Boredom in the time of COVID

12 mins read.

Have you felt bored or restless lately?

If so, you’re not alone. Not surprisingly, there are reports of a rapid spread of boredom across the world – the hours are going really slowly while the days are flying past. Cooped up in their homes, wrestling with their own helplessness or mortality, forced to wait out a scary virus, people everywhere are complaining of feeling not just anxious but restless and stir-crazy.

For example, a survey conducted of close to 3,500 adults living under national quarantine in Italy found that “boredom” beat out “loneliness” and “lack of fresh air” and trailed only “lack of freedom” as a source of misery.

So I thought this would be a good time to share a bit more about what Buddhism might have to say about boredom and how to deal with it. 

What is boredom?

Boredom is defined as a psychological state marked by a general lack of interest, excitement, or motivation, and experiencing one’s current situation as monotonous, tedious, or irrelevant. Boredom is the opposite of fascination. As indicated by another definition for boredom, “the state of being weary and restless through lack of interest,” boredom is associated with finding things meaningless. We don’t feel fully alive. As one boredom expert put it:

Boredom is a completely natural reaction to not being meaningfully engaged in the world. 

Some friends told me that they are incredulous that people have time to be bored when there is so much to do both practically and spiritually, but although in theory they may be right, I don’t think boredom works like that. People can be busy and bored too. Even if something is vital, such as the work in front of us, we can still feel weary and unmotivated. 

(It’s a bit like saying you’re incredulous that people can get angry when everyone is our kind mother, lol, or attached when samsara is a prison not a pleasure garden. Delusions, in other words, never make sense, yet still we have them.)

Boredom is also associated with a lack of ability to focus or pay attention. Even if something is interesting, such as a classic novel or even a Buddhist masterpiece, for some reason it is not holding our attention. We still feel restless and get up to see what’s in the fridge.

Buddhism can help with both the lack of interest and the lack of attention, as you’ll see if you keep reading.

Is life on hold for you?

Is boredom a serious problem, or a #firstworldproblem? Should we be concerned about being bored? How important is it to avoid it or deal with it? Is boredom a waste of time or can it serve a useful purpose?

These are not new questions but they are perhaps more pressing at the moment, with much of humanity social distancing and many of our fun and leisure activities on hold for the foreseeable future. Sure, thanks to Netflix, cable news, et al we still have an endless choice of things to watch, and thanks to social media we can still devote a considerable amount of our newly spare time to snooping on our high school friends or finding out what our friend’s cat had for breakfast; but what about the rest of the day?

A quick glance at social media during this period of lockdown reveals some crazy (if sometimes humorous) stuff going on in the name of boredom avoidance.

(A slight detour down memory lane … when I was first writing this article, around May, I was interrupted in this precise sentence by the sound of people howling, followed by singing loudly along to the song “Stayin alive”. I don’t know, it made me chuckle every night at 8 p.m. With the virus raging at even greater rates this Winter, yet fatigue and politics ruling the day, those Spring evenings now feel like innocent times, when everyone cheered on our beleaguered healthcare workers and agreed to keep each other safe. Back then, this quote spoke to me, from an article called “What if the virus can teach us to change?”:

Suddenly time has a different complexion: it registers differently. Everything that once seemed so vital—the need to get the train on time, the need to get the essay done—seems insignificant. Only the truly significant is significant: the phone call to a loved one, the medicine that needs to be taken, the need to stay alive and of course the need to keep others alive too.

Let’s keep seeing the need for us all to stay alive for a few more months yet! The vaccines are on their way … )

Boredom can lead to more food and substance abuse. I have noticed a fair few people complaining about putting on weight during this lockdown. It can also lead to anxiety and depression.

Boredom can famously make people reckless and self-centered at the best of times. As lockdown lifts, it could lead to a whole new surge of virus activity if, desperate for something to do, we throw caution and masks to the winds. (Wrote that last sentence back in May lockdown also and, well, you see my point …)

I can’t help feeling that boredom is at least somewhat to blame for the over-thinking and over-talking this year about subjects that don’t bear that much thinking about, eg, conspiracy theories, endless political shenanigans, and the faults of others.

Therefore, it does seem important to try and find a cure for this boredom. Is there a simple way, for example, to turn our boredom into its opposite – fascination and being in the zone? Or into productive meaningful activities that can make us feel good both about ourselves and about this strange period in our lives?

What causes boredom?

I will delve first into various causes of boredom to see if Buddhism has anything to offer by way of solutions – dividing these into outer (or more circumstantial) conditions and inner (or actual) causes.

Outer conditions

Not having enough to do, or having to do things we don’t want to do, can bring on boredom at any stage in our life, not just now or if you are a teenager. If we are literally unable to do the usual things we find interesting, of course that’s going to be a challenge. As someone said on Facebook:

You try to stay strong, but there’s only so much bread you can make or Tiger King you can watch on Netflix or jigsaws you can master before your head swims with the repetition and tedium of it all. 

Not only that, but wasting more time twiddling our thumbs trying to wait this thing out just makes the restlessness worse. As someone else wrote to me the other day:

I know so much pressure is on all of us to waste time and to just trivialize it. There is so much pressure on us to try to overcome boredom by spending time on frivolities.

Pretty much every “What to do in Lockdown” list I’ve see on the media has left me yawning or even shuddering at the suggested time suck. Boredom is also quite contagious – hanging out with other bored people can lead to more boredom. Moreover, there is a connection between addiction (to our gadgets etc etc) and boredom, they reinforce each other – umpteen articles about that, Google it.

