telling the others he was walking back to Belgium.
Many of us find ourselves similarly isolated and constrained. Not surrounded by ice but, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, confined to our own four walls and bored out of our skulls — unable to be the masters of our own lives, to freely make our own choices. Such limits on our autonomy lead to boredom. “I can’t keep watching Stranger Things over and over,” one discontented poster wrote this past week on a subreddit devoted to boredom. Online publications have compiled videos in the past few weeks of stir-crazy people trying to shake up their routines any way they can, from playing tic-tac-toe with their cats to performing show tunes like “One Day More” with fresh quarantine-inspired (and boredom-themed) lyrics.
Those are anecdotal manifestations of a real problem. A survey that sampled almost 3,500 Italians last month asked respondents to list the most negative things they felt as a consequence of isolation. No. 1 was a lack of freedom. No. 2 was boredom. A similar survey of 1,057 Canadians asked what emotions they felt most intensely during the 2003 SARS outbreak (which acutely affected Toronto). It was boredom that had affected them the most, considerably more than worry or fear; 62 percent reported suffering from it.
Boredom makes us feel trapped, unable to find something to satisfy our desire to be engaged. Tolstoy saw this as the defining feature of boredom — “a desire for desires.” This longing to participate in some meaningful activity stems from another human drive — the drive to be effective. We all want to believe that our actions matter, that the lives we lead have purpose. When boredom strikes, we feel robbed of that sense of control: It seems, in the moment at least, that nothing we can do will matter much. We are corks bobbing in the sea, incapable of determining what happens next, when what we really want to be is the fisherman, in charge of the boat, charting a course across the water.
Boredom, as a threat to our sense of agency, is also a threat to compliance with social isolation. During the SARS outbreak, according to another survey, boredom was not only the No. 1 emotion people in Toronto reported feeling, it was also the No. 1 reason given for breaking quarantine. It’s not that people don’t see the seriousness of the circumstances. It’s just that our need to act in purposeful ways is so strong, and the feeling of boredom so unpleasant, that it pushes some of us to break the rules.
Of course, some of us have more free time to fill these days than others. Those with less time, notably people juggling work and child care, or doing medical work, probably don’t experience boredom as much as the rest of us. Even so, everyone has had their options for recreation during their down time restricted. Even very busy people can feel boredom’s sting.
In some sense, those of us bored because of social distancing measures are like the hapless Belgian sailor, fed up with monotony to the point of defiance, with ill-advised acts beckoning. But the warning light that is boredom is not really to blame. Yes, it is a call to action, but it is up to us how we respond. Long before the pandemic, research demonstrated that people prone to boredom often react to the signal poorly: They are more likely to abuse alcohol and drugs, compulsively gamble and obsessively use smartphones. What these responses all have in common is that they momentarily eradicate the discontent that comes from being bored. But while playing Candy Crush for hours may be a surefire way to kill time, it can’t truly remedy boredom. When we engage in activities passively, simply to fill the time, we fail to truly listen to boredom’s message: It is a spur to purposeful activities that make use of our skills and talents.
Boredom forces us to ask a critical question: What matters most to us? What boredom won’t do, however, is provide the answer. Especially now, the Internet is awash with “Top things to do when you’re bored” lists. (I found one with 151 suggestions!) But what fixes your boredom may not work well for me. David Morgan, pictured in Britain’s Dull Men’s Club calendar for 2015, has amassed the world’s largest collection of traffic cones. Most of us can’t imagine spending minutes, let alone years, going down that particular rabbit hole.
But regardless of precisely what satisfies us, the important thing is that it fulfills our need to be an effective agent. Right now that challenge is particularly difficult. We ought to make choices within the constraints of our current circumstances and not, like a petulant teenager, in defiance of them. (In fact, researchers have found that boredom peaks in the mid- to late teen years, and reactions to it at that age are rarely good: Self-reported boredom is linked to increased vandalism, substance use, truancy and risky sexual behavior. Boredom drops in middle age and then rises again after age 60, probably because of higher rates of social isolation.)
I confess that I don’t always handle boredom the way I advise others to. My wife is all too aware that around 4 p.m. most days during the pandemic, I start to pace the living room floor. Having completed the bulk of the day’s work — grading papers, prepping for online courses, striving to finish several scholarly articles — and having already walked the dog once, I am desperate for something to distract me.
But last week, I baked a cake. It was not a particularly earth-shattering activity. Yet it was my choice (as was the choice of cake — coffee cake — which everyone else in my family hated). It worked for me that day simply because it came from my own desire to do it.
“Boredom is rage spread thin” is an aphorism often attributed to the philosopher Paul Tillich. The observation highlights the way listlessness summons a kind of simmering hostility toward the world — a feeling that the world is not enough. But if we can take a breath and try to avoid knee-jerk reactions to boredom, we’ll be better off. Letting boredom happen, even for just a short time, allows us to think about what it is telling us. Maybe right now we can’t pursue all the things we normally find meaningful, but spending the time deliberately thinking about what matters most is never a bad thing. Then we can choose to act. The scope of what we do — learning a new language or just baking a cake — matters less than the fact that we are the ones doing the choosing.
The Belgian sailor chose poorly. He was acting out of frustration and mental exhaustion. If we can pause, listen carefully to boredom and consciously choose what to do next, we will go a long way to keeping boredom at bay in these challenging times.