When the city of Cleveland instituted a partial lockdown in October 1918, shuttering nearly all businesses after 8 pm, a writer for a local newspaper observed that life had become “ just a big vacuum, a great monstrous wad of nothing.” To curb the Spanish Flu, Cleveland was not nearly as aggressive as cities like St. Louis, but even just an evening curfew was a bridge too far for many residents. A subsequent news article noted the city’s impatience for an end to social distancing: the “long stay-at-home-for-there's-nothing-to-do period is expected to bring a reaction of wildest indulgence.”
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Sweeping the city of Cleveland was a palpable sense of boredom, as Haakon Bjoershol explained in a master’s thesis on the city’s response to the pandemic. Shut in their homes, wrestling with their own mortality, waiting out a deadly flu that would soon infect 28 percent of the U.S. population, Clevelanders went for weeks without much opportunity to deflect their growing panic. Their state of mind is not dissimilar to the one we are living in today. A survey conducted last week of close to 3,500 adults living under national quarantine in Italy found that “boredom” was among their most-commonly cited negative side effects of the restriction. Boredom appeared even more frequently in their answers than “loneliness” or “lack of fresh air,” and trailed only “lack of freedom” as a source of misery.
It may be hard to muster much concern over this particular consequence of the coronavirus outbreak, especially when there are so many more immediate and mortal threats at hand. At moments when we are inclined to spare a thought for boredom, we tend to disparage it as a sort of failing—more like a symptom of someone’ lack of imagination than their flagging mental health. But that attitude, at best, is ungenerous. At worst, it overlooks the known science of a somewhat serious condition.
“It sounds absurd to say that we’re bored in a pandemic,” said Erin Westgate, a professor of psychology at the University of Florida. But the stress of this moment, she said, “changes our ability to pay attention.”
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Westgate is a boredom researcher, part of a small cohort of academics who are sounding the alarm about the spiking levels of boredom across the world right now. That state of mind, they point out, has been correlated with higher levels of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and anxiety. People who are bored become desensitized to emotions. According to several studies, bored people would rather self-administer shocks than continue watching a dry video, and they’re more likely to engage in reckless behavior in search of an emotional reward. Some researchers, like Westgate, even wonder whether persistent boredom might encourage people to flout shelter-in-place orders.
More pernicious is the fact that so few people realize that this could be a problem. “I think we have this conception of boredom as childish, and that’s completely wrong,” said Westgate. You can’t, for instance, solve boredom just by having the right books, movies, puzzles, or sourdough bread-baking sets lined up to keep you busy these next few weeks. “Boredom is a completely natural reaction to not being meaningfully engaged in the world,” she said.
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Scientists measure boredom by looking across two axes: your ability to find meaning in a task; and your ability to pay attention to it. For a person to function normally—i.e. not be bored—both of these abilities must be intact. It’s easy enough to see how this pandemic would disrupt the meaning axis: With some of us now spending all of our time at home, whatever we leaned on in the Before Times for meaning—our friends, our work, the for-here mugs at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf—has teetered out of reach. But it’s just as likely that pandemic anxiety has been messing with the other axis, by shortening our attention spans.
The fact that we’ve got so much to think about does not actually work to alleviate boredom. If anything, the opposite is true: Studies have found that people who are working all the time and stressed are just as likely to experience boredom as those who don't have enough to do. Understimulation is not the problem.
“We have empirical experimental evidence that people can be bored not just when something is too easy but when something is too hard,” said Westgate. “That’s about being over capacity, [and] you’re not able to engage with what you're doing.” For example, Westgate pointed to the kid who tries and fails to solve a difficult math problem, then throws it aside and exclaims, “This math is boring!”
Westgate had her own plans for self-isolation. She’s kept the 824-page novel The Brothers Karamazov on her bookshelf for ages, and when public health officials began urging Americans to stay in their homes, Westgate thought she finally had the chance to read it. When she finally started the book, though, she found that she couldn't focus. With so many crises looming, reading wasn’t fun anymore. “I got five pages in and was like, ‘There's absolutely no way. … Shoot, what am I going to do, that was my quarantine plan.’”
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Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you'll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. The problem is exacerbated for people with difficult home lives, people who have lost their jobs and can't afford rent, and even for the swaths of Americans still showing up in person for work: The more stress you experience, the more at risk you are for losing your ability to focus and find meaning.
What all this means is that we are entering a new age of boredom. With schedules and social lives disrupted, almost none of the sources of fulfillment we relied on two months ago are easily accessible. While some have reacted by recommending books, challenges, or stream-able Broadway shows to counter the new reality, these are only Band-Aids.
“Telling a bored person to go read a book or watch a movie is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would,” said John Eastwood, who heads the Boredom Lab at York University. “Boredom is a crisis of agency.”
Blaming people for their boredom—or offering empty salves that will at best occupy a few hours of time—is not going to help the quest for self-fulfillment. The rub in all of this, of course, is that social distancing is meaningful. We are doing it to save lives. Indeed, Westgate suggests this may be our best means of weathering this period of upturned routines. We can combat boredom, she says, by reminding ourselves that isolation is a form of community service. We can think of it not as, “The government is telling me to do this,” but rather as, “I'm doing this to help others.”
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