In general, the less acquainted we are with self-contained contentment and the more we are normally attached or even addicted to excitement and drama, the more we are going to feel bored when nothing seems to be happening.

Intensity and excitement can be a way of life – sometimes people in recovery, for example, complain of being bored even as they start to feel so much better in other ways. A mother was telling me how her whole family, complete with three teenagers with learning or eating issues, have been addicted to drama for years – when things quieten down, it is only a matter of minutes before they all look at each other and say, “I’m bored!”

Life in general appears unfair and sometimes people simply don’t have the opportunity or means to do the things that other people take for granted, to pursue certain dreams, to make the most of themselves in terms of worldly achievements. This can lead to an existential ennui with a seemingly blank future. Fortunately, becoming enlightened is available for everyone.

Those are some of the external reasons I can think of for why we get bored – but please feel free to leave others in the comments. And sometimes we can work on these outer causes, trying to change our circumstances or our daily routines in creative ways to alleviate boredom if the opportunity is there, which it may or may not be at the moment.

Fulfillment’s desolate attic

Just bear in mind that pursuing outer interests alone is also never going to cut it. In 1971, psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald T. Campbell went so far as to coin a term for the pointless quest for more, more, more: “The hedonic treadmill.” The term stuck. If we keep insisting on looking for pleasure in things outside of ourself, we end up on that treadmill, which is really boring if you think about it, going round and round like a hamster reaching nowhere. Speeding it up just gets us nowhere faster. The more we achieve, the more we require to sustain our new levels of satisfaction. Our gratification from the new is fleeting; we adapt in spite of ourselves. You may as well chase your afternoon shadow. When searching happiness without, it always looms ahead. As these psychologists put it:

There may be no way to permanently increase the total of one’s pleasure except by getting off the hedonic treadmill entirely.

Worldly commitments, too, can be fragile and transient. Maybe less fragile and transient than the dopamine high of getting a paper published or falling in love. But fragile and transient nonetheless. Relationships end; jobs don’t work out. The bonds we often think of as ropes are really gossamer threads. It can be a very painful discovery to make, but nonetheless a useful one, leading us into a deeper exploration of what constitutes true creativity, satisfaction, and fascination.

Inner causes

So, if we only look at the outer or circumstantial causes of our boredom, we won’t really be able to figure out any lasting solutions to it. Given that, to solve the relentless inner problem of boredom, we need to look more at its actual causes. I will divide these into three, just because why not.

Number 1 cause of boredom: ignorance

As I mentioned in this previous article I wrote back in the day, the root of boredom is ignorance – and in the case of boredom this manifests as a lack of true understanding and engagement with our world:

Whether we can or cannot make innovative changes to our circumstances, given that the main cause of boredom is internal (ignorance), the main creative solution is also to be found within our own minds. If we dismiss this fact, we may soon enough find ourselves becoming bored by our new job, companions, trees, puzzles, or hobbies. After all, we’ve been trying to change the circumstances of our lives to solve our boredom since beginningless time, yet here we all are, still finding ourselves bored.

With ignorance, even though we are projecting the world with our own mind as in a dream, we still feel disconnected as if the world is outside our mind. Oblivious to our own act of creation, we feel a gap between me and the world — I am here and the world is out there. This is the crux of the matter for boredom and in fact every other delusion.

The world out there is no more findable than if we were walking around as an avatar in a virtual reality world. But we are so sucked in – first due to our confusion about its actual nature and then due to the ignorance grasping it as other than it is. The traditional analogy is stumbling across a snake at dusk, jumping back in fear, only to have our companion pick it up and tie a knot in it. Because it is dusk, we can’t make out the rope, and then we misinterpret it to be a snake, getting scared as a result.

Dusk symbolizes our confusion — we cannot see clearly the actual nature of things, their emptiness; and then our ignorance believes the things we are seeing are real. (You can read about these two types of ignorance in Joyful Path of Good Fortune.)

All delusions, fears, and sufferings come from this. Aversion sees those real things as inherently faulty and, believing what it sees, wants to push them away or destroy them. Attachment sees those real things as inherently desirable and wants to pull them towards us. With boredom, like I said, there is a sense of being disengaged. We are indifferent to these real things outside our mind, they are just sitting there being inherently uninteresting.

This can, sadly, include other living beings. The vast majority of living beings may be strangers to us right now, just “meh”, uninteresting and dull to us. (One antidote you can try out to boredom, therefore, if you are bored with the people around you, is the meditation on equanimity, where we head on tackle this indifference born of ignorance. More on that later.) 

With boredom there is a belief in an inherently boring world, one that exists outside the mind. Nothing and no one appears interesting to us, and we believe that appearance as if it were the truth. But we will never find an actually boring world or boring people if we go looking for them with wisdom. Quite the opposite. We can therefore dissolve the boring world away with the wisdom realizing emptiness and re-impute a fully alive and fascinating one, knowing it is the same nature as our mind. When I first discovered teachings on emptiness, I saw I no longer had a real excuse to be bored when my mind is creating my own reality in every moment of every day. Wisdom is the ultimate antidote to this delusion, as it is to all the other delusions.

I will look at the other two inner causes in the next article – already moreorless written, but I’m coming out with these four articles in installments so you don’t get bored … 

Over to you. I would love to hear what you think about all this and what you’ve been up to. I may be able to incorporate it into the next few articles too, which is helpful.

Related articles

A Buddhist solution to boredom 

Seven reasons to learn to mediate in a pandemic 

Equanimity 

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

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